Contributor: Morgan Motzel
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with current Wharton MBA students Zinnia Horne and Abby Holmes. Zinnia completed her undergraduate education at Stanford and came to Wharton to pursue her MBA, after working at Google in California. She is a leader in the Wharton Graduate Association. Abby worked in consulting at Deloitte before coming to Wharton. She is a married student with a one-and-a-half year old daughter. Stew spoke with both women about how the next generation of business leaders are thinking about what matters most to them and how they intend to integrate the different parts of their lives upon graduation.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: Zinnia, you work with the Wharton Grad Association which must give you a perspective on just how many students are involved in clubs at Wharton and what types of clubs have high enrollment and high engagement. When employers — who look like me, old, gray-haired people — look at young people coming up, what do they see? Do they see people who are self-interested, lazy, entitled, and distracted with technology? Or do they see people who are ambitious, committed, and eager to make a difference in this world? Or something in between? How do you see that?
Zinnia Horne: I think employers see students who are fresh and who bring new ideas. I think that’s really what they look to us for. We almost all have work experience, have taken two years out of school, and have really been inundated with a number of different ways to think about things. When employers are looking to the clubs to see who the rising stars are, I think they are looking for the people who are trying out new things and who are involved in a variety of different activities, so that they can get that new fresh perspective, and not only fresh, but also dynamic and a perspective that has a lot of variety.
SF: So if I were to ask the typical employer who comes to campus, “how might you characterize the MBAs in terms of their values and their attitudes?” what do you think they would tell me?
ZH: That’s a great question. While I can’t generalize across the entire Wharton population, I would say that people here want to achieve. We came here for a reason. That said, I’m definitely seeing more and more of a trend among students wanting to make an impact. Here, there are students going into different industries — from consulting to finance all the way to social impact — and they’re all thinking about ways they can make a difference in the world, and, even more so, what they can start in order to make a difference. So I’d say it’s a mix of thinking about making money for yourself, but also thinking about how you can see your impact on the community.
SF: On the community… what do you mean by that exactly.
ZH: Everyone defines their community differently. It could be a local community, it could mean pushing different ideas in terms of corporate social responsibility within a company. I think the spectrum is broad, from anyone starting their own business that does good, or working with a non-profit that does good, to going to huge corporations that may need a couple of fresh ideas and new perspectives to push the forefront of doing good for the world.
SF: That’s certainly a theme that we’ve seen evolving over the more than three decades that I’ve been here at the Wharton School. There’s much greater interest in having a positive social impact. In the study we did last year, now part of a book that I published through Wharton Digital Press called Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, we compared the Class of 1992 graduating seniors with the Class of 2012 — same place, same school, same age, but twenty years later. One of the major trends we observed was a much greater interest, particularly among young women, in having a positive social impact, and your experience is certainly consistent with that study.
Abby, you’re a mom. How many moms are there in your class of 800 second-year MBA students?
Abby Holmes: I can count them on one hand, so not that many.
SF: That certainly gives you a unique perspective. Your husband, if I have it right, is a teacher in Baltimore, and your daughter is a year-and-a-half, so you can’t be slacking very much to be managing all of that in your life! The perspective one often hears is that older people look at Millennials and think they’re obsessed with technology and really just interested in their own careers. How do you see it as a student-mom here in our school?
AH: I think Millennials are actually making a change in that a lot of people are more focused—especially women I would say—on having that balance between a family and a career. We are all trying to achieve in terms of a successful career and having that major impact, but I think we’re hearing more and more, both from employers trying to emphasize this during recruiting but also from students asking for this, that we want to be aware of a way to balance a career and a family. Being able to do that here at school is a challenge and being able to do that in the real world is also a challenge, but I think it’s definitely a hot topic among students and employers lately.
SF: How do you talk about this with a prospective employer? Especially in your personal story right now, when you can’t deny the fact that you have a child. Is that a liability for you, or an asset, or neither in your employment search right now?
AH: At times I’m worried it’s a liability. I want to be cognizant because I’m not trying to withhold that information, but at the same time I do hesitate to be as forthcoming because I guess I am worried that it is going to have a negative impact on the results.
SF: You think it could be held against you? Like, “how committed could she be really if she’s got a little girl at home?” is what they might be thinking.
AH: Yes, and obviously children do take away some of your time, so that’s less time that you could potentially commit to a company compared to a student who doesn’t have that type of commitment. It’s definitely in the back of my mind at most times, but I do try to be pretty open about my family situation and that I do have a child during the recruiting process.
SF: I wonder if there’s a way in which the assets that you develop as a mother—the skills that you have to cultivate, particularly with respect to managing time and boundaries well—if those can be presented as part of your repertoire of skills that you bring. Has that come up at all? Has that occurred to you or does it seem unrealistic?
AH: I mean I think it’s completely true, I just don’t know whether I would publicize it in that way. When I approach an interview, I’m thinking about being able to express skills that I’ve gained either through work or school. I don’t know whether I would voluntarily bring those skills up. I agree they’re very applicable, but…
SF: It be useful for you to do that. If I’m a prospective employer, and I’m a benign progressive person trying to change my organization to make it more hospitable to different kinds of people in all different kinds of lifestyle situations, I’m going to want to know who you are as a human being and what kind of skills you bring. If you have assets which you developed in another part of your life that are going to help me in my business and also help me demonstrate that this is a kind of place where anyone who is committed can thrive, then I’d like to know how you bring that.
What do you think about what I just said? Easy for me to say at 60 years old and my kids are in their twenties, so I don’t really have to worry about it in the same way.
AH: I guess I just don’t know if employers look at it in terms of those strengths outweighing what they might think is a liability. So I understand that it is a strength, and they do want to know and understand, but I’m still not sure.
SF: You and I both agree that this is a potential strength for you, Abby. Zinnia, can you weigh in on this?
ZH: Definitely. I do think it could be a strength from the management perspective. I definitely hear Abby’s concerns though: there are several strengths that she’s been developing as a mother, but how does that weigh against the potential needs of the organization in terms of her time? Questions might arise around after she leaves work—is she really leaving work at work? Depending on the employer that may not be as acceptable of a practice.
SF: Depending on the employer, I think that’s a very important caveat in that statement. Let’s talk a little bit more about that. I know students have been talking a lot more about this issue because it’s been the subject of a lot of conversations that I’ve been a part of here. How do those conversations go with a potential employer? Are you thinking in terms of choosing employers on the basis of whether or not they are indeed embracing the whole person? Is that something that is part of your calculus?
ZH: Definitely, given some of my future life goals. I was very privileged to work at Google when I left college, so I think that gave me a certain skewed perceptive regarding what certain employers are willing to allow in terms of flexibility in work schedules. Google is skewed fairly extremely in that way, based on my experience. Google would allow you to work from home if you needed to, to come in late or leave early if you had an appointment, etc. So even though I do not have a child, I could see that being a really helpful policy for a new mother or new parent. The flexibility around scheduling and your employers understanding that you can do the work if you have a computer and an internet connection is key. And you can do work for the most part with tech companies anywhere. That’s why I think Google, and increasingly other businesses, are becoming more flexible around their employees spending time in the office, and the perceived amount of work that they’re contributing.
SF: Are you going back to Google? Would you like to?
ZH: I’m definitely open to it. I think that later in life Google would be a great place to raise a family. They have wonderful policies for parents, so it’s definitely not a bad place to work.
SF: So is that eventually part of your plan to have children of your own?
ZH: That is something I’m still figuring out. It’s still on the table, but it’s not necessarily something I’m certain I want to do.
I mean having children is a bit terrifying to me personally. When I think about my future and what I want, I get concerned about the time and dedication you have to give to a child in order to raise it correctly.
SF: Zinnia’s smiling at Abby now with admiration…
ZH: It is admiration. I don’t know how so many women do it! But clearly there are a lot of them that do.
SF: It is a scary proposition. And indeed, another thing we found in the study that I called Baby Bust was that many people in your generation, both women and men, are choosing to opt out of becoming parents because of what you just described. What do you think about that Abby?
AH: I think it’s definitely something you need to consider. Careers are certainly challenging in terms of your time, and you have to dedicate a lot to them. I think a lot of people—if they want to take on the responsibility of starting a family—know that it’s a huge time commitment. I don’t think people want to have to give in one way or the other, so if they don’t feel like they can do both really effectively, they might make that decision to hold off on one side.
SF: You decided not to hold off and how are you feeling about that now that your one-and-a-half year old is being taken care of by somebody else, right? I don’t see her crawling around the studio here
AH: Her grandmother, my mother, is taking care of her right now. That helps a huge amount. She’s actually from Baltimore where I’m from. When I need help during the week she’ll come up with me to Philadelphia. We have quite the arrangement. It’s kind of a long story, but my sister is an opera singer, and she works a lot of part-time jobs, so she usually watches my daughter when I’m in class. When she’s not available, my mom will travel with me up here during the week. I usually commute weekly.
SF: So you’re not here on the weekends? What about the whole MBA party scene? Is that not a big part of your life?
AH: Not a big part. Being a mother has forced prioritizing what I wanted to get out of my experience here.
SF: You’ve missed out on some of the social aspects of life here on the MBA campus. What’s been the upshot of that for you?
AH: I think it was actually good because a lot of students when they first arrive have an issue of trying to figure out where exactly they want to spend their time. They end up doing too much and getting stretched too thin. I was forced to prioritize from the beginning. I didn’t waste too much time doing things that weren’t quite as valuable.
SF: So Zinnia, what do you think about that?
ZH: I’m a little envious of Abby and that she’s been able to focus like that.
SF: There’s a lot of research about focus that shows this to be true. A recent Federal Reserve Bank study actually showed that working moms are better at managing their time than other women. Abby, you’re shaking your head…
AH: It’s a necessity I think. You’re forced to.
SF: And Zinnia you said you’re kind of envious of the laser-like focus that a working mom has to have.
ZH: Definitely. As a student here you might have your plan and what you’re intending to focus on for that week or that semester or even the entire experience, but then other things always pop up. I think if I were in Abby’s position it would be a lot easier to say no to certain things, whereas I definitely feel pressure—it’s internal pressure in most cases—to always say yes and do those things and get the “most” out of this experience. Whereas I think in Abby’s case she’s definitely getting the most out of her experience in her own way.
SF: Abby you don’t experience FOMO? Fear of missing out? Which is ubiquitous on this campus, is it not?
AH: I think I did during the first semester. I felt like I was missing out on something—I wasn’t going to all the parties or doing every single Happy Hour—but I think I did start to find groups of people in my areas of interest, and I gained that social side in a different way. I think I got over that FOMO by the second semester, which was good.
SF: The more I hear the both of you speak about it, it seems pretty clear to me, Abby, that there are assets that you have as a working mom that you might want to consider how to frame in conversations. The evidence is on your side. Something that could help to create change in this world would be presenting that idea and perhaps shifting the perceptions of employers.
Let’s get back to our discussion of employers. How do you know which are the good companies to work for? What are you looking for? You mentioned Google, Zinnia, their extreme flexibility. Indeed, the investment banks I know are talking about, “Wow, we’re losing all of our top talent to Google—we need to do something.” Aside from Google though, how do you and your classmates think and talk about where you want to work?
ZH: One thing we certainly consider is what employers are saying and what they are touting when they come to campus. Is it their flexible work lifestyles, or is it daycare programs on campus to help working parents, what is it? Part of it is what they’re saying, but you have to look at what they’re doing because it could be different.
SF: Ah, so there might be a lot of rhetoric that might not match the reality? Do you tend to look skeptically at those pictures of daycare centers when companies pop them up on the screen?
ZH: In certain industries, maybe. I plan on going back into the tech industry, and I would give those companies a little bit more benefit of the doubt, in terms of what level of flexibility they’ll allow for their employees. But I think you also have to look at what they’re doing. What are employees actually taking advantage of? You could have ten programs for working parents, but if the employees aren’t taking advantage of them, that says a lot, too.
SF: How do you find these things out?
ZH: You have to talk to people. You have to ask, “Okay, on Fridays if I needed to leave early to go to an appointment, what would your manager’s reaction be?”
SF: “Oh, we don’t want to hire her because she’s obviously not committed,” they might be thinking then. You’re not afraid of that? In doing your due diligence on companies, you don’t think you’re giving away an ambivalent commitment by asking questions like that?
ZH: I think it depends on the industry and the company. You have to be an active listener before you ask those questions. It’s definitely not the first thing you walk in saying, “When can I take off?”
SF: What’s your perspective on that Abby, in terms of how you find the right fit and what kinds of information are available to you as you’re scanning the employment market?
AH: I think the most valuable information, like you said Zinnia, is going to be through your personal networks. I find that I’m generally not getting that kind of information coming from the recruiting team, or trusting it if I am, but when I go through the alumni network or personal networks and try to get a real perspective to see, for example, if there are women there who have families and are able to manage it, then that says something. I think that’s where you’re going to get the most honest perspective about what is still tough about doing it at a given organization and what do they have that helps you. I think networks are the biggest resource in terms of finding that kind of information.
SF: So what’s going to be necessary to create meaningful change in today’s business world in which you both want to become leaders? What do you think is the most pressing issue that the business sector faces in terms of becoming the place where you, your friends, and your future children, would want to contribute?
ZH: I think part of it is just openness. This relates to the points Abby and I just made about trying to get information to assess whether or not an organization is open to certain levels of flexibility. For meaningful change there has to be a shift in openness on the topic of work-life integration If we shift to a more open culture where people feel comfortable talking about these things, both from a top-down and a bottom-up perspective, and across industries, that could really drive meaningful change. I think it’s starting to happen over the past several years, but it still needs to be more open.
SF: Let’s say the recruiting department of IBM is listening to this show right now, what would you tell them?
ZH: I would say put the people in the organization who are doing a “good” job of managing their work and their life on your recruiting committees and put them talking to students, just to let them know that there is a shift in culture.
SF: And it’s important to see the good and the bad, right? I would want to know, “What are you wrestling with? What’s hard about trying to create meaningful change in the culture of your organization, and how are you dealing with that?” Abby, what do you see as the great challenge facing companies trying to adapt to a new world order?
AH: I agree that a lot of it is having openness and transparency, but I also think that flexibility is essential. We are seeing much less traditional work models moving forward—women working, men staying at home, and vice versa Having that flexibility to be able to make it work for someone in your company, no matter what their situation, will be important. It’s first the openness and the conversation as to how to handle that possibility, but then also enacting that. I think there is a lot of talk about flexibility—especially in the more traditional industries such as investment banking or consulting. How are they really making things flexible for people? And how can they continue to exhibit that moving forward from the top down?
About the Author
Morgan Motzel is an undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America.