Although women, in general, earn more college degrees than men – 57 percent of college graduates and 60 percent of people with master’s degrees are women – there is still a gender gap when it comes to MBAs. Despite making significant strides in business, women still only comprise about 36 percent of all graduate business students.
The reasons for these gaps are varied, ranging from the simple fact that MBA programs don’t always align with women’s career and personal goals, to the ongoing wage gap between men and women. What isn’t lacking, though, are role models for women who wish to earn an advanced business degree. Some of the most successful women in the world, ranging from household names in entertainment and sports to leaders of the biggest companies in the world, have an MBA.
Here are five of those women, in no particular order.
Also known as the “Barefoot Contessa,” Ina Garten earned her MBA from George Washington University in the 1970s while working as an aide in the White House. She eventually climbed the political ladder and put her business education to use in the Office of Management and Budget as a budget analyst, writing the nuclear energy budget for the Carter Administration. At the same time, she was teaching herself to cook using Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and flipping houses for a profit in Washington, D.C.
It was those profits that allowed her to purchase her specialty food shop, the Barefoot Contessa, in Westhampton, New York. She parlayed her experience in the gourmet food market into a popular website and cookbooks; to date, she has published 11 cookbooks that have collectively sold over 6 million copies and won an Emmy for her cooking shows on the Food Network. Although she has been approached to expand her brand into housewares, a magazine, and other lines, she’s chosen to focus on her food and entertainment businesses, while also remaining active in the stock market — she can thank her MBA for empowering her with the knowledge to define her own business destiny.
Lisa Leslie is one of the most recognizable names in women’s sports, thanks to her stellar performance on the basketball court for the University of Southern California and in the WNBA as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. During her 11 seasons in the WNBA, Leslie was selected to the All-Star team eight times and led the Sparks to two WNBA championships – all while earning her MBA from the University of Phoenix, having determined that an online degree was the best option for balancing her education and basketball career. She now puts that business education to work as an owner of the Los Angeles Sparks, and also competed on the 2016 season of “The New Celebrity Apprentice.”
Mary Barra might not be a household name, but her company is. Since 2014, Barra has been the CEO of General Motors – the first female CEO of a major car manufacturer. After earning a degree in electrical engineering from General Motors university (now Kettering University), Barra earned an MBA from Stanford in 1990, and spent the next 24 years advancing through leadership positions at GM, including vice president of global manufacturing engineering, vice president of global human resources, and executive vice president of global product development. Although her tenure as CEO hasn’t been without controversy, Barra has been a force in GM’s tech development, allowing the company to beat Tesla in bringing the first fully-electric car (the Chevy Bolt EV) to market and supporting startups in the realm of driverless technology. In addition to her work with GM, Barra puts her business prowess to work on the boards of Disney and General Dynamics.
Considered one of the most influential people in the world – and one of the wealthiest, with an estimated net worth of at least $1.6 billion – Sheryl Sandberg is putting her Harvard MBA to good use as the chief operating officer of Facebook, a role she has held since 2008. Before taking the reins as COO of the world’s largest social media network, Sandberg worked in Washington D.C. as the chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, and then as the vice president of global online sales and operations for Google.
Sandberg has been a powerful voice in the fight for equity and female leadership in business. Her bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” topped bestseller lists and encouraged women to break down the barriers to leadership that are creating inequities, and thereby create more opportunities for everyone. Sandberg’s second book, “Option B,” dealt with resilience and grief and overcoming challenges in life, and was written after the unexpected death of her husband. She has also been a vocal champion for girls, launching the “Ban Bossy” campaign to encourage people to find other words to describe women and girls who are confident leaders.
Melinda Gates might be best known for who she is married to, but she is much more than simply Bill Gates’ wife. After earning her bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics from Duke University, she earned an MBA from the same school a year later. She met her husband when she was a project manager at Microsoft; together, the couple founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to which they have donated more than $28 billion. Her philanthropic efforts have focused on education, healthcare and women’s issues. Currently, she is working on addressing the lack of women working in technology, researching the issue and determining the best ways to tackle it. She’s also a champion for women in business, noting that a lack of opportunities for women to contribute economically is preventing communities and families from reaching their full potential.
These are just a small handful of the women who have earned MBAs and used them to further their own careers, as well as support and inspire others to work toward their own goals. These women are also shining examples of the fact that earning an MBA doesn’t mean you have to work in finance, accounting or another traditional business field. From culinary arts to sports to philanthropy, women with MBAs are forging their own paths to success.