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Ideas Made to Matter

Leadership

What these 9 female leaders learned from their allies

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Julia Wada has several mentors and sponsors who’ve helped her navigate a career, but her strongest supporters grew out of managerial relationships.

“They had firsthand knowledge of what I could contribute,” said Wada, SM ’90, group vice president of corporate strategy and innovation at Toyota Financial Services. “They cultivated and grew my interests and talents. They asked me questions that made me think differently. They gave me stretch assignments. They took risks on me. They promoted me.”

In 2020 Ideas Made to Matter launched The Bias Cut, a women’s leadership series profiling the career paths and creative problem-solving of MIT Sloan alumnae. These leaders also share anecdotes about their allies and mentors and what made those advocates stand out in their careers.

Wada’s allies helped her expand her vision of what she wanted, and the impact she could have, in her career.

They stood out as leaders because they believed in people and personally took action to make a difference in the lives of others,” Wada said.

Here are eight other female leaders and the allies and mentors who made a difference in their lives.

Julia Abramovich, MBA ’02, principal, KPMG

Knowing how important mentors are today, Julia Abramovich said she wishes she had built formal mentoring relationships earlier in her career. But she did have some informal professional relationships that were mentor-like, she said.

“Prior bosses, leaders I admired for one reason or another, managers that gave me stretch opportunities to learn and grow. I loved watching different leadership styles and took notice of behaviors I wanted to emulate, and those I didn’t. I tried to intentionally absorb things that would match my personal brand and to steer clear of those I didn’t want to be known for.”

Jennifer DeSisto, MBA ’05, chief investment officer and portfolio manager at Anchor Capital Advisors

Jennifer DeSisto counts former board members Kate Taylor and Jenn Borggaard as her mentors after working closely with the two of them on a consulting project.

“They saw that I had the strategic vision and the ability to work across teams and build trust on top of deep investment knowledge. They advocated to my CEO to promote me to chief investment officer, and they have supported me in the role as I have learned to manage the team. I truly believe that women in this industry need strong advocates to reach higher rungs on the career ladder.”

Erica Dhawan, MBA ’12, author of Digital Body Language

When she thinks of a mentor, Erica Dhawan pictures Accenture’s change management and inclusion leader Christie Smith. Smith saw the potential in Dhawan’s ideas around “connectional intelligence” and advocated for Dhawan when she wasn’t in the room.

“She always gave me opportunities to grow and empowered me to take risks when it came to building my career,” Dhawan said. “Real allies don’t necessarily just give advice; they help you find your superpower and amplify your work with others.”

Andrea Friedenson, MBA ’09, founder and CEO of Project Armor

Andrea Friedenson’s manager when she worked at Disney, Rick Sanchez, “was a true ally and mentor,” she recalled.

“He gave me a lot of responsibility and made sure I got all the credit when my projects succeeded. He advised me to jump on an opportunity to become an executive at a fast-moving startup, where I accumulated a lot of experience very quickly. He’s still an amazing mentor. We check in from time to time, and his advice is always rock solid.”

Yscaira Jimenez, MBA ’14, chief innovation officer, Opportunity@Work

Until recently, many of Yscaira Jimenez’s mentors were men.

“I had a hard time finding women who shared my life and professional experiences and used their time to change systems to help drive opportunity for all. Heather Hiles has been a champion, advisor, and ally for the past three years as she brings radical innovation to education and the workforce as an entrepreneur, investor, and leader.”

Anita Kibunguchy, MBA ’15, product marketing lead, Google

Anita Kibunguchy said she looks up to her mother and grandmother for their strength, and her father for his belief in honesty.

“Over time, I've met incredible people who've taken a chance on me. I've also had allies who've given me opportunities to grow, take on leadership positions, and let me be me. Most recently, two of my male, white bosses have come through for me, letting me lead a team and giving me the resources to do so. I am truly appreciative, because this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and not everyone is lucky to say so.”

Jaclyn Loo, MBA ’11, global product marketing, subscriptions lead, Google Nest

Jaclyn Loo’s first manager at Google, Tran Hang, stands out as a mentor and ally because she encouraged and supported Loo with stretch assignments and advocated for her when she wasn’t in the room.

“Tran also taught me to ‘always have a point of view,’ which is advice I’ve taken to heart as I’ve navigated different roles and relationships,” Loo said. “Making your perspective known not only builds your brand but can also drive progress. Owning and leveraging the power of your perspective is so critical, especially for women in business.”

Jill Soley, SB ’92, MBA ’02, strategic product and marketing leader

While working part time at Adobe, Jill Soley was approached by a senior executive, Lea Hickman, to lead the Adobe Creative Cloud launch.

“I will always appreciate Lea for giving me that opportunity and not writing me off because I had young kids and worked part time,” Soley said. “The greatest impact on my career, though, has been not one person, but my ‘personal board of directors.’ My board is a tight group of women (who happen to be MIT Sloan alums) who are on call/text to provide support, information, advice, perspective, and humor, whenever needed. Careers are a team sport — make sure you have a strong bench and cover each other.”

Read next: How female leaders fight gender bias

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216

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