The charter class of the Women’s Leadership Program created a legacy while discovering themselves
In 2017, Liberty Mutual Insurance donated $1 million to advance young women’s leadership at Bentley, launching the Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). Working with the experts from the Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business (CWB), this four-year program helps students who identify as women develop the skills and strategy needed to become better, more successful leaders.
These "WLP Leaders" take part in program workshops and events, including mentor visits from top corporate executives and trips to companies that are leading the charge in advancement of women in the workplace. Thanks to Liberty Mutual’s generosity, the program also includes an annual financial award of $10,000 per year applied toward tuition at Bentley — totaling $40,000 during the four-year undergraduate experience.
As the first class of 43 WLP Leaders finished up their last year on campus, we sat down with two of them, and Gender and Sexuality Student Program Director (and former Student Programs manager at the CWB) Dorothy Polatin, to see what they’re taking away from their WLP experience and how their participation helped shape the program for Bentley Leaders to come.
Ore Onabanjo ’21 is an American citizen who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and knew she wanted to return to the United States for college. As an artistic person also interested in business, she liked how Bentley combined its business curriculum with the arts and sciences.
“I knew I wanted to study business, but I wasn’t sure what path I’d take,” she says. “Looking at the Bentley courses, I knew I’d be able to balance both sides of me.”
Being selected to the Women’s Leadership Program was another deciding factor, as no other school she considered had anything close. Going to a college more than 5,000 miles from home also made developing a community crucial.
“(Arriving at Bentley) was a huge shock,” Onabanjo says with a laugh. “I remember looking around and no one looked like me. I’d never been in a situation like that where it’s so glaring.
“Spaces like the Women’s Leadership Program, MOSAIC and the Multicultural Center helped me integrate. Moving from Nigeria to Massachusetts, there’s obviously some culture shock. Being able to adjust helped me fit in.”
Through the program, Onabanjo got a handle on her strong suits through a complete CliftonStrengths assessment, working one-on-one with a career coach to see what she’d be good at, and where she needed work. She also pointed to the connections she made with visiting executives as a highlight of the program.
“I think the best part was the ability to network. There were so many opportunities, both on and off campus, to meet women in their fields, see how they got there, and to ask questions,” she says. “The program helped connect real-life experiences with what we were learning in school.”
For someone who grew up abroad, seeing what’s possible from real women who have done it already was an eye opener for Onabanjo.
“Having those role models is extremely important,” she says. “Representation matters; being able to see what you can achieve and being aware of the opportunities that exist. You can’t go down a path you don’t know about.”
Onabanjo ended up combining her love for business and the arts through a major in Marketing, adding a Liberal Studies Major in Media Arts and a minor in Information Design and Corporate Communication. The wide range of disciplines exposed her to classes in screenwriting, video production and website design, “lots of dabbling” that she says kept her creative side alive.
Next up for Onabanjo? She’s staying in the States and moving to New York to work for AlphaSites, a global leader in knowledge search.
‘IT’S A REALLY HOLISTIC EXPERIENCE’
When it came to picking a college, bigger wasn’t necessarily better for Kailey Sullivan ’21.
“Bentley was the smallest school I was seriously considering, and that definitely scared me a little bit,” the Groton, Conn., native says. “But once I came to Admitted Students Day and saw how everyone here seems to know each other, that really appealed to me. Plus, the classes are so small and the professors really care about their students. I wanted something that felt like a community, and it seemed like a wonderful one.”
Sullivan’s mother is in business, so she knew the value of positive female role models.
“I was always aware of the ratio of men to women in the business world, so I wanted that support system,” she says. “I’ve always tried to surround myself with strong women, so I was very drawn to this program.”
Sullivan says the WLP’s smaller charter class — cohorts now are around 75 — made it easier to connect with her fellow Leaders and make friends she hopes will last beyond Bentley.
“It’s a really holistic experience,” says Sullivan. “You acquire the skills that you might expect to — learning how to negotiate, learning how to advocate for yourself — but then they also work in a lot of other aspects, like learning about your biases, and being self-aware of how you approach situations, realizing that we’re not perfect.”
That sense of self-awareness came into focus as Sullivan and her cohort advanced through the program and started to see the progress they were making.
“We do a journal after each event, and that really helps us look back on the four years of the program to see how we’ve grown as women and how our opinions have changed throughout,” she says. “There’s definitely been a lot of growth and reflection.”
Sullivan majored in Business Economics with a concentration in Human Resources and minor in Supply Chain Management. She’s going to work at Boston cyber-security firm Rapid7, in part because of the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“That’s something the Women’s Leadership Program has for sure pushed me to look for in a company,” she explains. “It was always one of my first questions in interviews: What type of programs or steps are your company taking to ensure women and minorities and all people who face adversity in the workplace are elevated and treated equally?”
Sullivan says she’s proud of her role in the first WLP class, and hopes there are many more cohorts to follow.
“The Women’s Leadership Program has been one of my most meaningful involvements at Bentley. It’s made me so much more confident, and really helped me come out of my shell to realize who I can be as a leader and as a woman in the workforce. It’s an incredible program.”
‘I’M JUST SO GRATEFUL’
Dorothy Polatin says that, since the WLP started from scratch in a lot of ways, the Class of 2021 piloted a lot of new programs. But their flexibility and forthright demeanor helped shape the program into what it is now, and set the course for where future classes go from here.
“After every single workshop we’d have surveys,” she explains. “We’re continually changing and pivoting, but largely what the program is today is from the feedback and insight from this first class. They were leaders who helped younger students navigate Bentley, talking about majors or internship opportunities. They were just hugely supportive of the classes coming after them.”
One of those key changes involved breaking the program into more fluid levels that could be done at a student’s individual pace, giving Leaders the option to take a semester off for an internship or study abroad, or to graduate early.
“We learned the importance of flexibility, that these programs are available all semester, or over the summer,” says Polatin. “We want the Women’s Leadership Program to be part of their experience at Bentley, not their only experience.”
Polatin sees her first cohort graduate with increased belief in themselves, and in finding an employer that cares about more than just profits.
“We want the students to be prepared to interview the companies back,” she says. “They want to be in a workplace that is going to make them happy and shares their values. Success is so much more than money and getting a job. We want students to be able to advocate for themselves, be confident, and really be a positive force in the world.”
She credits Liberty Mutual and Bentley Board of Trustees Chair J. Paul Condrin III ’83 (a longtime Liberty Mutual executive) for not only stepping up with the gift that got the WLP started, but also being one of the program’s most steadfast supporters.
“Liberty recognized how important it is to support women leaders at the university level,” says Polatin. “They support the program a lot, by hosting a corporate visit and holding workshops. They’ve been a real ally and advocate, and not just through the scholarship funding but through educational support, which we really appreciate.”
So where will the WLP be four years from now? Polatin hopes to expand offerings to be more inclusive, to engage with more corporate partners and to involve alumni Leaders as they become role models themselves.
“I’m excited to engage with this first cohort to bring them back to campus as mentors, to continue to create this community that we've started here on campus. I’m just so grateful to this first class, because they really developed this program with us. We asked a lot of questions, and they really added a lot to this experience.”