Dianne Bevelander on risk, failure and the power of choice


UCT GSB EMBA graduate and Associate Dean: MBA Programmes of the Rotterdam School of Management, Dianne Bevelander, believes that society will benefit from greater inclusion of women across all organisational levels.

Businesswomen's magazine, The Nextwomen, recently spoke to EMBA (2003/4) alumnus Dianne Bevelander, Associate Dean of MBA Programmes at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), about changing women's attitudes towards risk and failure; why entrepreneurialism should be taught in every business course; and the hard lessons she learned during her MBA.

An MBA is a big commitment, both financially and time-wise. How do professionals decide whether pursuing an MBA is the right option for them?

DB: You are correct that it is a big commitment. Not always financially, but certainly time-wise and emotionally, with many students challenging themselves more than they have previously done throughout their academic development. Financially, graduates can usually recoup their investment in salary enhancement over three to five years, but this may be an inappropriate metric to use when evaluating education investment; whether in an MBA or anything else. I believe we need to look longer-term and with a much wider lens when reflecting on education benefit.

Education is a moveable asset that you carry with you for the rest of your life.

Of course, the financial and professional return is important, but personal growth and one's development as a responsible and engaged, thinking citizen should also be an integral part of the 'return on investment'.
People can take everything from you, but they can't take your education away. An MBA costs maybe $50,000 or $70,000, depending on the type of programme you follow. I believe that women find it more difficult to spend that kind of money on themselves than men. So, when a woman is considering spending $50,000 on herself, she thinks it's too much; that she could use it as a deposit for a house or save it for when her children go to college, etc. It's as if women don't feel worthy of spending that much time and money on themselves. However, in the long-term, the return on investment will be enormous.

Roughly what percentage of MBA students at RSM are entrepreneurs? And what percentage of those are female entrepreneurs?

DB: Not enough MBA students are truly entrepreneurial - whether this manifests itself in small entrepreneurial businesses or in large corporations, where entrepreneurial thinking is definitely still required. This concern applies equally, if not more, to women MBA students, and perhaps especially amongst Dutch women. I find at RSM that our international MBA women express more interest in being entrepreneurs - perhaps that they have elected to study abroad is a signal of increased propensity to bear risk. When I look at my classes, there are generally 50 different nationalities present.

I would say out of a class of 150 students, typically there are around 40 women and probably two or three of those are thinking of becoming entrepreneurs.

This is something that needs to change. I think it's because women aren't raised to believe that they can or should take risk; that they are innovators; and that they are changemakers. We have to incorporate processes for changing this attitude towards risk-taking into our programmes.

Research shows that when women receive outside investment, let's say from a venture capitalist or a bank, they have a greater desire to pay the money back at a faster rate than men. It is as if a woman has a greater tendency to see the funding liability as a noose around her neck.  This is evident in the microfinancing world, where female defaulters are surprisingly low. That's why microfinance works so well, lending to people at the bottom of the pyramid. Women worry about paying the money back. Perhaps they worry excessively about future risk. They don't sufficiently appreciate that sometimes it's harder to borrow $10,000 than $1 million, with the right business plan, team, connections, and network.

When girls are raised, they are told, no you mustn't do that, let your brother do it. Don't climb that tree, you might fall. Let your brother carry that. So women are continually being told that they must avoid risks, and mustn't be overly ambitious.

I really believe that business schools have to do a lot more to encourage women to take risks.

What type of MBA is generally most suitable for entrepreneurs?

DB: I am not convinced that there should be a particular type of MBA suitable for entrepreneurs, particularly since I see entrepreneurship as different and much more encompassing than small business. Rather, I think that entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship should be taught in all schools and encouraged in every single course, whether it's marketing, finance, operations management, or strategy.

Somewhere in each of these functional areas, people should be talking about innovation, change, entrepreneurship, and the like.

It's like ethics. Equally, ethics cannot be relegated to a separate course or a separate stream; it needs to be incorporated into everything we do. Then we start thinking in a different way, instead of seeing entrepreneurship and responsible innovation as something separate or distinct.

So, it should run through everything we do.

DB: Exactly. And we should be far more tolerant and accepting of failure. Here in the Netherlands, in Europe generally, we are not encouraged to take risk because of the stigma of failure. In the US, you're encouraged to try: Oh, you started a business and it didn't work out, sorry, stand up, shake it off, and try again. Also in Asia, failure is seen as a shame, people don't speak about it. And yet there are so many lessons that can be learned from failure. So we've also got to change how society thinks about risk-taking and the consequent increased probability of failure.

Trying new things (that inevitably can fail) should be seen as something that's positive, not negative.

What were the key lessons you learned during your own MBA and how do you apply these in your role today?

DB: Looking back at my own MBA, I hang my head in shame. When I was younger, I was so goal-oriented, so ambitious, and so driven. Although I hate to acknowledge it today, in some ways I saw people as factors of production, rather than as independent, thinking individuals, with the power to contribute far more creatively if given the opportunity. I remember having to do hours and hours of personal leadership when I was in the programme. Back then, I thought it would be much more productive to learn about finance or marketing. I really fought against the 80 or 90 hours of leadership that were part of the course. I still remember writing a letter to the professor, telling him the classes were consuming far too much time and that they could be greatly condensed. He wrote back, a wonderful and kind letter, which I still have today, explaining the importance of people. He pointed out what seems obvious to me today, that regardless of how bright you are, everything you execute is through people. After the course, I went back to work, got promoted and a lot of people started reporting to me. I now appreciate that as important as the finance or the marketing classes were, I learned the most during the leadership classes.

I know now that I have to believe in the people I lead and that I have to make them powerful and, in numerous ways, independent innovating agents of the enterprise. Whenever I make people powerful, I am able to achieve more for my enterprise and myself. People are born with so many gifts. A key element of my job as a leader is to assist them to open these gifts and realise the potential for using them wisely! So, I learned hard lessons in my MBA, but those lessons were all about me, and the impact I have on other people. That's when I realised that it isn't all about money or about getting the job done on time; it's about helping people grow, helping people to believe in themselves, helping people achieve things they never thought they could dream of achieving.

I think that's what I learned.

Last year, you gathered support for the first honorary doctorate to be awarded by the business school to a leading female scholar. Tell us a little about that.

DB: Business schools are still very male dominated. Most of the professors are male, most of the cases we use in class have one or more male protagonists, most of the textbooks and articles used are written by men. There are very few female role models.

At RSM, the president of the university and I are the only operational female role models and there are only three female professors at RSM. As a consequence of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the initially nominated candidates for the honorary doctorates were all male. I started to ask, don't you have any female candidates? Last year I really pushed it. And I must add, some of the faculty were really supportive and helped a lot. So last year, for the first time, we gave an honorary doctorate to a female scholar.

In the long run, society benefits hugely from the greater participation of women across all organisational levels; and by participation that brings increased diversity of opinion and approach that should come from women in leadership positions, rather than the demand that they merely adopt the approach of men.

Bevelander teaches personal leadership development at RSM and at various other business schools internationally. She is on a number of international educational boards and is often included in conference organisation, keynote addresses, and plenary talks. In addition to her EMBA from the GSB, she has a PhD from the University of Lulea, Sweden.

This interview first appeared in The NextWomen. It has been edited for length but not content.




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