UT introduces program to advance women in leadership

Amarachi Ngwakwe

Leadership programs throughout UT prepare students to excel in their fields, but only few focus on the lack of opportunities given to women, or address the difficulties women face to become leaders.

According to a 2018 Women in the Workplace report, women make up 48% of the United States labor force, yet about one in five senior leaders are women, and one in 25 are women of color. In spring 2020, 25 female students from historically underrepresented groups will become the inaugural class of The Women’s Initiative on Entrepreneurship and Leadership Development (WIELD) Texas.

This career program aims to mentor UT women through career development and professional growth. The two-year-long program works with students, teaching them soft business skills such as negotiation and offering one-on-one mentorship. The program’s ultimate goal is to prepare women to take on executive roles or launch their own business venture within 10 years of graduation.

Rubén Cantú, executive director of the Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said he founded the program to address the lack of diversity and representation among women in leadership positions across the country.

Cantú said he has already received questions from people about why he, a man, is spearheading a program to advocate for women. He said the problem is bigger than any one person.

“It’s not about me. It’s about us,” Cantú said. “We as men need to advocate for women in leadership and not feel threatened by it.”

One of the most unique elements of the program, Cantú said, is the individualized mentorship students receive.

Cantú assembled a coalition of top-level Austin executives to coach the participants to take on leadership roles. He describes the group as “The Austin Mafia board of women.”

One reason women are not represented in executive roles is due to the difficulties they face in job mobility. Cantú said the incubator program will raise awareness of these challenges and equip women with the skills to combat the difficulties women experience in entrepreneurship.

“When it comes to getting executive roles,” Cantú said, “(Women) get stuck, not only at the bottom layer, but also at the middle management layer.”

Design senior Ariel Lee said over the course of her internship this past summer, she spoke to a professional designer who voiced her frustration with the lack of career mobility in her field.

“Even though she was the senior designer, oversaw many contracts and was producing the numbers, she felt like in comparison to her male counterparts, she was not being groomed or put on the same executive track that they were being put on,” Lee said.

To navigate these types of situations, during the semester participants in WIELD will attend weekly meetings where they will learn soft skills such as negotiation, career exploration, managing teams and interviewing. The program also features trips, retreats and guest speakers to complement the classroom lessons.

During the summer, participants are placed in middle to upper level management roles throughout the program to gain insight about responsibilities and decision making involved at the executive level.

Cantú said WIELD Texas challenges long-held ideas about how students are taught to think and encourages women to be the “CEOs” of their own destiny.

“We’re told, ‘Go to school, get good grades,’” Cantú said. “These women (have) an opportunity to figure out who they are and then literally change the landscape of business.”