The Second World War caused a dramatic shift in the role of women in the workforce. The war necessitated women leaving the house and filling the positions previously assumed by men, opening the door to careers previously considered “men’s work.” In the postwar era, women comprised 35% of the workforce, a dramatic jump from the prewar 20%. Today, the labor force participation rate for women is 57%. Although countless measures have tried to guarantee women equal access and representation in the workplace, gender diversity in businesses and organizations continues to lag. Launched in fall 2023, the CU Denver Business School’s class, Empowering Women in Business (EWiB), is mission-driven to equip women students with the skills to be an effective leader to provide the understanding of gender obstacles and ways to effectively overcome them.
On Friday, December 8, 2023, the inaugural class of the EWiB program graduated at an off-site retreat featuring a keynote presentation from Morgan Stanley’s Chief U.S. Economist Ellen Zentner, student presentations by the EWiB class, a discussion with Colorado Secretary of State Jenna Griswold, a panel of alumna, and a graduation celebration for the EWiB students. Over 40 business and CU Denver representatives who have supported the program as speakers in class, mentors, coaches, and advisory council members participated in the celebration.
In her keynote, titled “Rise of the SHEconomy,” Zentner presented the shifting demographics of the U.S. economy. In 2023, 45% of working-age women are single, and the population of single women is growing by 1.2% annually. These statistics become essential for businesses, as single women outspend both single men and households in apparel, footwear, and personal care. Zentner stressed the importance of companies knowing these demographics, as they will shape and define a business’s success.
Following Zentner’s keynote, the EWiB students presented their case studies on inspirational and influential female entrepreneurs. Significant women pioneers who were profiled included Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, champion of women’s rights and wrote the best-selling book “Lean In”; Ursula Burns, who overcame poverty and racial and gender biases and became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company; Lucille Ball who initiated and insisted to allow for the first interracial couple to appear on television at a time before interracial marriage was legalized and went on to become the first female CEO of a Hollywood studio; Gabrielle Bonheur (also known as Coco Chanel) and how she revolutionized female fashion and created a style empire; and finally, Michelle Obama, who struggled with imposter syndrome in high school but overcame it and attended Princeton and Harvard, becoming a lawyer before she eventually held the title of First Lady. The student’s work highlighted the importance of women in leadership positions and allowed them to analyze and apply their class learnings to the traits of these influential women.
During lunch, Colorado Secretary of State Jenna Griswold spoke on her exceptional journey. Griswold grew up as part of a working-class family in rural northern Colorado, in a town “with more elk than people.” Griswold began working the summer after 7th grade to help her family make ends meet, and she credits this as her inspiration to be the first in her family to attend a four-year college and graduate from law school. Griswold began practicing international anti-corruption law and pivoted with a run for Secretary of State at age 32. Against seemingly steep odds, Griswold won, becoming the youngest Secretary of State nationwide. While in office, Griswold oversaw eight elections and helped register 450,000 new voters in Colorado. She stressed the importance of young women building strong connections in the professional world. “When it comes down to it, when you’re a younger woman, there will be barriers in front of you, and having a community of mentors and friends makes all the difference.”
“When it comes down to it, when you’re a younger woman, there will be barriers in front of you, and having a community of mentors and friends makes all the difference.”-Jenna Griswald
CU Denver Business School alumni Natasha Herring, MS ‘17, Mikayla Burns, MS ‘19, and Sogand Mirfakhrai, ‘23 resolved the event, discussing experiences transitioning from school to the working world. They stressed the importance of setting boundaries, having curiosity, integrating passion into one’s work, and shedding perfectionist ideals. “Strive for your best, but not for perfection, because perfection doesn’t exist in the business world,” said Burns.
The afternoon ended with a celebration of the inaugural EWiB program alumni. “ I am so thankful I had the amazing opportunity to learn and grow alongside these incredible women,” wrote student Karli Behrens. Another alumna, Jaslyn Nguyen wrote, “It truly was transformative and I value all the growth and connections I made during the program.” “While I learned so much from this class, I also gained a new family. I can’t wait to see the amazing and wonderful things my EWiB sisters will bring to this world,” said Behrens.
To learn more or if interested in getting involved in the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.