While women outnumber men at all levels of postsecondary education, men have long dominated business programs. That’s no longer the case at the VCU School of Business, however, where women increasingly dominate the Online MBA program.
VCU introduced its highly interactive and flexible version of its AACSB-accredited MBA program in 2017. The two-year program features the same world-class faculty, rigorous curriculum and career management services offered to students on campus but in an online format.
In 2018, when the OMBA welcomed its second cohort, the program was 48% women. In 2019, that increased to 58%. This year, women make up 67% of the incoming class.
Program “let me balance life, work and family”
“The online synchronous approach was closest I could get to a traditional MBA that also let me balance my life, work and family obligations. I wasn’t going to take every other Friday off of work, and I had young children, so being away on Saturdays wasn’t an option for me. With the online program, there were no travel requirements, and I wasn’t gone at night. Yes, I was holed up in a room for classes, but I was still present. The VCU Online MBA gave me the flexibility to ‘have it all’ – to go back to school with a full-time job and a family.”
“There’s a lot of demand for the Online program,” says Robert Clarkson, MBA program manager at the VCU School of Business who currently is recruiting the program’s fifth cohort. “Our first cohort in 2017 had 24 students. This year’s incoming class has 46, and we’ve set a threshold of 50 for next year.”
More students at ease with videoconferencing
“Historically, when the economy is down, people head back to school,” Clarkson says. “Our program is a great value. It’s ranked 35th in the country, can be completed in two years and has a 90-percent retention rate, which is unheard of for online learning. Our competitors have increased their prices, but ours hasn’t gone up since its inception.”
“A lot of MBA students who had been considering our evening program, jumped over to the online program this fall because of the pandemic. During our interview process, we used to ask about people’s comfort level with technology, but everyone is familiar with all types of videoconferencing technology now. With the exception of the face-to-face residencies at the beginning, middle and end of the program, COVID-19 has had almost no impact on the Online MBA.”
“Women leaders are becoming more valued”
Samantha “Sami” Fuentes, project manager, senior, at Anthem who earned her undergraduate degree at VCU, began the OMBA program this fall. During her six years with Anthem and after completing a one-year leadership development program, she experienced rapid growth, but wanted an MBA to further differentiate herself.
“I didn’t realize until orientation weekend that there were more women than men in our cohort, but it makes sense. Women leaders are becoming more and more valued. Anthem’s CEO is a woman and our leadership is increasingly diverse. VCU has always been that type of university where you see a lot of diversity. It’s very reflective of the times and what’s happening in the world.”
Fuentes’ cohort will graduate in 2022 and self reports as being 64% white, 36% non-white and 18% African-American.
“I feel like part of a team”
“The program is challenging, but I really am loving the cohort structure,” Fuentes says, “Over the past seven weeks, we’ve become so close. We know each other’s schedules and capacities and lean on each other. Our group gives us a safe space to learn and work through things. Without them, you’d miss community and connection that you get inside a classroom.”
Tidwell agrees. “The camaraderie of the cohort was beyond what I expected going in. Just because classes were virtual, it didn’t diminish our ability to connect. We worked together constantly online and sustained a dynamic, friendly environment for the whole two years. I also liked the course structure. Taking one class at a time kept things fresh and interesting. When subjects were challenging, having a shorter term made it easier to buckle down and get through it.”
Colby Seibert, a project manager with infrastructure and engineering firm AECOM who earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Penn State, lives in Brooklyn yet chose VCU for her Online MBA. “With many online MBA programs, you do everything online. You don’t meet your cohort and there are no networking experiences,” she says.
By contrast, the VCU Online MBA features a collaborative live session on a weeknight that strengthens engagement with professors and classmates in a way that advances learning and ensures that distant students stay motivated and on track. “I like how I can do it on my own time, but there’s also a community brought together on Wednesday nights,” Seibert explains. “When we meet, discuss things and get to be a cohort, I feel like part of a team. These people are behind me, pushing me forward toward a shared goal.”
“Our team works really well together. Most people have at least five years work experience and everyone has something to offer. If we have a project with a lot of Excel work, some members of my team aren’t as familiar with it, but I use it on a daily basis for work. But my weakness is formal writing, so it’s nice to have someone in my group who can help with that.”
Even before graduation, MBA demonstrates value
According to Clarkson, just two months after completing the OMBA program, 75% of last year’s graduates have changed jobs or received promotions. That’s notable because the biggest benefits of an MBA typically begin after six months.
Seibert received a promotion halfway through her MBA program. “I think the promotion was a way of recognizing that they expect I will become even more of an asset. As a project manager, for example, I have to stay on budget and work with the finance department. My manager even mentioned that my MBA would help me better understand the finance aspects.”
“Women are already underrepresented in engineering and being a female engineer with an MBA will put me in better place to be promoted into the management level at my company or another company,” Seibert says. “Down the road, it could allow me to move into different career path. I will have so many more opportunities to grow. The VCU online program is hard work, but it’s doable for anyone with a computer who is willing to put forth the effort.”
Tidwell, also, was promoted in the middle of her program. “I think my schoolwork showed my employer I was an extremely dedicated individual, someone who was working to achieve a huge goal despite balancing many things in my personal life. As they were considering me for advancement, that had to play into their decision,” she says.
“So many people don’t pursue further education because they don’t understand that it’s is possible, even if you have a lot on your plate,” Tidwell explains. “Earning an Online MBA was a great experience for me, and it was a great thing for my kids too. I’d tell them, ‘Mommy has to go to class right now. Mommy is doing homework.’ Children are so resilient. My being in school became part of their life, and they were so proud of me when I was done. But the happiest person on my graduation day was my husband,” she laughs. “This was a team effort. He was popping the champagne.”
About the VCU Online MBA
VCU created its Online MBA program to offer convenience and value for working professionals, parents with young children, “road warriors,” military personnel and those unable to attend a traditional, on-campus program.
The program features an innovative learning blend and a market-responsive program that educates students on the most vital business topics of the day like cybersecurity, globalization and innovation.
The Online MBA also features three weekend residencies that help students expand their professional network. At the start of Year Two, students engage with one of VCU’s many corporate partners on a challenging corporate social responsibility project. Shortly before graduation, students participate in a final “hackathon” residency where they research and then present solutions to a strategic dilemma faced by one of the many corporations in Richmond’s thriving business community. To date, OMBA corporate partners have included The Market at 25th Street, Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, the National Community Pharmacists Association and the Richmond Ballet.