11/10/2014 06:47 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Women in Business: Gloria Larson, President of Bentley University

Gloria Larson is the president of Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and launched the PreparedU Project in 2013. Before joining Bentley, Larson was an attorney, public policy expert and business leader.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My career has evolved without a specific game plan in almost every way. Through a combination of hard work and serendipity, I've had the good fortune to work in federal and state government, the private sector and the non-profit world, and to have had invaluable experience across a variety of industry sectors. In addition, I've had the chance to participate in many highly gratifying local and global civic endeavors. It's this unusual combination of career and life experience that has made me open minded to different perspectives, helped me to be a strong collaborator with a knack for problem solving, and sparked my interest in shaping public policy in important areas such as education, economic development and healthcare.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Bentley University?
As an attorney, first serving in increasingly responsible management roles in government, later as a partner in a large Boston law firm, and now the first female president of a major business university - all fields dominated by men - I have had an exhilarating career. As a lawyer charged with running large organizations, I've also faced classic gender challenges along the way. These varied experiences have given me the background and "nuts and bolts" skills needed to succeed at Bentley, while also fueling my interest in closing the gender gap - something that women clearly cannot do alone. Our economy is only at its best when every individual has an equal opportunity to participate and succeed at every level. I'm thrilled to have been given this significant platform - it enables me to make a real difference on this front.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Bentley University?
Segueing from the leadership roles I've previously held to that of a college president was not an easy or seamless transition. I made a lot of early mistakes. It's a completely different environment, much more process-driven than others in which I have worked. It's far less about calling the shots and more about enabling faculty and staff to be as good as they can be so that our students will be successful in their pursuits.

One of the biggest changes that took place just as I joined the university was changing our status from Bentley College to Bentley University. Much of the ground work had been completed to meet Massachusetts' regulatory requirements to become a university, but winning over alumni and other stakeholders to accept both the new name and the larger national and international aspirations that accompanied the change was not easy. Many had sentimental attachments to the college and were concerned that becoming a global business university would change the nature and culture of the school. We needed to show them why and how our new name and bolder goals added value to the Bentley degree.

A major highlight for me has been the number of new programs created during my tenure by our faculty and staff that are focused on redefining a 21st century business education. For example, our graduate school developed a highly innovative new MBA program - a studio-based, 11-month, global degree that places special emphasis on honing students' individual leadership styles and change-management skills, while working on diverse teams and across cultures. And I'm especially proud to have helped found the Center for Women and Business at Bentley, designed to advance shared leadership among women and men at all levels of the corporate world.

Why do you think female graduates are more prepared for success than their male counterparts?
This is an interesting question, as men are usually assumed to be better prepared for life-long career success, particularly when it comes to senior management roles. Recent research shows that this is based largely on general perception, rather than concrete evidence. That said, there are more women than ever entering the business world. A recent study on preparedness commissioned by Bentley found that women are seen as better suited to success when it comes to certain specific qualities, like organizational skills, as well as interpersonal and communication skills. While women may have an advantage in these areas and men in others, I believe that both genders have the ability to be equally prepared for the workforce and should be equally accepted at all levels.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Work/life balance is an elusive concept for most of us and I think one of the biggest mistakes we make is believing that we have to "have it all" -- at the same time. That's a lot of unnecessary pressure and it can ultimately lead to feelings of resentment or failure. It's important to remember that you can, over time, do everything you set out to do. It doesn't all have to happen simultaneously. Over many years my husband and I have figured out how to support each other in our various career, family and civic endeavors, prioritizing our activities differently at different times. I've found support from family and friends to be especially helpful. Of course, time management is crucial too, whether you're balancing kids, or volunteer and community commitments, with a career. Equally important is that you make sure you reserve some time and relaxation for yourself. Having three Labrador retrievers has been a great outlet for me!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There still seems to be significant unconscious gender bias in the workplace and, unfortunately, progress in eliminating it has been slower than we all wish. According to McKinsey and Company, women now fill 53 percent of entry-level positions, yet only 28 percent are in senior management positions. Board membership numbers for women are even lower. I've served on several corporate boards and, in each case I've been one of just a few women in the room. As this gender gap persists, it causes too many women to doubt themselves and then hesitate in pursuing senior management positions - and a self-perpetuating cycle continues. We need buy-in from both male and female executives to bring about real lasting change.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Both mentors and sponsors can make a significant difference. Mentors can share advice and provide support, while sponsors are people in your organization who believe in you and are in a position to help you climb the organizational ladder. I would not have possessed the confidence to achieve success without strong mentor and sponsor support. The preparedness survey I cited earlier underscores the importance of mentorship programs and women-specific networking events to help women succeed in business. At the same time, recent research also shows that having someone in your company who can act as a sponsor, actually advocating for you in terms of career advancement, is especially effective for high potential women.

Very early in my career, I thrived with the support of a woman who held a presidential appointment at the Federal Trade Commission, someone who had already successfully broken through the glass ceiling in Washington in the early 1980's, an especially tough, male-dominated arena. A Commissioner at the FTC, Patricia Bailey not only served as a role model, but was in a position to help me move up in my career - two vital ingredients in helping me get to the leadership position I hold today. When women get close to achieving leadership positions, they need someone they can turn to in order to reach that next step.

This is a recommendation I strongly suggest to business-minded millennials who fear the gender bias that awaits them: Look for mentors and sponsors who will not only offer advice and support your career ambitions, but will help you reach your goals. Surround yourself with professional, strong women - and men - who will encourage you to succeed.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Arianna Huffington immediately comes to mind. She's visionary, smart, successful and candid in her views, while also having a good sense of humor and strong interpersonal skills. She has urged all of us to get more sleep and to otherwise adopt a healthier lifestyle - great advice that I personally aspire to someday adopt! Growing up, my earliest role model was the fictional character Nancy Drew. She embodied everything I wanted to be: razor sharp and likeable, able to solve the thorniest of problems while always impeccably dressed in matching skirt and heels.

What do you want Bentley University, its students and staff to accomplish in the next year?
We launched our PreparedU initiative in 2013, and that will continue to be a main focus for this coming year. The University, its faculty, staff and students are committed to working together to bridge the gap between employers and higher education so we can better prepare our graduates for today's complex and demanding workplace. The post-recession job market has been tough for recent college graduates and our surveys have shown that employers don't believe most graduates are adequately prepared for the work world. While Bentley is fortunate as a business-focused university to have a high job and graduate school placement rate, our PreparedU Project has spurred a broader public conversation that highlights the career challenges that millennials face and also identifies solutions that all schools can adopt to better prepare them for success.