When Mary Joy DiMarco arrived at the University of North Florida, she majored in computer science. But as a woman in male-dominated classes, she didn’t feel her ideas were valued.
“I was very uncomfortable,” she said.
DiMarco later switched to business management and joined a new UNF student organization called Women in Business designed to empower female business students by providing mentorship, community connections and career advancement opportunities, among other things.
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“I didn’t want to feel like I did before, like my voice was not being heard,” DiMarco, now a junior, said. The intent of the new program, she said, is to show women business students that “what they have to say matters.”
Last year four local companies — CSX Corp., Truist Financial Corp., staffing provider Adecco and gastroenterology provider Borland Groover — approached UNF for help getting more women in business leadership positions, according to Women in Business director Leslie Gordon, who teaches marketing and other related courses and recently completed a doctorate in education leadership.
“They wanted to know, ‘How can we make that happen?'” she said.
The resulting Coggin College of Business initiative, which began in January, will provide a wealth of support for women business students. They will get women mentors — executives at the founding companies as well as with senior business students — as well as business skill development workshops, monthly speakers, professional networking and leadership training.
Executive mentoring and the monthly speaker series are underway, and a career preparation and enhancement panel discussion was conducted with four women business leaders. Seniors have been selected to be peer mentors and will attend leadership training in June and begin mentoring in the fall. Workshops also are planned.
A ‘safe space’
About 215 UNF students are participating and Gordon said she also plans to ask area high schools to participate.
“We have been doing a lot of promotion,” she said. “Everything is in motion.”
Gordon was thrilled with students’ enthusiastic response.
“I couldn’t have predicted that it would have taken off,” she said. “I wish I had this in college. Women supporting women.”
Nationwide, women make up about 25 percent of executive-level positions, according to a 2021 joint report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org.
“We have got a long way to go,” Gordon said. “These initiatives will help with that.”
The initiative not only provides mentoring and career preparation but a supportive environment, which is crucial, according to several students who are participating.
“It’s a great opportunity for me. To be around each other, to have that space with other women in the same major is comforting,” said junior Madison Beckford. “It’s important to give other women that safe space.”
Sophomore Kate Los wanted to get more involved on campus, particularly in the business programs. And she wanted to see more women aspiring for the executive suite: Like DiMarco in her initial computer science classes, Los often found herself the only woman in business classes.
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“We only see men being promoted up,” she said. “It’s important for girls to be in executive positions.”
DiMarco, Beckford and Los are among 10 volunteer undergraduates who serve as Women in Business ambassadors. They help set policy as part of the program’s “founding executive council” and set up events and other promotional activities.
Also part of the council is Brianna Eisman, a graduate assistant who works 20 hours a week helping Gordon run the program, leading the ambassadors and participating herself.
“It has been so rewarding. The skills I’ve learned, the connections made in the community … has been incredible,” she said. “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a great experience. It means so much … to see these women getting internships, going to career fairs.”
Eisman, who graduated with a degree in business administration, is now pursuing a master’s degree in business analytics and working as an intern at a tech, male-dominated company. The business world “is where I want to be,” she said, and Women in Business is “giving me the skills I need to know.”
Local businesses eager for results
Gordon said the program will help local business build relationships with business students, lowering recruiting costs. It could also help more of those students decide to stay in the Jacksonville area after graduation.
“They need a sense of belonging,” she said.
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Borland Groover was one of the four companies that together provided the initial $90,000 in seed funding for Women in Business and is providing mentors, among other things, according to Jackie Kennedy, chief operating officer for the company’s ancillary services division.
“We intend to play an active role … to support and hopefully increase the number of young women pursuing business degrees in the Coggin College of Business,” she said.
“Borland Groover recognizes the importance of gender diversity in all levels of leadership and understands that many college students, especially young women, approach the end of their college career feeling relatively unprepared when it comes to workforce readiness,” she said. “It is programs like these that prepare and empower our next generation of female leadership, and as a company we are dedicated to encouraging progress in this space.”
Kennedy said she is a firm believer in the program’s mission.
“For me personally as a mother of two young girls I am honored to be a part of this initiative that is supporting and inspiring young women to become the next generation of female leaders within our local business community,” she said.
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WOMEN IN BUSINESS/UNIVERSITY OF NORTH FLORIDA