Betty J. Diener (HRPBA 1963, MBA 1964, DBA 1974)
"I always thought that the first year of the MBA when we were together in the Harvard Radcliffe Program gave us an opportunity to find a voice that we could articulate."
Betty Diener has balanced her career in academic administration with an ongoing exploration of environmentally sound business practices through her work in industry, marketing and new product development. She has taught at numerous institutions, including Case Western Reserve University, Old Dominion University, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Barry University Business School in Miami, Florida.
Learning about HRPBA
I had an opportunity to go to Wellesley College for my undergraduate degree and actually heard about the Harvard Radcliffe Program there. The woman who headed up the alumnae office, excuse me, career services, whatever they called it at the time, had been a Harvard Radcliffe Program graduate and made me aware of it and encouraged me to apply. I'd always had an interest in business and business management, but there just weren't that many places to go if that was your interest. Harvard wasn't accepting women directly. I had been accepted at University of Virginia, but really, you know, I was most interested in Harvard. So I applied to the Harvard Radcliffe Program, and then at the end of that it was just about the time the Harvard Radcliffe Program was ending.
And so we were told that Harvard Business School itself would be much more receptive to admitting women into their program, and I think we probably as a class had the largest number of Harvard Radcliffe Program women accepted into the second year of the MBA. And so I went on to the second year of the MBA, not quite knowing what to do, and certainly the placement office didn't know what to do with us.
HRPBA & HBS Experience
Looking back on the Harvard Radcliffe Program, which is such an anachronism now and we would all riot before we would do something like that, I guess, I just thought it was tremendously helpful. It was helpful in giving me the language of business so that I could talk effectively about it, and also some knowledge of numbers. I think that, in order for women to be credible in business or academia or government, you have to sound knowledgeable and confident, and that's the sort of thing that that program gave us.
At that point in time they [Young & Rubicam] had never had a woman in their executive training program. They'd had women in research and women in media buying, but none in the account training area. So I went with them, and was the first woman to be in that training program, and stayed with them a number of years. I was an account executive on Eastern Airlines back when Eastern Airlines was still flying. And I worked also for American Cyanamid which at the time was Old Spice products and Formica products, worked in their consumer products division developing new products and had an opportunity to go back to Harvard.
But what Harvard did then was ask me, because we had such fun teaching the case, had I ever thought of getting a doctorate. Not only did they not have any cases about women, but they'd had fewer women that had gone through the doctorate. One that had was Margaret Hennig, who was also in our group. So I allowed as how that would be interesting. I don't think I'd ever thought of teaching as a career, but if you have a chance to go back to Harvard Business School for a doctorate, you sort of think that's pretty neat. So I went back. Because I'd worked for so many years, I think you get much more focused then you do when you're going through as an undergrad or as an MBA student. And so I was able to get through in about two years, and then started on a career that's been pretty interesting because it's combined academia, business at various times, and government.
In fact, when I went out to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, I started a women's program in management out there because we were still in a time back in, let's see, back in the early seventies, this would have been like in 1975, there was still a time when women were reluctant to go into MBA programs. They didn't have the confidence even to apply for them. So we started a women's program in management that gave them the first two courses of the MBA in their own section, and then they went on and did a regular MBA program. And they really did gain a lot of confidence. They would go on to become the valedictorians of their MBA class, and the male faculty always were very surprised, like, "Gosh, how do they do it?" They have great natural ability. You just need to add the self-confidence to it.
Several years later suddenly had an opportunity to go back to Virginia, which was the state in which I'd been born and raised. I went back as dean of the business school at Old Dominion. Old Dominion's down in Norfolk, Virginia. When I was growing up in Virginia, it didn't even exist. It's one of these big emerging state universities that is growing by leaps and bounds and has 10,000 students and ten years before that hadn't even existed. And I was there for three years.
Then Chuck Robb was elected governor of Virginia and somebody put my name in the hat, and I interviewed with him and became his cabinet secretary for economic development and environmental protection, which normally isn't together in a cabinet position because there's a natural conflict between economic development and environmental protection.
Interview by Livingston Grant, March 27, 2000. Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.