Join a sorority, become a businesswoman

How Greek life helps prepare young women to launch successful careers.

In the fall of 2008, Macia Batista, a junior at Le Moyne College, attended a women’s panel on human trafficking at Syracuse University. After the event, Batista sought out the familiar face of the woman who led the event. To Batista’s surprise, the woman, Joannie Diaz, was her high school classmate. But this woman was about to become much more to her. In just a few months, Batista would call Diaz her sorority sister, and fast forward six years later and she is now Batista’s business partner.

My sorority really pushed the fact that women are powerful. You’re powerful. And your voice is something that no one can take away from you.

Just like Batista and Diaz, career-minded women all over the country are joining sororities and establishing networks of support. The National Panhellenic Conference, a governing body that oversees 353,345 sorority women across the United States, said sororities serve many purposes. “They exist to give value beyond college years, develop the individual's potential through leadership opportunities and group effort, and fill the need of belonging.” Beyond these initiatives, sororities engage women in skill training, mentorship and professional development, and provide a network of support and resources.

Some of the brightest women in business have participated in these all-female groups. The top two women on Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” list are sorority women. Ginni Rometty, the Chairwomn, CEO, and President of IBM is a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. And Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is a member of the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. Furthermore, Sara Blakely, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire and the creator of Spanx, is a sorority woman. The success that these women share is not a coincidence. It is evidence that sorority membership can help women launch successful careers prepare women to be lifelong leaders.

Traditionally, sororities were known as an outlet for women to socialize with a group of men, or a fraternity. But now, sororities offer more than a social experience. Caty Brown, a membership manager for the Delta Phi Epsilon International sorority and graduate of State University of New York Geneseo, said the sorority experience prepares you for a successful career because you work with diverse people. It offers team-building skills and it challenges you in new ways. “You’re going to be experiencing things you don’t necessarily know all the answers to but you’re going to go into it anyway and learn as you go. The opportunities for leadership are endless. If the position doesn’t exist, you can basically create it,” she said.

Sorority girls embrace excitedly in celebration of welcoming new sisters into their houses during Bid Day. (Photo: Alexandra Hootnick)

For sorority women, professional development and networking begins your first day in the sorority and extends for a lifetime. Chantel Morel, a alumna of Syracuse University and former president of the Sigma Lambda Upsilon Senoritas Latinas Unidas Inc. sorority said her experience prepared her for life after graduation. “At many of the events we held, you had to wear professional attire,” she said. “Before I joined, I didn’t even own a pair of slacks.”

As president, Morel planned a series of events that included a workshop to teach the women how to use LinkedIn, a “Dress for Success” workshop that featured representatives from Lord and Taylor and a speaker event with the career-driven actress, Adrienne Bailon.

The headquarters and planning committees of sororities recognize that undergraduate women benefit from events that encourage career development. Caty Brown, the sorority membership manager, planned “Engage U,” a two-day regional conference for her organization at Syracuse University in November. The conference held workshops that taught women how to master chapter finances, plan events and manage chapter risks, among other topics.

Brown expressed confidence that this conference will help chapters in the short and long term. “We’re planning the events so they hold a purpose in terms of making the individual chapters as great as they can be. However, if we just held these events so that they were serving a purpose only to enrich their lives for the next couple of months, then it really isn’t worth our monetary investment because we’re hoping to build women who are leaders for their lifetime,” she said. “We don’t want it to end at graduation.”

At Syracuse University, there are more than 2,000 women who participate in sororities, according to Justina DeMott, the Assistant Director of Fraternity & Sorority Affairs at the university. “The sorority community has seen an influx in women interested in joining organizations,” Demott said. "This is likely due to Greek life being more widely discussed. Nowadays you can’t turn on the TV or radio without hearing about Greek life. With this increase in visibility, women know what to look for on campus.”

The growth in sorority membership reaches beyond local universities. Chapters under the National Panhellenic Conference have seen a 10 percent increase in recruitment numbers this year. This data coincides with the growing number of women attending college, said the National Panhellenic Conference. The trend also coexists with an increasing amount of women who own businesses and lead Fortune 500 companies.

In this State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, it says the number of women-owned firms increased by 54 percent between 1997 and 2012, when the number of businesses in the United States increased by 37 percent. Furthermore, Catalyst, a nonprofit that encourages opportunities for women, reported there was a 5.2 percent increase in the number of women leaders in Fortune 500 companies this year.

Sororities can be linked to successful companies and careers because of the successful women that move from sorority membership in college to a fruitful career post graduation. But they are also tied by their similarities. Batista, the co-founder of Be Moxie, said when she was president of her chapter, she was managing people honing skills, completing daily tasks and planning for long-term goals. “I felt like I was running my own mini company,” she said. “We had sisters we had to account for, all these events we had to present, and we were constantly being put to the test. It was a very empowering experience.”

For Devin Hladun, a legal assistant in Holland Patent, New York, it was the skills she gained through her sorority membership that got her a job after graduation. During Hladun’s undergraduate membership she was a representative on her sorority’s standards board and served as Vice President of the Inter Greek Council governing body at her university. In addition to her psychology and criminal justice majors, Hladun used these opportunities to prepare for her future as a lawyer. She said she learned about the trial process, sanctions, legal documents and basic legal terms.

All of this helped Hladun when she applied for her first job. Hladun said the employer was looking for applicants with 10 or more years of experience as a legal assistant or working in a position similar to a paralegal. The positions she held gave her an advantage over the other applicants, she said. “It impressed my boss to know that I wanted to be a lawyer and that I did what I could in college, especially through the greek system,” she said. “That’s why he hired me without having any experience. It was the positions I held and the leadership that I showed that helped me.”

Hladun’s sorority background, which she tailored to her interests and aspiring career, helped her on the job as well. “The positions that I held helped me to describe the sanctions in a way that would be understood in layman’s terms,” she said.

Delta Delta Delta sisters, commonly referred to as "Tri-Delts," celebrate Bid Day in front of their sorority house.(Photo: Alexandra Hootnick)

In addition to the skills women can gain through the sorority experience, women also receive access to a large network of alumnae through a sorority. Taylor Arias, a sorority member and senior at Syracuse University, utilized the alumnae network to ease the process of applying to graduate schools. She connected with an alumna who already completed graduate school for advice.

When evaluating graduate schools, Arias considers the proximity of local sorority alumnae chapters. “It helps to know if I’m doing something, I can share it,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone there to support me with anything I’m doing. Talking to the alumnae gives me a sense of confidence to make my way.”

Similar to Arias, Nicole Mantione, a graduate student at Le Moyne, plans to use her chapter’s network to find a job when she finishes her physician assistant program. If I have a hard time finding a job, then I’ll try to connect with other sisters, especially sisters who are nurses in hospitals to see if there are any jobs opening up,” she said.

But not all sorority women immediately find the support they need. With an uncommon major, Mary Manchin, a senior at Syracuse University studying computer art and animation, didn’t connect with any sisters academically. After graduation, Manchin hopes to meet alumnae in the entertainment industry when she moves to California.

In terms of offering support, there are other ways sisters can be there for each other. For an entrepreneur like Theresa Jobes, sorority sisters are paying customers that use her fitness training services. Jobes, an alumna of State University of New York at Brockport, is a part-time social worker and part-time fitness trainer. When she launched her training program, she was moved by the amount of support she got from her sisters. “They’re not necessarily women that were friends with me or the same age as me,” she said. “It’s women who I had never met before. I’ve gained their trust, they see something in me, and I see something in them. I just love helping them improve their lives.”

Batista and Diaz, the co-founders of Be Moxie, a website that guides young women in their careers, also appreciate sisterly support toward their new business. Batista and Diaz’s sorority sisters support their business by attending events that Be Moxie hosts in New York City. Diaz said that sisters in Syracuse and across New York ask them to use their workshop planning skills and vast career knowledge to plan events and educate sisters.

Batista and Diaz represent a relatively larger number of sorority women who start businesses. According to research from a Purdue report explaining the effects of greek membership, 28 percent of fraternity and sorority members have started a business versus 23 percent of unaffiliated students.

The Be Moxie company reflects the abilities and experience the women gained through sorority membership, but it also correlates with the values their sorority instilled in them. By helping and inspiring present and future generations of women, the founders are showing their lifelong commitment to women empowerment, which is the national philanthropy for their sorority.

Batista missed the feeling of strength that her sorority gave her. “When I met the sisters of Omega Phi Beta, I really felt at home and all the events we did were centered around bettering ourselves and women empowerment,” she said. “Our sorority really helps women of color reach their full potential. After we graduated, we missed that.”

Each sorority places emphasis on different values, philanthropies and causes, but they all encourage women to come together to support one another and to pursue personal development. Jobes never pictured herself in a sorority. She said she believed the stigmas associated with sororities. “But when I opened myself to being around these women, I realized they’re just like me. They’re everyday people joining together for a greater cause and to become better women.”

In professional settings that are still dominated by men, Diaz said her sorority prepared her to be assertive in her finance career. “My sorority really pushed the fact that women are powerful. You’re powerful. And your voice is something that no one can take away from you.”

And Hladun said she feels ready for the future challenges her career will present as she works to become a lawyer. “More than anything, I think Delta Phi Epsilon helped to build my confidence in myself. And I think that’s going to be my best asset, knowing that I’m capable of doing anything that I want to do.”

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