CEO of Me Inc.

Business professor Kathy Korman Frey uses block models to teach her class how to identify leadership traits. Students, from top left, include Lindsay Rosenthal, Kaitlyn Eisen and Alicia Buford.
Business professor Kathy Korman Frey uses block models to teach her class how to identify leadership traits. Students, from top left, include Lindsay Rosenthal, Kaitlyn Eisen and Alicia Buford. (Rebecca Drobis - )
By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Krissy Laubach is a perfectionist. By her own account, the 21-year-old George Washington University senior has been pushing herself for years -- to earn good grades, hold down jobs and internships and join the leadership ranks of her sorority.

So when Krissy was assigned to analyze her skill at balancing work and personal life as part of a unique women-focused business class this spring, she found ample material. "I pushed myself to the point of exhaustion but always managed to convince myself that I was not doing enough,'' she writes in a self-analytical case study. "Many times I would experience panic attacks, convinced that any free time in my schedule would ultimately lead to failure in my future."

In her relentless drive, Krissy has much in common with the 21 other young women enrolled in Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership, a course that highlights the different ways in which men and women confront business challenges. At its heart is an exploration of work-life balance, an issue that will become crucial for these students later, when child care and other demands drive some women out of the workforce and slow others' ascent. (The class is all female; men are welcome, but given the title, it's not surprising that none signed up.)

Kathy Korman Frey, a 37-year-old Harvard MBA who runs a strategic consulting firm in Washington, developed the work-life balance element of the course while teaching as an adjunct at GW and tried it out for the first time this academic year. Frey is an entrepreneur, and she's also a mother of two who's partial to high-heeled boots and Starbucks sugar-free hazelnut lattes, and who spends so much time on the phone with her students that she jokes they should join her friends-and-family calling plan.

A few years ago, Frey noticed that her female students were increasingly seeking advice about a subject the existing business curriculum didn't cover. They wanted to know how to make it all work: a successful business and a fulfilling personal life. One day, a student approached Frey in a GW stairwell.

"She had tears in her eyes as she explained all the different things going on in her life," Frey recalls. "She said: 'You're a mom; you have your own company. Could we talk sometime about how you do that?' . . . That's when I decided that something had to be done in the classroom to address these issues."

To fill the gap, Frey then created an online case study database called the Hot Mommas Project that allows ordinary women to tell their stories and share insights on balancing work and personal life. The cases studies are based on a model developed at Harvard Business School, but they're shorter and much more personal -- and all have female protagonists. Some tell stories of corporate success, while others simply highlight a challenge and offer a starting point for discussion. All are valuable, Frey says, because research shows that seeing a woman play a central role in a case study makes other women more confident about what they can accomplish.

Frey envisions the site as a searchable library of role models for aspiring female entrepreneurs, many of whom begin their careers working for others. For now, the cases are available free online, and several have been published in a Prentice-Hall textbook. Frey hopes to market the case studies to colleagues for use in classrooms.

This semester, for the first time, Frey is asking her students to write case studies about themselves for the Hot Mommas library. The students, who range from MBA candidates to women who have never taken a business class, are mostly too young to be juggling work and play dates. Yet they describe lives already packed with jobs, internships, classes and social engagements -- and a tendency to lose their balance. Their anxiety is palpable.

"I've had a lot of male interns who are way overcommitted, but they don't seem to feel the guilt if they have to cancel," Frey says. "Whereas women will tear their hair out over it."

In the early stages of the Hot Mommas Project, Frey surveyed 269 mostly professional women across the country and found that the respondents feel more successful when they are able to accomplish one key thing: managing the demands of career and home.

"A lot of women are being put in a position where their life has become an entrepreneurial experience," Frey says. "They may not have signed up to be entrepreneurs, but guess what? They are. Because if you want to do the proverbial all, you literally have to start thinking about your life as if it's a business model and start moving all the pieces around to make it work.''

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