Meet Danish entrepreneur Fannymilla Bussandri. She studied in Paris, lives in London, has suppliers in Portugal and China, and delivers to a global customer base. In many ways, she exemplifies a new and growing class of global, female entrepreneurs, finding success in previously male-dominated arenas.
Gender equality in the business world has been a long time coming. Even in a time when about half of students in law school and medical school are female, MBA classrooms have still been brimming with testosterone.
Indeed, while women now outnumber men at many colleges around the world, the percentage of MBA degrees given to women remains surprisingly low, only increasing by a couple of percentage points over the last decade according to US statistics.
“I think I'm quite lucky since I come from Scandinavia,” says Fannymilla Bussandri. “Denmark has more equality between the sexes than most places, and our culture encourages women and men to share responsibilities both privately and professionally.”
As a Dane, Fannymilla has never experienced problems in the business world due to her gender. But even in gender-equal Copenhagen, she noticed she was in the minority when studying business.
"The majority of students were still men at my business school, and after class women and men separated into divided social groups."
Still, gender equality in the business world is growing. And there's one area which is leading the way: entrepreneurship.
According to figures from the US Census, the number of businesses owned by women has increased by nearly 30 percent in just five years, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
“Entrepreneurs in general are more open-minded,” says Fannymilla. “It's a very beneficial environment for women to be a part of.”
She is a new business owner herself, having launched her company Koruku at the end of last year.
“I sell eco-friendly yoga mats made of cork and natural tree rubber, and every time I sell a mat I plant a tree as well,” says Fannymilla.
Photo: Fannymilla Bussandri/Koruku
"During school I became passionate about entrepreneurship, and I'm also passionate about the environment and about promoting health and well-being. Health and fitness is a very exciting industry in which to be today."
And Fannymilla received her education at an institution paving the way for women in business: the International School of Management (ISM) in Paris.
She is an alumna of ISM's International MBA, an 18-month programme famous for its small class sizes, diverse student body, and opportunities to study not just at the Paris campus but to add seminars in New York, Shanghai, São Paulo, Cape Town, and New Delhi.
“Business schools tend to be male-dominated, and I hear a lot of my peers in the industry discussing how to recruit more women. Interestingly, that's not an issue for us,” says Alison Knight, General Director at ISM.
Across the programmes available at ISM, 51 percent of the student population is female, and a significant number of the staff at the business school is also women.
Alison thinks it's a good reflection of reality.
“I'd venture to say that the majority of entrepreneurs in the world, particularly in emerging markets, are women, doing side-hustles to support their day-to-day lives,” she says. “But women face special challenges in the traditional business world, such as getting funding from the male-dominated VC and bank world.”
And ISM's International MBA prepares students – no matter what their gender – to tackle these challenges.
“It equips students – men and women alike – with the tools to build a strong proposal and company. But we are also connecting them to a community of like-minded people, who can mentor them and help them through the process,” Alison explains.
She admits that at one point the admissions staff was primarily male, but when more women started working in the admissions office, the school saw a notable increase in the number of female applicants who enrolled.
“I suspect that part of the reason for women enrolling is because they have a high comfort level from the beginning, since so much of the admissions process is managed by women,” she muses. “From the first day they are meeting women in the community they will later engage with.”
Alison Knight with a student at ISM. Photo: International School of Management
Fannymilla, who graduated in 2016, certainly noticed.
“From the moment I reached out I had great communication with the staff,” she says. “They were supportive and dedicated, and that was important to me.”
It was a much different experience from her previous studies elsewhere.
“The genders were never split. At ISM we were all friends, we all mixed, and at the same time the atmosphere was more intimate,” she recalls. “Many of us had moved to Paris just to study at ISM, and that made it easy for us to bond. ISM was also great at arranging social events for us.”
Another aspect of the programme appreciated by many women, Alison says, is its flexibility.
“Our programmes are flexible and that makes them accessible for different types of students,” she explains. “For example a woman who is already running a business or taking care of a family as well. The nature of the programme is very accommodating.”
The school's outstanding diversity – not just in gender but county of origin and general background as well – is what Fannymilla misses most about studying at ISM.
“We were all from different cultures, and everyone was very open-minded. Both the professors and students were very diverse. I studied with people from Paraguay, India, Australia, and China,” she says.
“Meeting so many interesting people has inspired me to be the person I am today. ISM has helped me open my mind to different cultures and people. I never felt discriminated. That's one of the really great things about ISM.”
Fannymilla now lives in London with her Canadian husband, the cork for her yoga mats comes from Portugal, whenever someone buys a mat a tree is planted in Indonesia, and her company ships the mats around the world. As a small business owner, her education is as relevant as ever.
“To this day I pull out my old papers from class, see what I wrote, and incorporate that in my business. I still use my old class books,” she laughs. "Marketing and entrepreneurship are the areas where I learned the most at school. Now people come to me for help within these fields.”
Alison notes that the school has never actively targeted women – it reaches them organically. But it does offer a scholarship specifically for women in business, and an informal association to meet like-minded, successful women who have been there, done that. As a woman herself in the male-dominated business education world, she knows how important it is to have that kind of support.
“The businesses and innovations that women contribute are extremely valuable to society,” she says. “We make up half the population - so we need a seat at the table.”
This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by ISM.