Women's History Month: Three Trailblazing Chicago Booth Women Share Their Top Career Advice

To mark Women’s History Month for 2017, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business celebrates three alumnae from around the globe who have paved the way for women to succeed in the workplace.

In Texas, Phyllis Bourque (’75) made history as the first woman petroleum engineer at Shell Oil Company. In Switzerland, Sophie Kornowski-Bonnet (’90) combined a pharmacy PhD with a Booth MBA to become one of the highest ranking women in the biotechnology industry. In Malaysia, after a career as a corporate banker, Angie Ang (’08) forged her own path by starting a management consulting business run and operated primarily by women. 

With women making up 42 percent of Booth’s full-time MBA student body, Chicago Booth remains at the forefront of advancing professional opportunities for women in the fields of business and economics.


Phyllis BourquePhyllis Bourque, oil and energy industry consultant, Austin, Texas, MBA '75

Phyllis Bourque made history by becoming the first female petroleum engineer at Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas, in 1969. She distinguished herself at Shell by ranking among the top 10 percent of the oil company’s engineering staff and becoming the first female engineer qualified to testify before the Texas Railroad Commission.

After getting married and moving to Chicago, Phyllis and her husband both earned their MBAs at Booth. Phyllis continued to break glass ceilings by becoming one of the first two female assistant vice presidents at the First National Bank of Chicago. Pennzoil, one of her clients at the bank, recruited her to develop the financial planning group for United Gas Pipeline, a unit that Pennzoil was spinning off as a separate company.  United Gas later named her vice president of marketing and subsequently vice president of gas supply– both firsts for women in the natural gas industry at that time. 

Her career after that point touched many different aspects of the energy industry, including senior vice president at Public Service Company of New Mexico in charge of both the gas supply operations and electric generation.  After returning to Shell Energy, Phyllis left the corporate world to begin her consulting career in 2001. She still consults primarily in cases involving natural gas, natural gas liquids, and electricity issues.

As the first female petroleum engineer at Shell, you were a pioneer in an industry that employed very few women. What was that experience like?

I was always in a man’s world, even in school. I graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1969 with a degree in physics and a minor in mathematics. I was usually the only woman in physics class, and as I advanced in mathematics, I was usually the only woman there as well. When I got to Shell as their first female petroleum engineer, I was a young woman faced with the question, "How do I work in a man’s world and still remain a woman?" I must say, I failed pretty miserably at that because I decided that I had to be more like man – go drinking with the group, play cards, play golf – and of course work harder and be smarter.

What path brought you from Houston to Chicago?

I got married and my husband was living in Chicago working for Western Electric. Shell really wanted to keep me, so they flew him to Houston and told him that they had plans to send me to New Orleans and that they would find him a good job in New Orleans. We talked about it, and, in the end, he said he just can’t let his wife’s employer find him a job. It was the era of the Women’s Movement for Equal Rights. I had jokingly given my husband a tie with little flying pigs that said “MCP" (which stood for male chauvinist pig, which he really wasn’t). But his pride was hurt. So I said ok, we will live in Chicago. He had been accepted to the University of Chicago and planned to attend the university full time to obtain his MBA.  I asked him to go to the evening program with me and he agreed.  We may have been one of the first married couples to get our MBA’s together. And we agreed that after we finished our MBAs, the next place we moved would be my decision.


Success is not measured by what everybody around you says success is.


You were hired at First National Bank of Chicago, one of the nation’s top lenders to the oil and gas producers. How did you go from engineering to banking?

First Chicago needed a petroleum engineer to not only develop loan agreements but to go out and evaluate the oil and gas producing properties that would be securing the loans. When I got there, the first thing I discovered was that every one of my counterparts had an MBA. They were from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Northwestern and Chicago. Those were the only schools that the First National Bank of Chicago recruited from. That’s it. They sent me to an accounting refresher course, and these guys were speaking Greek to me. I was totally lost. The banks really wanted you to have an MBA and if you didn’t have one, you didn’t advance, even with a specialty like mine. I had to have it. So, I went to the University of Chicago. I didn’t even apply anywhere else. I wanted Chicago because of its firm mathematical background. 

About a decade into your career, you had a son. How did you manage the balance between work life and family life?

There are times in your career when there is no way that you can balance family and career because the demands of the career are overwhelming. Your choice during those times is to either accept that you really can’t be the mother or the wife or the daughter or the sister that you really want to be because you’re going to devote your time to the business and that’s what the business demands. Period. Or you’re going to tell the business you can’t make that sacrifice, and you’re going to give up that career opportunity. You really have to think about it. And I did not. I did not think about it. You have to work at this balance in your life from the beginning. It just doesn’t come to you one day. I would tell young women today to stop. Really think about it before you make these choices. Don’t just accept what is in front of you. That’s very important.

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned in your career?

Success is not measured by what everybody around you says success is. Success is measured by many, many aspects of life: by the relationships you develop, by the happiness that you have, by the successes you have in not only your career but throughout your life in church, in sports activities, in your physical well-being. Looking back at my career and life, the biggest regret I have is having chased success in business more than I "worked" on my life as a whole – on the spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial aspects. Success is measured by all of those things. It’s not just one thing.

When I was being brought up, there was always “and” or “either/or.” You can’t have both. But I now believe that we can have both.  It truly is an “and’ world. That’s what you strive for—the “and”—to have the family and the career and the friendships and the relationships—all of it. You may not be able to have the pinnacle of success in being the chairman of the board, but you can rise to be a meaningful member, because you’ll have so much to give to whatever you do.  And remember that you always have a choice.


Sophie Kornowski-BonnetSophie Kornowski-Bonnet, Global Head Roche Partnering, Basel, Switzerland, MBA '90

Sophie Kornowski-Bonnet, PhD, is global head of Roche Partnering and a member of the Roche Corporate Executive Committee based at Roche’s headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. Her career has taken her from Paris to Chicago and New York.

She began at Abbott Diagnostics in France, first in regulatory affairs, then moved to Abbott Pharmaceuticals in Chicago and worked in market research before becoming a medical sales representative in New York. At Sanofi Winthrop, she held strategic marketing posts and ran the neuroscience business unit, then held various senior level posts at Merck-Sharp & Dohme Group in both the U.S. and France.

Kornowksi-Bonnet joined Roche France as general manager in March 2007 and was appointed head of Roche Partnering in February 2012. She holds a PhD in pharmacy from the Faculty of Pharmacy in Paris, France, and an MBA in Marketing and Finance from Chicago Booth.

What’s your single, best piece of advice for women just starting their business careers?

Firstly, I would advise them to look for a field in which they can become better than everybody else; in which they stand out from the crowd by virtue of the expertise they have acquired. Ideally it should be a field that they enjoy, but unfortunately that's something you can't tell at the outset. Additionally, I believe it is important to own the consequences of one’s own decisions. Many people want to grow fast in their careers and are ready to move on as soon as a new opportunity comes up. However, I would advise them to see the fruits of their work first before moving on to the next challenge.

Secondly, it's important to learn from others. By that I don't mean just line managers and colleagues in managerial positions. You can learn something from everyone.

How do you manage the work-life balance issue?

Until the age of 35, I focused on my career and thoroughly enjoyed it. Work came first. And if you stretch yourself, working is always fun. It’s very gratifying to interact with smart people and tackle great assignments.

My focus didn't change until my son was born. He's what matters most to me. I have learned how to reconcile career and family. When my son was younger I used to look after him in the morning, work during the day, spend the evening with him and then carry on working at night if I had to. For me it was exactly right. 

Everyone needs to find the right balance. You have to set priorities and organize your life according to what’s best for you. As for me, I have my own working methods and won’t compromise on that. In addition, leading a healthy lifestyle with enough sleep and exercise is important for me so I can push myself at work when I need to – because of intense projects or lots of business trips, for instance. It's important to be self-aware and draw the line when it comes to what’s important for you.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as a woman in your career, and how did you resolve it?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a woman is my inherent enthusiasm. When I have a great vision of what something could be, I’m ready to do anything to get there – putting in the hours, getting excited with people and being tough. But as a woman, you can be perceived as too tough, too pushy. I wasn’t born a diplomat, but at a more senior level, that's exactly the quality you need. I had to learn to transform myself from a speedboat into an ocean liner and I can tell you one thing: it’s a journey, however, being an ocean liner is great fun.


I wasn’t born a diplomat, but at a more senior level, that's exactly the quality you need.


What was the most valuable lesson you learned in your career?

To know your job inside out. My first job after pharmacy school was market research, where I learned a lot about data. Then I went into sales, listened to the customers and learned that the product is very different from what you think as a market researcher. This combination allowed me to read the market and understand it, which is important when fighting for a share of the market or evaluating potential acquisitions.

Wherever you go, make sure you’re known for the very thing that sets you apart.


Angie AngAngie Ang, Managing Principal, Affilion Advisory SB, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, MBA '08 (AXP-7)

Angie Ang is co-founder and managing principal of Affilion Advisory, a management consulting and corporate advisory firm based in Kuala Lumpur.

Before co-founding Affilion in 2005, Angie served 10 years as group general manager at TH Group Berhad, a Malaysian plantation and mining company. Ang was also a director at SpringHill Bioventures SB, a venture capital and private equity firm focusing on biotech and pharmaceutical investments in India, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and the United States. She also worked as a senior credit analyst at ABN AMRO AV in Singapore and, before that, as a division head at RHB Bank Berhad.

What’s the best piece of advice for women just starting their own business?

The most important piece of advice is, don’t let gender be an obstacle. If you have the competency to do something, you should do it. When we started our business, my two partners and I – we are all women – each had different skills and areas of expertise. That was important, that we each brought something different to the business.

We started working in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, and we wondered if we would face obstacles as women. But it wasn’t an issue. We work in Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, as well as the Middle East – all these places where you think we could be at a disadvantage because we are women – and we have not experienced such an incident. At the end of the day, if you are competent, you will be able to get your point across.

In my opinion, managing gender differences is just like managing different personalities, whether it is a man or a woman. My advice is to remain modest and humble, to keep an inquisitive mind, be able to empathize, share your views confidently and stay equitable.


Listen and empathize all the time, and that is how you gain trust and confidence.


What was the most valuable lesson you learned in your career?

Always treat people with respect and keep the relationship going. No matter how intelligent or competent you are, to succeed you need to have these qualities. Listen and empathize all the time, and that is how you can gain trust and confidence.

And don’t be afraid to seek help or advice. When I wanted to explore the business market in Dubai for the first time, I reached out to alumni in my Chicago Booth network. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t know if they would answer me, but I couldn’t worry about that. It turned out that 70 percent of the people I contacted responded to my email, and I ended up meeting with them in Dubai.

What one book do you recommend to women starting out in their business careers?

One of my favorite books to recommend is Thick Face, Black Heart: The Asian Path to Thriving, Winning and Succeeding by Chin-nig Chu. It talks about the power of endurance and how to live through the dark. If you want to be successful, you have to have the courage to risk disapproval. Be prepared that there will be setbacks and know that you can transform those challenges to your advantage.