Listen to this article
“I start my full-time MBA at Oxford on Monday,” the email from Halla Koppel began. “And [I] have the due date for my first child two days later.
“While those are two relatively normal activities for people in their late twenties and thirties to do, I am surprised by the shocked reaction I get from peers,” she continues. “In my view [having a child and going to business school] should be possible to complete successfully in parallel.”
As business schools puzzle over how to attract more women students to their full-time MBA programmes — in 2014, nearly half of the top 100 MBA courses in the Financial Times global rankings admitted 30 per cent or fewer women on to their programmes — Ms Koppel’s forthcoming experience might provide some clues.
She is well aware that many will be intrigued to see how she manages, but manage she is determined to do. Her record to date suggests it would be unwise to bet against her.
With a degree in drama from a UK university under her belt, Ms Koppel returned to her native Iceland on graduation and became a theatre, film and television actress. She added singer-songwriter to her résumé and took on roles in musicals, then went on to be a TV presenter for the Icelandic version of The X Factor, the talent show for pop artists.
Following the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, she decided to travel to the UK to stay with friends. Although Reykjavik was a long way from the site of the eruption, the atmosphere was still corrosive, she says. “The glossy surfaces inside houses became matt. You could feel it [the dust] in your throat; it was like acid.” She has not been back since.
In London Ms Koppel ran gyms and spas for several years, which sparked her interest in general management. So she decided to go to business school and sat the GMAT business school admissions test — where she became one of the rare breed of candidates to score more than 700.
“It is a bit of a different background,” says Ms Koppel of her career to date, “but I think it is all relevant.”
In her spare time, meanwhile, Ms Koppel learnt to ride a motorcycle and took up mountaineering. In 18 months she climbed four of the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountains of each of the seven continents, and visited Antarctica. After falling pregnant, she continued to travel: even before the baby is born she will have visited 15 countries on five continents. “[The baby] will probably come out speaking several languages,” jokes Ms Koppel.
Ms Koppel is undaunted by the prospects of the coming year. “This is the right time for me to do an MBA and it is the right time for me to have a baby,” she says.
“I think it will all be challenging, but if someone can be an Olympic rower and an MBA, I am sure I can have a baby and do an MBA.”
Deferment was out of the question, she says. “A year from now she [the baby]will be one — and that will be a nightmare.”
Once accepted by Oxford’s Saïd school she had lengthy discussions with staff there, who have since put provisions in place to support her.
“They will provide me with a room to breast-feed in, will film classes I might miss and my key card works on the back door [of the school] so I can stumble across to my house.”
Support comes from family and friends as well. Her mother, for example, will be living with her to begin with, having arranged with her employer, Icelandair, to work remotely from the UK.
“Everyone has been super-supportive,” says Ms Koppel. “This is how I believe it should be. [But] you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask for it.”
With so few women in management positions, this is an issue that Ms Koppel thinks should be addressed head on if things are to change. “It’s just something we all need to get used to.”
Ms Koppel will share her experience throughout her one-year MBA