NEW YORK, May 5 (Reuters) - When Marilyn Caton started her MBA studies, she never imagined learning to bluff her way to big pots at the poker table.
Yet that is exactly what the second-year student at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management has been studying every week.
In a free pilot program offered with the educational site Poker Powher, Caton and 98 other female students have been learning from university faculty about negotiation, decision-making and emotional intelligence.
They test those strategies with a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em, a popular poker variant. The aim is not to clean up at the annual World Series of Poker, but to apply these skills in corporate environments.
After all, what is a boardroom but a place where power players read each other and make high-stakes decisions with the best available information at the time?
"These skills are hugely applicable," said Caton, who on her most recent session ended up 90% in virtual chips, with the help of some stone-cold bluffing while holding nothing but two pair.
"A lot of these soft skills like negotiation, leadership, and advocating for yourself, you can put into play in the office on Day One."
Every Wednesday, 99 women gather virtually – some full-time Kellogg students, some part-time, and some executive MBA candidates – for a two-hour session.
The first hour is devoted to faculty insight from professors like Victoria Medvec, an expert in negotiation and decision-making. The second hour includes coaching from real-life poker champs like Melanie Weisner.
Students then break out into groups of nine to play a few hands, each table guided by a poker expert.
Kellogg and Poker Powher hope to turn the six-session extracurricular trial into a more formal offering next winter. The ultimate goal is to drive achievement in corporate America.
Instilling confidence and risk-taking in the workforce should propel careers and improve female representation in the nation's C-suites, said Medvec, who is executive director of Kellogg's Center for Executive Women.
"A lot of women in their careers tend to be risk-averse. What we're telling them, and what poker teaches them, is that inaction can lead to regret."
Poker also teaches future leaders to be aware of emotional intelligence, Medvec said.
"Read others' reactions, and be careful about the messages you are giving out. How can I be aggressive, but not be perceived as aggressive? There are so many great lessons that we want our students to get."
Guest speakers include author and poker pro Maria Konnikova. The longtime New Yorker magazine writer embarked on her own poker journey under the tutelage of famed player Erik Seidel, ended up winning hundreds of thousands of dollars at professional tournaments, and then wrote a book about her experiences, "The Biggest Bluff."
While Kellogg faculty handle the academic and research-oriented aspects, the gaming know-how is spearheaded by Poker Powher, founded by Jenny Just of investment firm PEAK6 with the goal of teaching a million women how to play the game.
Poker's strategic savvy could come in especially handy given the rise in female employment during the pandemic. More than 2.5 million women have left the workforce over the last year, according to U.S. employment data, often because of the competing responsibilities of work, family and schooling.
Successful re-entry into the workforce as the nation gets through this crisis will take aggression, some calculated moves, and a willingness to bet big on oneself.
"COVID-19 has been very bad for women, as we have paid the biggest price," said Medvec. "I'm focused on helping women come back into the workforce, to take risks, to move ahead – and this program could help give women the confidence to apply for that next role."
Participants will not suddenly turn into poker champs, but students develop skills they can use in their careers.
"After one or two lessons, I can get you to overcome your hesitations," said Erin Lydon, Poker Powher's managing director and general manager. "After enough lessons, I can make you fearless. That's what I want to do."
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