Pageant Hopefuls Seek New Start

When Jamie Kern Lima was selected by her peers to be the class speaker at Columbia Business School's 2004 commencement ceremony, she felt no hesitation about making a speech in front of hundreds of people. Her time as Miss Washington USA 2000, a year when she clocked thousands of miles on her car giving speeches around the state, coupled with the experience of competing in the Miss USA pageant, prepared her to tackle any public speaking engagement without hesitation, she says. That confidence, combined with her MBA degree, has carried through to her career as an entrepreneur, where she's made a splash in the beauty world as co-founder and chief executive officer of IT Cosmetics. The company's products are sold on the QVC shopping channel and the business is slated to have $12 million in retail sales this year, Lima says.

"Sitting down at a Miss USA interview is not that much different than sitting down with a buyer at QVC and explaining why our products are phenomenal," she says. "It is that same kind of skill set."

Lima is one of more than a dozen women Bloomberg Businessweek found who have competed in the past decade or so as finalists in the Miss America and Miss USA pageants and obtained MBA degrees. They are a diverse group of women, some of whom have broken boundaries, like Tracy Xinyue Chang, the first Chinese American to win the Miss New York USA title, and Mia Benoit, the first African American to snag the Miss Illinois USA title. These 14 women have gone on to get their MBA degrees from institutions like Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business & Management and New York University's Stern School of Business. They've embarked on diverse careers that include working for Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and technology startups.

All of the women featured in the slide show say the year they spent as a state pageant winner gave them a toolbox of business skills that are invaluable to their current roles in the business world. For example, one Miss America finalist, Megan Bennett, now working in marketing, says her role as Miss Kansas 2004 required her to be "a marketing director, public relations director, business development director, booking agent, advocate, professional entertainer, and public speaker all rolled into one."

The experience of participating in a pageant is in many ways ideal preparation for the business world, says Art McMaster, president and chief executive officer of the Miss America Organization, which runs the Miss America pageant. To impress the judges, the women must learn how to market and brand themselves. He has noticed more Miss America finalists than ever before deciding to go on to graduate school, and says he's not surprised many go on to get their MBAs and obtain high-powered jobs in the business world.

"Miss America may be talking with schoolchildren in Nebraska on Monday, and on Wednesday she is in Washington, D.C., meeting with senators," he says. "Business skills have to come into effect because there is a different audience at every single event."

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Photographer: Craig Sjodin/Getty Images

 
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