"Innovation comes from diverse populations"

Erika James  / Photo:  LARA WILLIAMSON  University of Pennsylvania
Erika James / Photo: LARA WILLIAMSON University of Pennsylvania

Prof. Erika James, the first woman and person of color to become dean of the Wharton School tells "Globes that diverse cultures and people in an organization breeds innovation.

Two months ago, Prof. Erika H. James made history when she became the first woman and the first person of color appointed as the dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The school is the oldest institute of its kind in the US, and one of the leading academic institutes for business administration in the world.

James, whose research interests lie mainly with effective leadership in crisis situations and on workplace diversity, assumed office during a health and economic crisis, at a time when America is engulfed by fundamental public discourse about racial discrimination. Her appointment received much media attention, from a profile published by the "Financial Times" to a guest appearance on one of America’s most popular chat shows, "Good Morning America," on her first day on the job. "My strongest advice to young people," she said on the show, "is to always bet on yourself."

"I believe we all bear personal responsibility," she explains in an interview with "Globes." "Though there are external challenges - racism, sexism, structural stumbling blocks that will make it harder on certain groups to reach the same success as others - that is only half of the story, in my opinion. The second half is whether we let those challenges define us and limit us.

"It might be that we are forced to do things differently, make different decisions, work harder. But I don’t want people to give up a measure of the power and control they possess in such situations. We have a personal responsibility to find the avenue that will enable us to succeed. Sometimes, that means leaving the organization you are part of and moving to another place with a different culture, norms, and customs.

"When I say bet on yourself, it means that when you have the power to control things it must be part of the equation. Don’t listen to all the naysayers who say you can’t do this or that, or that there are structural factors that will prevent you from succeeding. Such factors might exist, but other factors mean you can succeed."

The interview with James was held following an announcement of a $10 million donation made by investor and billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, which will fully fund the studies of 60 Israeli students at Wharton over the upcoming decade, six students each year. The scholarship fund Milner and his wife established is aimed at Israelis in the broader definition of the word: students who completed a mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, gained an undergraduate degree from an Israeli university, or worked at an Israeli company for five years.

This donation, Milner (who also holds an Israeli citizenship and who has lived in Israel for five years) told "Globes," connects "two places that are dear to me and close to my heart."

Milner, who came to Wharton as an MBA student on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, is not the only famous name attached to the school, which is under the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. US President Donald Trump is a Wharton alumnus, as are his daughter Ivanka and his son Don Jr. Tesla founder Elon Musk, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai are just some of the other famous alumni. Bank of Israel Governor Professor Amir Yaron came to Jerusalem straight from Wharton, where he was a professor of banking and finance until his current appointment.

"It is such a generous gift," James says, especially "in the current environment, in which students that want a business degree find it harder and harder to achieve because it is expensive." It is still unclear whether the scholarship will increase the number of Israeli students attending Wharton each year - but according to James, it will increase the number of students who can afford to. "I definitely think we can expect to see an increase in applications from Israel."

"Innovation results from an amalgamation of races and genders"

James (51) grew up in Texas, in the American deep south, and her stepfather, she says, was Jewish. "My step-grandmother, whom I was very close with, Grandma Jean, was Jewish. I spent a lot of time with her growing up, and I had an opportunity to experience many cultures and many races, and I think it contributed to a desire to find ways to bring people closer together instead of letting the differences between us divide and discriminate against us."

The corporate sector, and the business schools, James says, have no choice but to take part in the public discourse currently unfolding in the US. "Businesses are an inseparable part of society. They are made up of people who are personally dealing with these issues and bringing them with them to their places of work, and to the business world. Therefore, business leaders must be open-minded, must understand what is happening with their employees, and how the things that are happening within the company impact their employees.

"Additionally, what enables businesses to succeed is innovation, and innovation is born out of diversity, meaning people from different backgrounds who have different thoughts and experiences, people from different races and genders and cultures that come together. Businesses must learn how to manage that diversity to benefit from the innovation it enables. They have no choice but to be involved."

Is that a demand or an expectation you face from your students, for example, or from the faculty members?

"I believe that the new generation has other expectations from their academic environment and their places of work. They are pushing their faculty members, their leaders, to be much more open and progressive concerning matters of diversity. It could very well be that, without the pushing of young people, we would have seen a lot more status quo."

Could you discuss your personal experiences, as someone whose earlier career occurred before this issue started being at the heart of American discourse?

"I decided to work in business administration schools. And historically, these schools tend to be dominantly male, both among the faculty and the students. I was a minority in that regard for a long time, both numerically and demographically. In different stages of my career, I faced challenges, whether because I am a woman or because I am African-American, and sometimes it was both.

"At the start of my career, when I was a relatively new faculty member and I started a family, there weren’t many women with young children among the faculty of the business school I was working at. And I faced a lot of criticism from some of my male colleagues about how I was capable of leaving my children with a nanny. They had a hard time reconciling the fact that I could be a faculty member and a researcher and a teacher, and a woman and a mother, and make choices they haven’t seen before. There were some instances where I encountered opposition from my male colleagues about making the wrong choice by not staying at home with my family. That is one example that still aggravates me a little after many years."

Managers are more accessible on Zoom

James, who holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, came to Wharton from Emory University in Atlanta, where she served as the dean of its business school. She took on her current position in early July, in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, and changed not only a place of employment but her city of residence. "It was certainly an interesting start for the position," is how she defines it.

The academic year is already fully underway in Wharton, and it is currently taught completely remotely, after a last-minute decision. James admits that both the students and the faculty are disappointed, but she insists the quality of teaching is maintained, indeed giving examples of cases where the student experience could even be improved upon: managers in the business sector, it turns out, are willing to join in on Zoom for an hour for leadership workshops and share their insights with the students, while convincing them to get on a plane and visit the campus for two days was much harder. "Accessibility to people is much improved."

One lesson James offers her colleagues in Israel’s academic institutes, besides keeping a close eye on the general state of the pandemic, is to communicate about the situation - as much as possible. "Our communication with the students and faculty is important, but it is imperative to understand that because things are changing so rapidly and so frequently, what we said one day was very different to what we had to say a day or two later. It can frustrate some people, but that is part of taking action during a crisis, especially if that crisis is a pandemic."

As someone who researches crises, can you already identify lessons for the business community? Or is it still too soon?

"There are some basic lessons that hold true regardless of the nature of the crisis. As leaders, we have the responsibility to think ahead and to anticipate. We might not have anticipated a pandemic or the quick spread of the virus, but we can expect that there will always be things that disrupt the status quo. How we can adapt and change ourselves accordingly - that is something leaders should always be aware of.

"And in this crisis, we saw a global wave of the virus’ spread. Leaders can learn from other industries, from companies and organizations in other parts of the world that may have already been impacted by the pandemic, from what other countries are experiencing - and take it all into account throughout their decision-making process. These things are crucial for every effective crisis leadership."

It sounds challenging, considering everything that needs to be dealt with at the moment. It is unclear whether people can find the mental capacity or even just the time to look at other industries and countries.

"That is what sets the truly accomplished leaders apart. Leadership is not just a matter of one person, it is also about delegating the different areas of responsibility related to the crisis to a group of people. However, it is also really easy to become exclusively focused on the response to the crisis and forget about the fact that there is still a core business that needs to function, and that these two things should happen simultaneously. If you are only focused on responding to the crisis, when we emerge from it you may find yourselves falling behind the competitors, who continued forging forward. You can’t put all your focus on management and on responding to the crisis, you need to pay attention to the business as well."

en.globes.co.il - on September 16, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Erika James  / Photo:  LARA WILLIAMSON  University of Pennsylvania
Erika James / Photo: LARA WILLIAMSON University of Pennsylvania
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