Dr. Erika James talks becoming Wharton School's 1st Black and female dean

James is making history as the first woman and person of color to lead the prestigious business school at the University of Pennsylvania, a role she begins Wednesday.
6:54 | 07/01/20

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Transcript for Dr. Erika James talks becoming Wharton School's 1st Black and female dean
powerhouse, an incredibly talented woman who has been on Ebony's power 100 list and is now making history. In February Dr. Erika James was named Dean of the Wharton school of the university of Pennsylvania becoming the first woman and the first person of color to lead the prestigious business school. Today is her first day on the job. She is joining us live right now from Philadelphia. It is wonderful. I have been looking forward to meeting you and to sharing you with our audience on your very first day on the job. Congratulations. How are you feeling this morning? Thank you, robin. I feel great. I'm excited. It's a beautiful day here in Philadelphia and a perfect day to get started on a new job. So what is the first thing you want to accomplish there? Well, you know, had you asked me this question back in February when my announcement was made I would have said, something very different, but in the past couple of months the world has really changed. We have focused on racial justice, we have the covid pandemic, so really the impact that those events have had on higher education means that my first set of initiatives will have to be facing how do we bring together an incredibly successful student experience for our students when they come back in the fall? And, Dr. James, your resume is quite impressive and your work in research has focused on issues of crisis leadership, workplace diversity. You know as you just spoke to what we're going through right now in this country. So what is it that companies, corporations can do to step up and to build on this momentum that we're feeling? Thank you for that question, robin. Now is really an important moment in our nation's history and we've seen the impacts and the focus that executives across all companies in industries have had around racial justice and so many of them have written really passionate letters to their communities and stakeholders about the need to do things differently. I would argue, though, it can't stop with writing a letter. It has to include many more activities that focus on every aspect of where there are points of opportunities for bias in organizations that includes the recruiting practices and includes the hiring practices, the pay practices, the promotion practices, one of the things that is very clear as an opportunity is to expand where people look for talent. We often say that there's not a pipeline of diverse talent. Well, there's not a pipeline if you look in a narrow set of places for that talent and one of the things companies can do differently is broaden where they go to identify where there is possibly really exceptional talent that might be untapped. And I believe in performance, not promises. We've been hearing promises but now it's about the performance of these companies stepping up and schools such as Wharton is doing and when you look at that and you see that people are really wanting to make this change, we see women and people of color, they're graduating from college. They're joining the workforce and corporations but they're not reaching the upper echelons in these corporations. In your opinion what is the missing link here? What is the gap? So there are a couple of things and clearly there are systemic issues within organizations that prohibit or impede Pentagon for people of color and women. Many years ago I did my doctoral dissertation on looking at the kind of networks, certainly and informal networks, that people create in organizations to help facilitate their career progression and the networks for white Americans and corporate America look different from the networks of plaque folks in corporate America and the access that they have to people who are in the room making decisions around the projects, the pay and the promotion impedes or can facilitate progress and so we need to make sure that the relationships that people are able to really establish and build can help promote the kinds of diversity at the upper levels in the organization. Relationships, that's what it boils down to. You're so right about that if a young person, Dr. James, is watching this morning and aspires to be in a position that you are in right now, what is your advice to them? You know, so many graduation speakers have opined on what advice to give to young people, and I boil it down to something that's simple. We have to change our own self-talk. Oftentimes we impede our own progress because we don't have the confidence to say, yes, I'm ready for this role. Yes, I can meet these challenges, yes, I have the expertise and the background that's necessary and when we get out of our own way and truly bet on ourselves, that's when we start to create other people's confidence in us, so I think my strongest piece of advice to young people is to always bet on yourself. That is a great piece of advice. Do you feel a sense of responsibility in the position that you're in right now? Here we are in 2020 still talking about a first like this and we all long for the time that it's just commonplace, that you see someone worthy as yourself who has worked very hard, who has done everything, all the right things so what do you say to that? Do you feel a sense of responsibility? This is an awesome responsibility. Not just in terms of the magnitude of the role of being the Dean. The Wharton school but so many eyes are watching me and so many eyes are watching you and people who are in these positions to really make a difference, so, yes, I personally feel that while my focus has to be exclusively or not exclusively but primarily and predominantly on ensuring we take the country's first biggest and best business school and make it even better, that only will happen if we ensure we have the right kind of talent in the right positions and I believe that talent exists everywhere and comes in all colors and packages. I couldn't agree with you more. Well, you got some work to do. This is your first day on the job so thank you very much. It is. For sharing a bit of your first morning with us. Very excited for you and very proud of you, Dr. James. Thank you for the example you are continuing to set for all of us. Thank you, robin. Delighted to be here. All right. You take care.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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