The truly inspiring career path of Erika James

Erika James is the first women and the first African-American to be appointed as the dean of The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in its 139-year history.

Pretty impressive, right? But how exactly did she get there?

Erika James’ education and career

Described as an “award-winning scholar and teacher and a strong proven leader“, Erika began her successful career at Pomona College, where she studied psychology. Back in those days, she dreamed of becoming a management or human resources consultant.

However, after attending the University of Michigan, where she achieved a master’s degree and Ph.D. in organizational psychology, James was convinced by one of her professors to work as an academic for just one year.

This one year in academia turned into a long, happy and fulfilling career. Shortly after finishing at the University of Michigan, James worked as an assistant professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business and as a visiting professor at Harvard Business School.

James then served as a the senior associate dean for executive education at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, where she worked to offer lifelong learning opportunities and executive education.

Before her most recent role as dean at The University of Pennsylvania, James was a successful and highly-regarded dean at Goizueta Business School at Emory.

At Emory, James introduced and led an effort to build an innovation and entrepreneurship lab open to all students on campus. She grew the Goizueta faculty by 25%, building a critical mass of junior faculty and seasoned scholars in key academic areas. James also successfully undertook a significant redesign of the undergraduate business curriculum, integrating immersive learning, technology and partnership with Emory College’s liberal arts curriculum.

Now, as the Dean of the Wharton School, most of James research and work addresses three challenges that global organization face: 1) crisis leadership — being prepared for, managing through, and learning from crisis; 2) women in leadership — gender equity at executive levels, and women emerging in leadership; and 3) the commute — professional couples in commuter marriages and how it relates to talent acquisition and retention.

To top all these achievements off, James was also named one of the Top 10 Women of Power in Education by Black Enterprise in 2014 and one of the Power 100 by Ebony Magazine the same year as one of “the most influential and intriguing men and women in Black America.”

What is Erika James advice?

James says that her biggest advice to people is to always let the results speak for themselves. As she is often the only women or person of color in the room, James says that “you should always have your results lead the conversation”, adding that we need to have a certain level of confidence in our skills and experiences in order to be prepared for the next level in our career. “You should always choose to bet on yourself. [For me] that’s been the motivating advice that I had to pay attention to in my own career journey,” James added.

What we can take away

I think we can all agree that Erika James is a true inspiration – in a relatively short space of time, she has achieved a lot.

I personally think the key thing that we can all take away from her journey is to always work our hardest and to have confidence in our ability. We should work hard to create results, and once we’ve reached the desired results, we should demonstrate how we are successful and how we have helped contribute.

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