The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has appointed long-time academic leader Erika H. James as its next dean, the college announced this week. James, who currently serves as dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, is the first woman and first African-American to lead the Wharton School in its 139-year history.
“It’s a humbling privilege to be in this position,” James tells CNBC Make It, while explaining that this isn’t the first time she’s made history in her career.
In 2014, when James was first appointed dean at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, she broke glass ceilings as the first African-American woman to be dean in the school’s history, as well as the first African-American woman to lead a top business school program in the nation.
In this role, she helped to build an innovation and entrepreneurship lab for students on campus, and also helped to grow the Goizueta faculty by 25%.
Though being a “first” comes with a lot of pressure, James says she hopes she’s not the last woman or African-American to step into her role. “My hope is that we start to normalize this experience and one day we won’t have to start stories with ‘What does it feel like to be the first’ because people just become so accustomed to it.”
A graduate of Pomona College of the Claremont Colleges, in California, James earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and had plans of one day becoming a management consultant or HR consultant. But, she says, after attending the University of Michigan to earn her master’s degree and Ph.D. in organizational psychology, her dissertation adviser suggested that she try working in academia for at least a year.
“I got the bug in that first year,” she says. “On the teaching side, seeing the impact I was having by virtue of being at the front of the classroom and helping to spark interesting ideas for people and provide opportunities for their academic engagement just became more and more of a powerful motivator for me.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan, James went on to work as an assistant professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business and a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. Prior to serving as dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory, she also served as senior associate dean for executive education at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
As someone who has commonly been the only, or one of very few women or people of color in a room, James says her biggest advice for other professionals who are navigating a similar career path is to always let their results speak for themselves.
“You should always have your results lead the conversation,” she says. You need to have a certain level of confidence in your skills and experiences in order to be prepared for the next level in your career, she says.
“And then lastly,” she adds, “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, who has been referred to by University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann as “an award-winning scholar and teacher and a strong, proven leader,” is scheduled to effectively start her new role on July 1. She will succeed Geoff Garrett, who is moving on to become dean of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.