Dean Erika James consistently raises the bar in higher education as an award-winning educator, leading expert in her field, and respected mentor who has paved the way for women leaders. On July 1, she kicked off a new chapter in her career as the first woman and first person of color to be appointed dean of the Wharton School in the institution’s 139-year history. During her first day on the job, she appeared on Good Morning America to discuss what’s next for Wharton and offer advice to students.
As the School embarks on a new era with Dean James at the helm, here’s a deeper look into her journey to Wharton and the impact she has made over the last 20 years.
Bridging Psychology and Business
Born in Bermuda to parents who were music teachers, a young Erika James moved to the U.S. when she was two years old. She grew up in Sherman, Texas, where she graduated high school as senior class president. Although many of her classmates remained in Texas for college, Erika wanted a change of pace. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Pomona College, one of the nation’s top liberal arts institutions and part of the Claremont Colleges, located in California.
Erika honed her passion for human behavior by studying at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree and PhD in organizational psychology. A nudge from her dissertation advisor led her to embark on a career in academia, and she’s been on the rise ever since.
At Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, Erika got the chance to teach part-time MBA students. At the time, a major oil company was facing a class-action race discrimination lawsuit. “What I learned from teaching and working with those students was that (the) organization was really facing a crisis,” Erika said, in a Darden faculty video. “I was able to combine my interest in workplace diversity with a burgeoning field of crisis leadership, and that has defined my academic pursuit for the past (20) years or so.”
Research and Expertise
- Erika is a trained organizational psychologist and leading expert on crisis leadership, workplace diversity, and management strategy.
- She worked as an expert consultant for the country’s top and most prestigious firms on building trust in the workplace.
- Erika believes in the power of business and education to transform communities. She advocates for meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration, scholarship, teaching, and excellence through diversity and inclusion.
- She has written a number of case studies on high-profile leadership challenges, with examples involving Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Black Entertainment Television (BET), and Martha Stewart.
Over the decades, Erika’s research into crisis leadership, management, and workplace discrimination — particularly in corporate America — has been extensive. Her published works offer strategies for leaders to grow from their mistakes, build trust in their organizations, create opportunity, and make positive decisions under pressure. She has spoken at conferences across the country to encourage aspiring leaders at every stage of their careers to find their voice. Currently, she’s working on a new book on crisis leadership to be completed this fall.
“As a psychologist working in business education, I learned early on that understanding human behavior and the motivations that drive behavior are pivotal for leadership,” Erika said. “My scholarship in both diversity and crisis leadership has born that out theoretically, and my experience as an academic leader, a consultant, and a corporate director bear that out practically. I have no doubt that taking the time to truly understand the people that comprise the Wharton community will influence my thinking and the direction of the School during my tenure as dean.”
Championing Diversity at Darden
In 2001, Erika and her family — her husband Jimmie James, an ExxonMobil executive, and their two children, Jordan and Alexandra — moved to northern Virginia, and she was soon appointed to the faculty at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where she taught for the next 13 years.
At Darden, she became a mentor and champion of young women in the MBA program. She also pioneered a new position: Associate Dean of Diversity, created to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment for faculty and students. In 2012, she was promoted to Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education, and developed groundbreaking executive education programs, including the Women’s Leadership Program.
Of her scholarly insights, Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett said on Penn Today, “Erika has consistently and constructively drawn upon her own scholarship in the areas of leadership development, organizational behavior, gender and racial diversity, and crisis leadership, applying her own insights into human behavior to foster a work culture that allows people to thrive personally and professionally.”
Awards and Accolades
- Erika has won multiple awards as an educator, accomplished consultant, and researcher.
- She was named as one of the “Top 10 Women of Power in Education” by Black Enterprise and was named in the “Power 100” list by Ebony Magazine.
- She was also awarded the Earl Hill Jr. Faculty Achievement and Diversity Award from The Consortium, an organization committed to increasing diversity in business, starting with graduate school admissions.
Milestones as Goizueta’s Dean
In 2014, Erika left Darden to become dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School — becoming the School’s first female dean and first African-American dean. During her six-year tenure, she would spark a culture of collaboration that continues today.
One core focus for Erika was growing, as well as diversifying, the faculty at Goizueta, which required her to engage in candid conversations with constituents across the school. By the end of her first term as dean, Erika had helped build a roster of junior faculty and seasoned scholars in behavioral and decision-based research, business analytics, and health care innovation. Her influence significantly boosted female faculty hires.
Erika led the redesign of the undergraduate business curriculum, integrating immersive learning, technology, and partnerships with Emory’s liberal arts curriculum. She spearheaded the launch of a master’s of science in business analytics program — Goizueta’s first and only specialized master’s degree. Under her leadership, Goizueta also focused on meaningful corporate engagement, creating a research-based corporate think tank, hosting workshops on community-building and unconscious bias, and establishing an innovation and entrepreneurship lab open to all Emory students.
Taking the Helm at Wharton
During her appearance on Good Morning America, Erika discussed the importance and responsibility of her platform as Wharton’s new dean.
“This is an awesome responsibility,” she told journalist Robin Roberts. “Not only in terms of the magnitude of being the dean of the Wharton School, but so many eyes are watching me (and other) people who are in these positions to really make a difference. While my focus has to be primarily and predominantly on ensuring that we take the country’s first, biggest, and best business school and make it even better, that only will happen if we ensure that 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.”
Looking ahead, Erika said, “Wharton has a profound responsibility to prepare our students not only to meet today’s challenges, but to prepare them for anticipating and leading the world for tomorrow’s opportunities. That means our scholarship has to foresee what will be needed by business leaders to advance industries and societies, and our curricula has to prepare students for that future.
“I am excited to work with the Wharton community in this regard. We have the faculty expertise, staff ingenuity, alumni engagement, and student ambition to bring this to fruition.”
— Gloria Yuen
Posted: July 24, 2020