In an expansion of Wharton’s successful Tarnopol Lecture Series, Dean Erika James is meeting with business leaders to host candid conversations on the urgent, far-reaching issues challenging our world today — starting with the topic of race.

Dean Erika James’ new ongoing discussion series “Beyond Business” is spotlighting the complex, pressing issues impacting organizations across the U.S.

In the first three lectures on LinkedIn Live — “Race & The Entrepreneur,” “Race & The Selling of America,” and “Race & Corporate Power” — Dean James is joining business leaders across sectors to discuss topics such as the impact of systematic racism on Black entrepreneurs, the evolving role of Black culture and activism in marketing, and the impact firms can deliver through diversity and philanthropic commitments.

We spoke with the dean ahead of the inaugural lecture to learn more about how the series came together, and the importance of addressing these issues before a national audience.

What was the thought process behind the name “Beyond Business”?

Whether one is in education, healthcare, government, or the arts, a fundamental understanding of business basics matters. Just like knowing which organizational structures will lead to efficiencies and effective outcomes and understanding how money flows in an organization is critical to business results, so too does a keen insight into the people and interpersonal dynamics that comprise an organization and its stakeholders. In our country, and in many societies around the world, race factors into how we engage with and respond to experiences and outcomes across all sectors.

As a business school, we have a responsibility to provide the tools that will allow future leaders the ability to listen, talk, and learn from the experiences of others when it comes to race and its impact.

Why is it important to talk about race right now?

I think our biggest issue around race is that we are still uncomfortable having a candid discussion about it without feeling fearful or offended. As a result, we generally avoid the topic altogether. Letting something fester, or assuming malintent from the silence, is dangerous and I think we see the implications of our inability to talk productively about race playing out in the increasing polarization of the country.

“What and whose expertise is engaged, and what voices are not being heard, matters.”

What does Wharton bring to the table in this discussion?

Our faculty are grounded in using data in a way that informs meaningful and complex business and societal questions. Race can often be emotionally-laden, and Wharton can offer an evidenced-based and therefore dispassionate way of studying race in organizations and in translating that scholarship to the curriculum. As the country’s largest business school, with reach from pre-college students to C-suite executives, we can inform and influence a broad group of students and other stakeholders.

Why a LinkedIn lecture series?

A lecture series is the best of all worlds. It allows us to leverage the expertise of our faculty not only for the benefit of Wharton students (both undergraduate and graduate) but to also engage with a national or even global audience. With a class, students can get so caught up in the academic aspects that they don’t truly experience the discussion. We are fortunate to have incredible faculty at Wharton who teach classes on diversity, inclusive of race, but as with most popular classes we can’t always meet the student demand.

Are you concerned about discussing such difficult topics in a public forum? What motivates you to push forward?

As a new leader of a very prominent and storied institution like Wharton, I know that I have entered a highly public situation. That I am also a “first” in this role means there will be even more scrutiny. So to talk openly about a topic like race, for which I don’t fully understand the history within the School, and to be in a moment in time where there is considerable emotion around race, feels a little scary. Yet this is what it means to step into leadership — doing the hard things because you know it will make the organization better.

My goal is to identify the unique ways in which Wharton can advance the dialogue and address some of the complexities about race and diversity both in our school and in our scholarship. I’m comforted in knowing that I have supporters, colleagues, students and alumni who care about these issues and want and expect Wharton to lead in this effort.

How has your own research prepared you for this moment?

It’s really uncanny that I would be appointed dean at this moment, in the midst of racial unrest and a growing awareness of inequity in this country as well as in the midst of the COVID crisis. My research from the time I left graduate school has focused on these two exact areas: diversity and crisis leadership.

When I was pursuing my PhD, I was eager to use my research to explain phenomena that I observed in organizations — mainly that women and minorities were promoted at a slower rate than white men. This line of research has allowed me to have a sensitivity for the more subtle ways in which inequity plays out in organizations. It’s not always about blatant discrimination, but often more invisible structures and patterns that lead to different experiences. I have worked to foster environments, cultures, and systems that promote inclusion, equity, and positive work relationships. Unless everyone is able to fully participate and be valued at work, an organization can’t truly be competitive — we run the risk of leaving talent on the table. My job at Wharton is to ensure we capitalize on all the talent that exists within our students, faculty, and staff.

“This is what it means to step into leadership — doing the hard things because you know it will make the organization better.”

What and whose expertise is engaged, and what voices are not being heard, matters. My research on crisis leadership has shown that people’s tendency during a crisis is to become more insular and limited in information gathering and sharing. I’ve tried to show that opening up to a more diverse array of information rather than relying solely on one source of input is likely to yield better outcomes in decision-making (e.g. engaging not only with legal counsel, but Human Resources, customer input, and Public Relations, etc.) Finally, leaders have a responsibility to learn from the crisis once it has been resolved. This is ultimately what helps organizations continue to thrive.

These are some of the lessons that I have been trying to heed from my research as I now lead Wharton through the pandemic. It is a difficult time for all of us and things have changed dramatically in ways that are disappointing, but I am supremely confident in the leadership that exists throughout Wharton and know that we will thrive in the midst of and throughout this crisis.

Posted: October 7, 2020

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