3 Lessons on Building a Big Career from Wharton’s First Female Dean

4 min readJun 15, 2021

Dean Erika James knows a few things about rising to the top and breaking barriers along the way. The first woman and first person of color to become Dean of The Wharton School, James climbed from psychology grad student, to respected academic, to leader of what she described on Good Morning America as “America’s first, biggest, and best business school.”

The journey taught her plenty of lessons about how other ambitious women who want to make a difference can conquer self-doubt, navigate environments that hold them back, and help lift each other up. She recently shared a handful of these lessons as part of a Q&A with members of The Wharton Alumnae Founders & Funders Association (WAFFA), co-hosted by Shannon Grant and Gayatri Karandikar in June of 2021.

1. Your best mentors won’t necessarily look like you

WAFFA might be a female-focused organization, but during her conversation with members, James shared that her most impactful mentors often didn’t share her gender or background.

“Most of my formal mentors have largely been white men,” she commented, “That often times surprises people because you assume that you would be sought out by, or you would seek, people who are similar to you. And yet it’s been people who were quite different from me in a variety of different domains that have been the most proactive about wanting to support my career.”

This isn’t just true for her, James feels. While it’s great to connect with those from a similar background, she urged the audience not to overlook mentors who are very different from you. “If there is any advice that I would offer, it’s recognizing that support and guidance and mentorship can come from a variety of sources. We should not limit ourselves to thinking we should look to a certain kind of person to help us,” she said.

2. If you can’t thrive, leave (or fight together)

Organizations like WAFFA celebrate women helping women in their careers, but as one participant noted, the real world can be quite a different experience. In cutthroat fields like finance, female professionals are likely to behave as fierce competitors, rather than as allies. How should ambitious women who care about gender equality handle those kinds of situations, one questioner wondered.

James offered straight-forward, two-part advice. First, if your organization pits women against each other, that might not be the right place to build your career.

“I think it has more to do with the culture of that organization or industry than it has to do with the individual women,” James said of female infighting. “My inclination is to believe that most people have good intentions. And if they are engaging in ways that are inconsistent with what we would perceive as positive intentions, then it’s likely that they’re in an environment that has fostered or encouraged or rewarded that kind of behavior.”

The best response is often to find a healthier context. “We have to put ourselves in places that are healthy and where we can thrive. And if we’re in environments that don’t allow us to operate in that way, it might be more fruitful and productive to change our environment, as opposed to trying to change that individual or culture within that environment,” she said.

If quitting for greener pastures is impossible, then definitely don’t try to take on a toxic culture alone. “Engage with the other women in the organization and build a coalition because it’s not going to be fruitful for there to be competition amongst you. But it could be very productive if there is an alignment of people who want to see a difference made within the organization. It may be hard for one person to make a difference. It becomes easier if there’s 20 people,” she suggested.

She cautioned, however, that “you have to be like-minded and organized to present a different way of operating that is more supportive. That will require people to actually reach out to the women that they might feel like they’re in competition with.”

3. Risk taking breeds confidence

You might think you would need to be incredibly confident to become the first Black female dean of Wharton, but James confessed she wasn’t always sure of herself. She was, however, always willing to take a risk on herself, and that, she feels, is more important for success.

“My husband described me once as a risk taker that lacks confidence, which makes me like an oxymoron,” she revealed. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but James explained that while she was often unsure whether she would succeed at each new stage of her career, she was always willing to give it a try.

That repeated exposure to seeming long shot bets that eventually paid off gradually taught James to be confident in herself. “Five years ago, ten years ago, there’s no way I would have assumed that I would be at Wharton. And yet even though I entered with a bit of fear and trepidation, I also realized I have a track record of being able to figure things out. And I assumed at this point, I’ll know how to figure things out. So my confidence has evolved over the years.”.

The lesson isn’t that you need to be confident at every stage to advance in your career. James wasn’t for a long time. The lesson instead is that you shouldn’t let your lack of confidence stop you from taking risks, because it’s only by conquering new adventures that you will grow into deep, authentic confidence.

Post contributed by Marina Glazman




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