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In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

As a young Ph.D. student, Erika James wasn’t sure she wanted to work in academia. Three decades later, she sits atop one of the nation’s most prestigious business schools.

In 2020 Dr. James became dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, becoming the first woman and person of color to hold that post in Wharton’s 140-year history.

“What’s salient for me is the recognition that so many people are watching," she says. “I want my life to have meant something, and if there are people who can feel inspired by what they’ve seen me do, then it really doesn’t get any better than that."

Dr. James started in the footsteps of her parents. Her mother was an educator and her stepfather was a clinical psychologist, so when she went to college she majored in psychology. She was fascinated by human behavior, but realized early on that she wasn’t interested in the clinical track.

She went on to receive her master’s and doctoral degrees in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan, saying she didn’t fully understand when applying to Ph.D. programs that they were largely intended to prepare students for a career in academia.

“I never saw myself as someone who was pursuing becoming a professor," Dr. James says. “I really just wanted to pursue my interests."

During her graduate program, she took some time off to work for American Express Co. to get a sense of what she might be giving up depending on which career path she chose. It was a dissertation adviser who advised her to turn down a number of consulting jobs after getting her Ph.D.

“She said, ‘Just try higher education for one year,’" Dr. James says. “If you don’t like it, you can, always leave and go the corporate route, but it’s really hard to transition in the other direction."

She didn’t look back. Dr. James became an assistant professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business and a visiting professor at Harvard Business School before taking leadership posts as the senior associate dean for executive education at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and the John H. Harland Dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. She started the Wharton job last July.

“I said I would try it for a year," she says. “Twenty-plus years later, I’ve really never had a desire to do anything else."

Among Dr. James’ trusted advisers:

Lynn Wooten

President, Simmons University

Dr. James met Dr. Wooten when she began graduate school in 1991. They both showed up to the same statistics class and sat next to each other, beginning a decadeslong friendship.

What began as a modest friendship at the University of Michigan has transformed into a deep personal and professional partnership. After grad school, the two collaborated on research and co-authored articles and the book “Leading Under Pressure: From Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and After a Crisis."

“Over the years, that professional collaboration just deepened our friendship," Dr. James says. “We literally refer to each other as sisters at this point."

Their careers have often mirrored each other as well. When Dr. James was going through the search process for Wharton’s deanship, Dr. Wooten was going through a similar process for the president position at Simmons University.

“She and I are on the phone, and I’m not exaggerating, every day," she says. “We’ve been able to really support each other for our entire professional journey."

David Thomas

President, Morehouse College

Dr. James met Dr. Thomas at a conference in 1993 while she was a graduate student. Groups of Black students would meet during the annual Academy of Management conference, she says, and at that time Dr. Thomas was a professor at the Harvard Business School and a beacon of success in business education to students like her.

“I was earning my Ph.D. in a discipline of business at a time where there were not a lot of Black Ph.D. students," she says.

Every year, Dr. James would reintroduce herself to Dr. Thomas, because she didn’t think he would remember who she was.

“Finally, after the third time, he said, ‘Erika I know who you are!’" she says.

Dr. Thomas became an important guide for her, helping her navigate the tenure process and teaching business students. They keep in touch, and at times their roles have been reversed. Dr. James was still dean of Emory University’s business school in Atlanta in 2018, when Dr. Thomas became president of Morehouse College and moved to the city. This time, she was the one introducing him to people and showing him around.

“I always refer to him as my mentor, though in many respects we’re peers at this point," she says.

E. Neville Isdell

Former chief executive, Coca-Cola Co.

Dr. James and Mr. Isdell met in 2015, after Dr. James had begun her tenure as dean of Emory University’s business school in Atlanta. Mr. Isdell had visited the school that year as a guest speaker, and a colleague introduced them over lunch.

The two immediately clicked, she says, and the former Coca-Cola leader has since become “a tremendous friend and supporter."

“His approach to leadership and the way in which businesses can use its resources to have impact in so many different domains really sparked a curiosity within me," Dr. James says. “He is someone who pushed my thinking in ways that I hadn’t anticipated."

They keep in touch via email, and Mr. Isdell often sends her articles related to her work.

“He’s been a cheerleader [for her work] for a few years now," she says.

Zander Lurie

Chief executive, SurveyMonkey Inc.

Dr. James first met Mr. Lurie in 2016 at SurveyMonkey’s headquarters, during a Goizueta alumni engagement visit to the Bay area on behalf of the school. The following year, Mr. Lurie visited to speak to students at Emory’s business school, where he had received his joint J.D./M.B.A. She admires his humility as a leader and the value he places on his workers.

“People were always first for him when he was thinking about how to build and advance SurveyMonkey," she says. “I saw him walk the talk every day."

In 2018, Dr. James joined the board of directors of SurveyMonkey, which is a subsidiary of SVMK Inc. Outside of board meetings, Dr. James often seeks his insight to help guide her students.

“[Conversations with Mr. Lurie] inform how I think about preparing students for the modern business world, for what they will experience going out into the world," she says. “Zander is on the pulse of that every day."

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