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How to Be A Prepared Leader with Erika James

Haley Paskalides  |  July 10, 2023

Erika James on how to be prepared for anything - good or bad - as a leader and on carving a new path for working mother’s everywhere.

Women are going to business school in record numbers. In 2022, the Forté Foundation reported that the number of women enrolled in full-time MBA programs is up to 45%, an all-time high. As a result, the leadership at business schools is also starting to change to better represent almost half of the enrollees.  In 2021, the number of female deans at business schools increased to 29%, up from 17% in 2007, according to a study from the AACSB. Women also hold about 38% of associate dean positions, the immediate stepping stone before being appointed dean. 

Erika James is not only the first woman, but also the first woman of color to be appointed dean at the Wharton School, which is generally considered to be the premier undergraduate business school in the world. After receiving her Ph.D. in organizational psychology, her dissertation advisor proposed that she try academia for a year, and, though she refers to herself an “accidental academic,” the rest was history. She says as a woman of color in business schools, she knows she’s setting an example for young Black women everywhere who want to be in leadership positions.

READ MORE FROM OUR INTERVIEW: How Erica James’ Teachings Go Far Beyond Business School

In her most recent book, The Prepared Leader, she describes how true leaders have a plan for all scenarios – good and bad – and designates people to execute on all of them. In her first few months as dean at Wharton, the pandemic happened, and Erika had to switch all courses from in-person to remote. “I felt like I had a lot to prove, like the students were going to be looking to me and expecting me to help them navigate and create this experience for them, even though it was not at all what anyone had expected. So I felt the weight of the job in that moment, but I also felt like I at least gave them something to hope for,” she says. 

Karen and Erika also discuss how she built a family while building her career – Erika says there are many ways to build a professional life and have children.  “There are lots of options for building the life that you want to have. You don’t have to be stuck on the more traditional pathway and assume that’s all there is,” she says. For more inspiring conversations like these dropping every week, subscribe to How She Does It on Apple Podcasts. 


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