'Always bet on yourself:' Dr. Erika James begins historic journey as Wharton dean

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Dr. Erika James is making history Wednesday as the first woman and person of color to lead the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

As she started her first day as dean, she spoke with Robin Roberts on 'Good Morning America.'

"This is an awesome responsibility. Not in just terms of the magnitude of the role of the dean of the Wharton School, but so many eyes are watching me, and so many eyes are watching you, and people who are in these positions to really make a difference," James told Roberts.

James said that she feels great and excited on her first day. She said, as the world has changed, so has her goals since her hiring was announced back in February.

"In the past couple of months, the world has really changed. We have focused on racial injustice, we have the COVID pandemic. So the impact that those events have had on higher education means that my first set of initiatives will have to be facing how do we bring together an incredibly successful experience for our students when they come back in the fall," James said.

James has held positions at the University of Virginia, Tulane and Harvard. She holds a Ph.D. and master's degree in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan and received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Pomona College of the Claremont Colleges, in California. She was previously dean at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.

James, whose research includes crisis leadership and workplace diversity, said now is an important moment in the nation's history and companies can help. She said executives have to look beyond just writing letters to their communities and stakeholders about doing things differently, and make changes to practices where there could be bias.

"That includes the recruiting practices, the hiring practices, the pay practices, the promotion practices," James said.

James said one things companies can do to diversify the workforce is to expand where they look for talent.

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The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania named its next dean and it's a historic choice.

Roberts pointed out that while the country is seeing women and people of color graduating from college and getting jobs, they are not reaching the upper echelons in the corporations.

James responded, "Clearly there are systemic issues within organizations that prohibit or impede progress for people of color and woman."

The Wharton dean said it's about building relationships and having these networks accessible for everyone to help grow the diversity in organizations.

But, James said, change can't happen unless it starts with one's self.

"We have to change our own self-talk. Oftentimes, we impede our own progress because we don't have the confidence to say 'yes, I'm ready for this role,' 'yes, I can meet these challenges,' 'yes, I have the expertise and background that's necessary.' When we get out of our own way and truly bet on our ourselves, that's when we start to create other people's confidence in us," James said.

James told Roberts she believes talent exists everywhere and comes in all colors and packages.

Her message for the next generation looking to her for guidance: "Always bet on yourself."
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