The first woman and first person of color to lead the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania says she wants young people to see her history-making role as an example to "always bet on yourself."
"We have to change our own self-talk," Dr. Erika James said Wednesday on "Good Morning America." "Often times we impede our own progress because we don't have the confidence to say, 'Yes I am ready for this role. Yes I can meet these challenges. Yes I have the expertise and the background that's necessary.'"
"When we get out of our own way and truly bet on ourselves, that's when we start to create other people's confidence in us," she said. "My strongest advice to young people is to always bet on yourself."
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James spoke with "GMA" co-anchor Robin Roberts on her first day as the new dean of Wharton, the business school at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously led the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, where she was also the first female African American dean.
James' expertise is in organizational behavior, gender and racial diversity and crisis leadership, a background that will serve her well as she takes the helm of Wharton at a time of both racial and health crises in the United States, with the coronavirus pandemic and the racial protests following the death of George Floyd in May.
"In the past couple of months the world has really changed," said James, whose appointment was announced in February. "We have focus on racial justice. We have the COVID pandemic, so really the impact that those events have had on higher education means that my first set of initiatives will have to be how do we bring together an incredibly successful student experience for our students when they come back in the fall."
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James said she plans to focus at Wharton on making sure positions are filled with the "right kind of talent," adding that she believes "talent exists everywhere and comes in all colors and packages."
"This is an awesome responsibility, not just in terms of the magnitude of the role of being 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 said to Roberts. "I personally feel that while my focus has to be primarily and predominantly on ensuring that we take the country's first, biggest and best business school and make it even better, that only will happen if we ensure that we have the right kind of talent in the right positions."
Finding diverse employees from different backgrounds is something that all companies can do now as a concrete step toward change, according to James.
"We often say that there's not a pipeline of diverse talent. Well, there's not a pipeline if you look in a very narrow set of places for that talent," she said. "One of the things companies can do differently is broaden where they go to identify where there's possibly really exceptional talent that might be untapped."
James added that she also hopes companies focus not only on hiring people of color and women in organizations, but taking steps to make sure they succeed and are able to reach the highest levels of the organization.
"The networks for white Americans in corporate America look very different from the networks of Black folks in corporate America," said James, who did her doctoral dissertation on the topic of networks. "The access that they have to people who are in the room making decisions around the projects and the pay and the promotions impedes or can facilitate progress."
"We need to make sure that the relationships that people are able to really establish and build can help promote diversity at the upper levels of the organization," she said.