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#500EmpoweringAfricanStories: Erika James

By: Amy Xiang

Erika James has spent her entire career as a trailblazer for women and African-Americans. Earning degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S., Erika went on to teach and serve as dean at top business schools. Now, she has made her way to Philadelphia, where she has made history as the first woman and the first person of color to serve as dean of the Wharton School.

Erika James was born in Bermuda but moved to the U.S. when she was just two years old. Her family settled in Sherman, Texas, where Erika graduated high school as the senior class president. Although many of her classmates decided to stay in Texas for college, Erika decided to try something new, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pomona College in Southern California.

Following her passion for human behavior, Erika went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan. She then decided to share her passion by teaching college students at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business.

After a few years of teaching, Erika, along with her husband and two children, moved to Virginia, and she taught at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business for 13 years. At the University of Virginia, Erika became a renowned mentor for young women in the MBA program. She also helped create a culture of diversity and inclusivity for both students and faculty by creating the brand new position of Associate Dean of Diversity.

In 2014, Erika left Virginia for Georgia. She became the first female dean and the first African-American dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, where her main goals were to expand and diversify the faculty there.

Now, six years later, Erika is the newest dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, which is consistently ranked as one of the top undergraduate and graduate business schools in the country. She is both the first woman and the first person of color to be appointed dean in Wharton’s entire 139-year history.

During her first day as dean, Erika appeared on Good Morning America to discuss what she hopes to accomplish as the dean and also to offer advice to students.

“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 — and I believe that talent exists everywhere and comes in all colors and packages,” Erika says.

She also emphasizes that Wharton has a responsibility to prepare its students not only for “today’s challenges,” but also “tomorrow’s opportunities,” which she hopes to accomplish by adopting even more forward-thinking curricula.

Many Wharton students see Erika’s deanship as an exciting and necessary step forward in the world of business, which, up to this point, has been overwhelmingly dominated by white men.

“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,” Erika says. “My strongest advice to young people is to always bet on yourself.”

AMY XIANG is the writer for African Community Learning Program and a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also writes for The Daily Pennsylvanian and 34th Street Magazine. To support African Community Learning Program’s work, please email

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