March marks one year since Wharton returned to the road with the Wharton Impact Tour. Though I began my deanship in July 2020, the last 12 months represented my first substantive opportunity to meet in person with Wharton’s global alumni network — the largest of any business school. The intensity and excitement I felt on each stop of this tour were palpable. We all craved the chance to come together after our time apart. I could not be more energized by my conversations with alumni and friends in San Francisco, New York, London, Dallas, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Mumbai, and, most recently, Miami, with more fabulous locales still to come.
At no other time have leaders in every industry — and on every continent — simultaneously grappled with so many changes and challenges. But what stood out to me most following my discussions with business leaders across the globe is the shared and inter-related nature of our challenges. They may present themselves differently region by region, but we are essentially all trying to surmount similar issues and identify related solutions.
To some, the universality of these difficulties may be cause for alarm. However, I would argue the grand scale of our challenges also presents us with unique opportunities.
As I reflect on my whirlwind year — not to mention a delicious one filled with the best falafel, batata vada and sushi I’ve ever had — three takeaways emerge.
Face-to-face interaction still matters. Technology played a pivotal role during the pandemic in ensuring everyone’s safety and health while also allowing us to keep our institutions humming. While we’ve all become more tech-savvy and comfortable with virtual meetings, the last year reinforced to me that it’s still important to make time to visit people and places. When we’re physically present somewhere, we are immersed in a way that helps us better understand the context of a phenomenon or interaction in a way that technology still can’t replicate.
My first two years at Wharton were laden with Zoom meetings. As a result, I have a renewed appreciation for putting feet on the ground, looking stakeholders in the eye and shaking hands and breaking bread. There is an irreproducible nuance that comes with face-to-face interaction, which is why in-person dialogue produces the best and most innovative solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.
Context matters. The breadth of issues and opportunities that arose during my travels was eye-opening — everything from entrepreneurship and the drive to scale startups in Israel, to investments in infrastructure and technology in India. But during nearly every type of interaction throughout my visits, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) came up as a topic of keen importance. Leaders across organizations feel an eagerness and an imperative to unleash the full potential of their employee talent. While issues like DEI and employee engagement are — at their core — comparable around the world, local context means they manifest in very different ways.
For example, the alumni I met in India and Japan stressed the missed opportunities related to women in the workforce. Business and government leaders in Japan are also grappling with equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people. In the U.S., a good deal of DEI work is focused on issues related to racial equity. The unifying feature of these dilemmas is how best to provide equity and opportunity for enormous pools of unharnessed talent. Yet, the specific nature of the challenge has a local nexus.
As an academic whose teaching and research has focused on workplace diversity, it was affirming to hear that leaders around the world are equally concerned about inequity. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to build organizations that make the most of everyone’s abilities. The firms and societies that succeed in this endeavor will not only outpace their competitors, but will be stronger, more durable and better able to perceive and respond to future challenges.
Reach matters. All of this made me consider the role of business schools and business education — and of higher education — in these efforts. Not everyone will have the opportunity to earn a degree from Wharton (and certainly, not everyone needs one). But I feel strongly that Wharton has a responsibility to leverage our heft for the good of people around the world, and for the society and the planet that we all share. With academic foci ranging from legal studies to finance, ethics to operations, and analytics to healthcare management, our faculty produces more research on business and societal challenges and their possible solutions than any other school. We must disseminate those insights far beyond the academy and our campuses, and assist industry in harnessing those insights so as many people as possible can use them to succeed wherever they are.
And while I can’t claim to have addressed all of the issues that arose during my travels, I am confident that no institution is better poised or committed to uncovering the insights that can be applied to drive positive change in the world.
I can’t wait to continue these conversations here in Philadelphia, at our upcoming Global Forum in Singapore, and in São Paulo in the coming months. I hope to see many of you along the way!
Erika James is Dean, Reliance Professor of Management and Private Enterprise, and Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This post was originally published on LinkedIn, where she was named an “influencer” for her insights in the business world. View the original post here. Follow Erika on Twitter.