Dr. Jenkins, you are a very successful role model for African American leaders and all aspiring leaders within academia and education overall. What is your personal story and how did you get where you are as Dean of the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce?
I was fortunate to be the youngest of four children born to a pair of first-generation college students who chose early in their marriage to abandon their careers as a schoolteacher and a nurse to start a trash company. Growing up in a family-owned business was unique and gave me early exposure to my future career in public accounting. My assigned job in my parents’ company was to bill customers and prepare schedules for their auditors. Tremendous effort was required to run the trash company. Success depended on the ability to manage a diverse set of employees who engaged in a wide variety of activities.
In addition to the company that they owned and operated, my parents also owned and managed a farm. Spending time on a farm teaches a set of valuable lessons about hard work and appreciation. The yield from the farm is directly tied to the effort that you put in as well as good fortune with weather, the cooperation of livestock, and the continual support of your customers. Sitting in close proximity to the labor-intensive world of agriculture and the challenging—and equally intensive—world of contractual entrepreneurship, I learned three important lessons that I carry with me to this day and which inform my leadership style.
First, when you do something, do it right the first time. Failing to do things the way you know they should be done is costly to you, the people around you, and the organization. As small business owners, a redo could be your undoing. Second, maintain enough margin in your life and that of your organization to ensure that you can take calculated risks and afford to take advantage of opportunities when they come. Having a little extra time, money, capacity helps you to innovate and move your operations forward. Third, look for ways to help others realize their dreams. Through life, we all accumulate resources, knowledge, finances, and networks that we should willingly lend to others who are striving to improve their outcomes. Engaging in this important and transformative activity reminds you of how fortunate you are to have accomplished something amazing.
The career that I have today is an outgrowth of the lessons I learned from my family of origin. I recall my parents’ quizzical looks when I announced that I was leaving my job as an auditor at PriceWaterhouse to enter a doctoral program. ”You want to be a teacher?” they asked. In general, I am a “measure twice and cut once” type of person who spends time in contemplation to ensure that the choices I make on behalf of myself and the organization that I lead are made with the best data available at the time. I knew that I wanted a transformational change in my professional life and was not interested in pursuing an MBA which I perceived would not be much different from what I was doing at PriceWaterhouse. I am comfortable updating my prior beliefs as I realize that innovation frequently requires you to build the plane while you are flying it. This does not mean that I don’t plan, it simply means that I update the strategy as I learn more. This is how I have found the road “less travelled” which for me has “made all the difference.”
What role did the PhD Project play in your success as well as other organizations?
I learned about the pathway to academia through the PhD Project. I attended a National Association of Black Accountant’s annual conference and sat in on an evening workshop about opportunities in higher education sponsored by the PhD Project. It was there that I heard the stories of Michael Clement and Cynthia Tolleson and why they chose to leave their corporate jobs and pursue PhDs in accounting. I was looking to make a change and their stories resonated with me. Dr. Clement tells a story about the ”80-year test” that he uses to provide himself with perspective. He thinks about being 80 years old and sitting on the front porch with his children and grandchildren. He reflected on what he wants to be able to tell them that he did with his life. This gave him the inspiration and the courage to leave his corporate position at Citibank and enter a PhD program at Stanford. It is largely that 80-year test that led me to attend the PhD Project’s November Conference and enter the doctoral program at the University of Iowa that next fall.
You were recently made a Board member of Strada Education. What do you hope to bring to that organization to further their equity goals and impact overall?
Strada’s mission is to illuminate the pathway to and through post-secondary education and training with particular focus on facilitating transition into the workforce. The organization concentrates its efforts on Americans who are most frequently left behind—historically marginalized, low income and working adults. Research shows us that the outcomes for individuals who complete post-secondary education and/or training are significantly improved. However, there are barriers that keep large groups of people out of this process of skill acquisition. Strada is committed to helping students complete formal education with the purpose of improving employment outcomes.
Both of my parents and my husband are first-generation college students. It is easy to see how post-secondary education has affected their long-term outcomes. While college is not the path for everyone, some post-secondary education skill acquisition substantially improves outcomes. In my parent’s trash company, they hire employees with commercial driver’s license (CDLs). With this credential, working adults can earn salaries that are comparable to those of college graduates. However, our society does not honor the work of all employed persons the same. Making the pathways through higher education and skill acquisition more durable and visible results in an improvement in both social and economic outcomes. There is dignity in work and that perspective needs to be a more commonly held view in our society.
As a trustee of Strada, I hope to contribute my higher education expertise; a lifetime of skills acquired through working in entrepreneurial organizations; and a lens of strategic, design and systems thinking to solving big hairy audacious goals related to access, retention, completion and transition to the workforce for all Americans. This is the mission of Strada and it is a mission that I believe has the power to transform individual lives and our country in ways that are unifying, life-giving and critical to our collective survival.
In addition to your very successful professional life, you are also a mother to a son and a daughter. How do you balance your various roles and what advice do you have for others who are juggling the same kinds of priorities, especially in this challenging time?
I wear many hats and chief among them is wife to my husband of 23 years. My husband Toby, our two children and I are a team. The four of us set personal and family priorities and work hard to fulfill our commitments to one another. As a family, we strive to maintain margin in every dimension of our lives.
The consistent theme across every aspect of my life is collaboration and coordination. My personal life is no different. We are transparent with our children and invite them to partner with us in appropriate ways to contribute to decisions that affect them and our family. This collaborative approach is what allowed me to take on my current role of dean at the McIntire School of Commerce in Charlottesville, Virginia during a uniquely challenging year that included my daughter finishing her senior year of high school, my husband unwinding a successful therapy practice, and my son finishing 10th grade 100% online.
This is a difficult time for citizens of the world and uniquely so for Americans. We have found it important to stay true to the values that we established at the beginning of our marriage and have updated as we experienced and learned more. This has helped us to stay connected and focused on what is most important to our family. For example, one member of our family has health challenges that renders them particularly vulnerable to a COVID infection. This has required us to tie a tight ring around ourselves. I test each time I return to Lexington from Charlottesville. Our son is not returning to in-person school and our daughter has elected to be home schooled her senior year.
The reality for all of us is that we will encounter many unexpected things—good and bad—over the course of our lives which can knock us off of our path. This will happen; it is inevitable. How you prepare for it is to get clear on the things that matter the most and roll with everything else. If you do that, you will be able to look back over your life, personally and professionally, connect the dots, and realize that the pattern that emerges is a beautiful mosaic of a life well-lived.
What vision do you have for the United States and the world, in particular for the U.S. to be the leader in equity, emerging from this last year of dis-unity?
My vision for the United States is akin to that of our founding fathers yet broadened to include all Americans. I believe that America is a country of promise to all people and that while the execution of the promise is imperfect for so many, we have the bones of a great idea that is continuing to get fleshed out in terms of execution.
I believe the United States is in a Stockdale Paradox, a scenario coined by Jim Collins, the author of From Good to Great. It is a notion that one has deep faith that they will prevail and at the same time they face the reality of their current situation. Like Martin Luther King Jr., I have faith that one day America will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. At the same time, like King noted, we have some difficult days ahead.
I see my teenaged children developing deep connections with a diverse set of friends. The friendship group is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality which is not surprising. It also extends to individuals who are nonbinary, LGBTQ, and non-identifying. I see their group of friends defend one another against hate, misunderstanding, and the mob mentality. It has been refreshing to overhear how much they care for underserved populations and to see them take to the streets, soup kitchens and—this year—the ballot box to use their voice to affect change. I am hopeful that with each succeeding generation that we will get closer to keeping and fulfilling the promise that is America.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to share with young people who can see themselves in your inclusive leadership path and your courageous journey?
I never dreamed of becoming a Business School Dean. The earliest dream I can remember involved getting out of kindergarten so I could attend first grade at the elementary school where my siblings went. My next dream was hoping that my two front teeth grew in before picture day. The point is that dreams—read as goals—are always being updated based on what we achieve and what we learn. They are always somewhere out there, as they should be. The drive to get from point A to point B gives us the motivation to achieve and when that dream or goal begins to involve a vision that is bigger than ourselves is when we find our flow. Big things happen because you do a lot of little things well over time. This gets the flywheel turning which provides the propulsion for achievements that far outpace our expectations. Dream big, work hard, find your flow, repeat.
Bio: Nicole Thorne Jenkins, PhD
Nicole Thorne Jenkins became the John A. Griffin Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia on July 1, 2020. Prior to arriving at McIntire, Jenkins was the Von Allmen Endowed Chair of Accountancy and Vice Dean in the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky. Prior to Kentucky, she served on the faculty at Vanderbilt University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Jenkins received her PhD in accounting from the University of Iowa and completed her undergraduate work in accounting and finance at Drexel University. Her research interests include the investigation of financial reporting failures, share repurchase, and the effect of social networks on performance outcomes. Her teaching experience has focused on financial reporting topics in both executive education, graduate and undergraduate programs. Jenkins is a certified public accountant and is the immediate past president of the Financial Accounting & Reporting Section of the American Accounting Association. Prior to becoming an academic, she was an auditor and consultant at PriceWaterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Additionally, she consults and serves as an expert witness in matters related to financial reporting, valuation and estimation of damages.