There were only eight of them, but to Sandra Shelton, their presence was immeasurable. It was the early 1990s, and Shelton was three years into a four-year PhD program in accountancy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was one of only eight minority PhD candidates in accountancy nationwide, and they were all together for the first time.
KPMG, the powerhouse auditing and accounting firm, had flown Shelton to their headquarters in New Jersey to speak to business school deans about diversity in faculty. The PhD candidates became the foundation for what would later become The PhD Project, an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to increasing minority faculty in business schools and, ultimately, minority business school graduates.
KPMG executives reasoned they'd have a more diverse workforce if business students were taught by a more diverse business faculty. But with less than 10 minorities enrolled in accountancy PhD programs nationwide at the time, the prospect seemed daunting.
"I can remember each of their faces, their names, everything about them because I was just so happy to see them," says Shelton, now a KPMG Distinguished Professor of Accountancy at DePaul. "I didn’t even know another person of color who had finished their PhD in accounting. I had never seen one. And I was determined that once I finished the PhD program, I was going to make it easier for other people of color to get a PhD in business."
Currently, there are more than 1,200 minority business PhD professors across all business disciplines throughout the U.S., as compared to 294 when The PhD Project began. Shelton, who has been with The PhD Project since its inception in 1994, was recently inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame. She will see the fruits of her legacy on Nov. 19, when the new crop of nearly 400 potential doctoral candidates converge on Chicago to attend The PhD Project's annual conference.
Shelton's legacy includes helping DePaul's Driehaus College of Business attract the highest number of PhD Project members as faculty members nationally.
"I am certain that Sandra's presence there at DePaul has made a huge impact on the university's ability to recruit and maintain faculty of color," says Bernie Milano, president of The PhD Project and the KPMG Foundation.
The Road Less Traveled
For many people, minority or not, the road to professorship is filled with roadblocks. And the biggest barrier is securing a PhD. Shelton knew of people with doctoral degrees. Family members had doctorate degrees in divinity. Others in her family had doctorate degrees in education. But an African-American woman with a doctorate in accounting? That was just unheard of at the time, she says. So, how did Shelton get the doctoral fever?
Shortly after getting her MBA and CPA, Shelton was working full-time for Deloitte LLP, when a friend at a Chicago college recruited her to teach a night class.
"I started teaching and I loved it," Shelton said. "I got so much fulfillment from it. I thought, 'This is my calling.' I decided right then that I wanted to bring the best to my students. I wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge that I was teaching, not just interpret it. And that meant I had to get a PhD."
But for Shelton, the business doctoral path was the road less traveled. Getting a doctoral degree requires more research, ingenuity, stamina and strategy than many people realize. And for someone who had never met another doctoral candidate in accounting, the task seemed daunting. Shelton ended up applying to University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She was the first African-American accountancy doctoral student the university had accepted since 1972. And for the next five years she commuted three hours each way from Chicago to Madison and back to attend classes.
quot;I wish I had The PhD Project when pursuing a doctorate," Shelton says, "What took me two years to learn about the doctoral process, the students who attend our annual conferences learn in the first day. For me, the process was this huge mystery."
A Pioneering Legacy
Ten days after Shelton successfully finished her PhD program, The PhD Project had its first official conference. Prospective candidates from all over the country came to meet business school deans, PhD mentors and employers and to learn about the PhD process. At that meeting the nonprofit group celebrated Shelton's doctoral degree.
Today, this tradition continues with PhD Project alumni like James Mourey, an assistant professor of marketing, who joined DePaul's faculty in 2013 after being mentored by Shelton.
Growing up in rural Illinois, Mourey says academia was never on his radar. "I knew no professors growing up," Mourey said. "Most people enter into adulthood not even realizing there's this amazing opportunity for people to be original, creative, scientific, analytic and instructive all in one."
But thanks to the support of Shelton, The PhD Project's annual conferences and networking opportunities with other minority PhD candidates, Mourey says he was able to master the PhD process.
"The PhD Project serves an extremely important role spreading awareness about this wonderful profession, particularly to segments of the population less likely to have experience with the field earlier in life," says Mourey.
Mourey was highlighted in Bloomberg Businessweek last year for being the 1,176th minority professor hired by a U.S. business school. The milestone is significant because it marks the quadrupling of minority b-school faculty since The PhD Project began in 1994. Stephani Mason and Willie Reddic, both assistant professors of accountancy, and Kelly Richmond Pope, associate professor of accountancy, are also among PhD Project alumni who now teach at DePaul.
DePaul's Diversity Attraction
It's easy to peg The PhD Project’s impact to just individuals. But Milano says the program's successes extend far beyond the minority candidates who earn doctorates.
"Having minority PhD faculty changes the culture on college campuses," Milano says. "Faculty members of color are a source of inspiration and encouragement to all students. They allow students to experience workplace diversity way before they enter the corporate world."
Mourey says it's no accident DePaul's Driehaus College of Business has the most PhD Project professors of any b-school in the nation.
"DePaul clearly is committed to hiring diverse educators, perhaps reflecting the wonderful diversity we have within our student population," Mourey says. "And those of us who chose to come to DePaul are living The PhD Project's mission. We want be at an institution where we can help change the world for the better, where we can reach out to a diverse audience and help them find their paths to success in life.
There's something special about DePaul, its students and its commitment to service for all people that make it such a wonderful place to work, to research, to teach, and to create lasting change."
For her part, Shelton has spent the better part of two decades focused on change. Her mission is to ensure future minority PhD candidates will never have to weather the PhD gauntlet alone. Thanks to The PhD Project and her own tenacity, Shelton has met her goal.
"The PhD Project has given me the opportunity to give back," Shelton said. "I am so grateful to the program and KPMG. It has definitely made a difference. I have been able to mentor students in ways I could never imagine."