Mel Stith felt excitement rising in him as he stood by the registration counter and watched the people arrive. First in a small trickle, then in clumps and then in a crowd they came.
“Yes, this is going to be something special,” he thought.
It was the evening of December 14, 1994, and the scene playing out before him was the one many of his colleagues had told him could never happen.
It was the opening session of the first PhD Project conference. For months, those colleagues had told him this would be a fruitless cause: there simply weren’t enough African-Americans, Hispanic- Americans and Native Americans interested in abandoning successful business careers to become doctoral students.
Now those supposedly disinterested people were showing up—forming lines and crowding the welcome reception.
It wasn’t a surprise to Dean Stith at this stage: The Project had been tracking the numbers ever since the first applications had started trickling in. Mailing out thousands of flyers, launching an ad campaign, renting out a hotel: the planning group had done all this not knowing who would be proven wrong—the skeptics or themselves.
It was, in hindsight, an audacious and very large gamble.
But it was one based on considerable conviction, thought and planning. In the end, hundreds of those supposedly disinterested people had expressed interest. In all, 570 had completed the formal application process. Exactly half—285—had been evaluated as doctoral program- ready and invited to attend the conference, all expenses paid.
Stith knew these numbers. But it was this moment, as the numbers turned into live human beings standing before him, when it became real.
They arrived at all levels of expectation: already applying to doctoral programs, seriously interested but not yet sure it was for them, considering it for the first time… or merely curious.
They came for many different reasons: some had always known they would someday teach college and some had grown frustrated or disillusioned with their current career path. Some were seeking a profession that enabled flexibility for time with family. Some had been amazed to learn they could get paid to pursue research in whatever interested them. All but 19 of the 285 invitees showed up, and so there were 266 reasons why they came.
But here they were, at this airport hotel, and there would turn out to be many more like them: this first conference was to become an annual affair, each in late fall drawing an even larger number of people to consider life as a business professor. Through the remainder of the 1990s, into the 2000s and the 2010s, they would keep coming, burying the myth that they didn’t exist.
And they would return home from the conference to process it all. Some, having gotten the up-close look, would decide it was not for them, and this too was a success. Now that they knew, a nagging curiosity had been eliminated; they were free to concentrate on the career they were in. Others would dash off applications immediately. Some would take a more measured path, studying their options further.
And after they reached their decision, many would apply to and enter doctoral programs. Four, five or six years later they would emerge as professors, in numbers previously unimagined, until by 2014, 20 years later, they had more than quadrupled the number of African-American, Hispanic-American and Native American professors of business.
“Yes, this is going to be something special,” Dean Stith thought as the crowd began filing in to the hotel that night in December 1994.
Dozens of minority business faculty and current doctoral students from across the country were arriving too, having taken time off from their work to provide the insights and information that the 266 applicants had come to hear.
Among them was Laura Trevino, the struggling single mother from Florida State who didn’t know, day to day, if she would survive her doctoral program. Getting to the conference had been a minor miracle, and she had done so only at the urging of Dean Stith. Although all expenses for the conference were covered, she still had to pay $100 for child care for her three little girls, “which might as well have been $1,000” given her financial straits. And she had neither a credit card nor pocket cash for tips and incidentals.
But she was there.
The pushback Dr. Callahan had initially encountered from some had been dissolved by a growing wave of enthusiasm and excitement. Long having felt the isolation of their status, many faculty and doctoral students were emotionally overcome to see, upon entering the welcoming reception, more than 300 people who looked like them and either shared their profession or aspired to.
Representatives of the four founding sponsors—KPMG, Citibank, AACSB and GMAC—were present to see the fruits of their efforts in person. They were joined by Chrysler and a second new sponsor, Texaco.
Also on hand were representatives of 67 degree granting colleges, having come to staff the recruiting tables that Stith had told Milano would never be filled. As promised, Milano had returned from the September meeting of Black MBAs to invite every university with a doctoral program. Soon, 33 colleges had accepted the offer, a handful had declined and dozens more had simply not responded.
To that large group, Milano sent a second letter thanking them for considering the invitation. And, oh yes, he added, we thought you’d like to know who of your colleagues will be joining us. He attached a list of the 33 schools that would attend.
Within days, 34 more colleges had hastily written to say that they would be there too.
The conference opened formally the following morning, with 300 people filling a meeting hall—a sight that brought tears to the eyes of some veteran faculty members who had served for years, decades in some cases, in near total isolation as minorities. In accounting, African- American representation had been so scant that they had called each other by number, recalled North Carolina A&T’s Dean Craig, on hand as one of the Project founders. He had been Number Eight, he told the group.
Dean Craig also had a wisecrack—he thanked The PhD Project sponsors for the plentiful breakfast they had provided. But, he quipped, he could not understand serving breakfast to that many African- Americans and not offering grits.
Sitting in the audience, Laura Trevino smiled at the comment. But at the breakfast buffet the next morning, to her astonishment, a silver serving dish piled high with grits appeared. She was amazed, she would later explain, to have encountered an African-American man “powerful enough to have grits appear in Chicago!” Seeing people of color exert power in this setting—the power to create such an event, even the power to make grits appear—Hall began to understand why her dean had insisted she come.
Also taking a seat in the audience was Olenda Johnson, a third year doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. She too was there
because of Dean Stith, her former professor and mentor. Until that moment, she had known only three other people of color—two of them in her school—pursuing doctorates in business. Just meeting others at the hotel “was a blessing in and of itself,” she would later recall. “Even though we had loving support of family and friends, we all lacked a resonant support system that truly understood the scope and the depth of our challenges—and the psychological strain.”
At another corner of the room sat Patricia Martinez del Sanchez, a Californian who had flown in with interest, but with no intent of actually entering a doctoral program.
The two days of the conference began to unfold. It had been put together with care and great thought all summer and fall by the planning group, which had had to invent it all: There was no guide on how to create such a conference. Remarkably, through two decades, the program agenda they devised would undergo virtually no substantive change. They had nailed it almost perfectly the first time.
After deans and doctoral program heads provided a detailed overview of the PhD cycle, Michael Clement led a lengthy session in which current doctoral students shared their experiences—often in personal detail. Later, a panel of faculty members told the audience about the ultimate prize—the life they could enjoy as professors. Among the panelists was the late Sandra Shelton, a lonely doctoral student no more. She was now Dr. Sandra Shelton, an accounting professor at DePaul University. Having taken the position, she had just officially finished her PhD at Wisconsin two days earlier.
The bulk of the afternoon was devoted to the university recruiting hall, where the 266 participants could learn more, tailored to their individual interests and concerns, by meeting directly with the 67 representatives of doctoral programs whom Dean Stith three months earlier had assured Milano would never show up.
The following morning was devoted to breakout sessions for each of the five major business disciplines. Olenda Johnson sat on the panel of management doctoral students, but preceding them was a panel of experienced management professors. “As each shared their experiences and the impact they had on their students, the tears for me just started flowing,” she recalled. “I immediately felt in my heart a clarity of purpose and fuller understanding of my calling. I would be touching lives in more ways than I could imagine.”
The information systems panel was led by Laura Trevino the struggling student who had been told by her professors not to even try.
A closing session tied it all together in an uplifting recap. The 266 participants had easily learned more, in these two days, than they could in months—if at all—on their own. Among the panelists in that finale was Dr. Shelton.
As preparations for that session took place, Milano turned to team member Tara Perino and said, “You know, Sandra just defended her dissertation and she’s officially a PhD. We have to do something.”
“I know,” Perino replied. “What did you have in mind?” Milano shrugged and walked off to attend to another matter. Perino looked around her makeshift command post and saw a PhD Project display her team had created. Part of it was a prop, a mortarboard graduation cap with the organization’s now instantly recognizable rainbow tassel affixed. She snatched it up and tucked it under her arm.
A short time later the final session concluded, lifting the room to an emotional pitch. Milano took the microphone for a surprise announcement: The PhD Project had already achieved its first graduate, he said, and there would now be a graduation ceremony. The crowd fell silent, uncertain how this could be possible.
Sandra Shelton was called to the podium, and the cap that Perino had picked from the display booth was placed atop Dr. Shelton’s head to loud cheers and applause. The signature moment of every PhD Project conference since then—the capping ceremony—had been born in a burst of spontaneous, inspired improvisation.
To Olenda Johnson, sitting in the audience, “There was a sense of awe and immense pride, excitement and once again affirmation of the path God had me on.”
Patricia Martinez del Sanchez, the Californian who had come to the conference largely from curiosity, had been greatly surprised to realize the depth of commitment needed to earn a doctorate, but equally impressed at the strength of the support system The PhD Project was promising to help people through it. By that morning, she had made the life-changing decision: she would become a professor. She had listened carefully to Dr. Shelton’s talks and found her to be “a huge, vivid, personified example of what could be in store for me.” Watching Dr. Shelton get “capped” served as a confirmation of the decision she had just reached.
Laura Trevino had already experienced her emotional peak. Listening to Dean Stith, Milano and Dean Craig—the man who made grits appear—she had heard “things I had never heard before. How important I was, how much difference I could make, how much impact I could have, and all I had to do was keep on my path. These three men changed my life fundamentally just by believing in me, supporting me and contributing every resource they could drum up.”
Of that first PhD Project cohort, 50 would go on to enter doctoral programs, and 33 would complete. Of these, 30 were still teaching in 2016. They are:
Dr. Tanya Benford, Dr. Paul Brown, Dr. Pamela Carter, Dr. Gail Dawson, Dr. Kimberly Ellis, Dr. Elisa Fredericks, Dr. Luis A. Garcia, Dr. Rosanna Garcia, Dr. Jorge Gonzalez, Dr. Kimberly Grantham, Dr. Joyce Jackson, Dr. Jo Yvette Lacy, Dr. Karl Lawrence, Dr. Leyland Lucas, Dr. Patricia Garcia Martinez del Sanchez, Dr. Karen McDougal, Dr. Sylnovie Merchant, Dr. Alisa Mosley, Dr. Karen Nunez, Dr. Harriette Bettis Outland, Dr. Susan Perkins, Dr. Vanessa Perry, Dr. Ronald Ramirez, Dr. Charles Richardson, Dr. Joe Ricks, Dr. Quinetta Roberson, Dr. Nolan Taylor, Dr. Karynne Turner, Dr. Michelle Williams, Dr. Satina Williams, Dr. Lynette Wood.
In Memoriam Sandra Shelton