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Origins: How it Began

A Moment of Graphic Clarity and Genius. The PhD Project

That spring, as Milano and Thorp made their customary rounds of meetings with  academic  groups,  they  shared  an  idea  that had gained momentum during the Montvale sessions: a national conference to assemble all those African-Americans, Hispanic- Americans and Native Americans who would be responding soon to the still-to-be created and funded marketing campaign that would sell them on a career in academia.

Before buying into the notion of abandoning a six-figure corporate salary for five years as an impoverished doctoral student, the two men realized, this group would need to learn far more than an ad or mailer could convey. A conference where experts in the field could lay out the whole idea and all its ramifications, warts and all, seemed necessary. But asking this group to spend several hundred dollars to attend such a meeting would be like charging a customer to walk into your store. Sponsors would have to foot the whole bill.

Academics hearing this proposition generally reacted with out- loud laughter.

The whole idea was pointless, some would gently remind the two, because of its flawed premise: The reason few minority business professors existed was clear, they said: business schools were not turning out new minority PhDs. The reason for that was also clear: minorities weren’t applying to doctoral programs. They just weren’t interested in getting a business PhD or were not qualified to, a few leaders of the academy felt compelled to remark in private.

A banker and an accountant are two very different creatures. But one trait they share is that nothing fires up their determination like being told they don’t know what they are talking  about.  And confidence in their vision was further rising in Milano and Thorp when the late Sandra Shelton’s dean at Madison, Andrew Policano, and two doctoral program directors emerged to join Deans Craig and Stith in support of the plan: John Elliott of Cornell and Ralph Katerberg of the University of Cincinnati. Katerberg enthusiastically offered to help the fledgling effort in any way he could. Privately, though, he wondered whether the whole idea might be too ambitious to fly. Things that big just didn’t happen that quickly in higher education.

So when a small group began conceptualizing what a meeting of prospective doctoral students from underrepresented  minorities might look like, one academic said, “Yes, we have to do a conference—maybe next year.”

“No,” Milano said. “This year.”

A short time later, back in Montvale, Milano stopped by the desk of one of his KPMG Foundation team members. “We’re going to hold a big meeting, and I’d like you to organize it,” he told her.

“What kind of meeting? Who’s coming? What’s it about?” Tara Perino asked.

Milano confessed that he could not yet answer any of these questions. But he assured her that he shortly would. “And I do know that I need you to make it happen,” he added.

KPMG’s college recruiting unit had to compete with five global accounting giants and scores of public companies to attract the best talent on campus each spring. Accordingly, it directed an extensive marketing and advertising effort toward those students. One  day, Milano called Beth Donahue, the principal of the ad agency behind it, into his office. He proceeded to explain his emerging new initiative. Could she develop a campaign to market a career in business academia as impactful as the one that marketed KPMG to accounting students? Intrigued and excited, Donahue assigned her top writer and designer to the assignment. First, she reminded her client, the initial step in advertising was branding.

About two weeks later she returned with a name. Its simplicity belied its power. It connoted, as Donahue would later recall, a long- term effort, built on the contributions of many people with diverse backgrounds and strengths that would evolve and expand over the years with the expectation of becoming self perpetuating.

There were just three words on the display board she placed on an easel:

The PhD Project.

She then lifted out another board, and this one bore a dazzling image: a bright rainbow-colored tassel, affixed to the corner of a mortarboard graduation cap. It would become the signature image of The PhD Project, conceived, Donahue would explain many years later, in “a moment of graphic clarity and genius.”

Calling in an ad agency to create logos, slogans and ads for a six-figure media campaign was decidedly not something business doctoral programs in higher education were accustomed to. But among the many in that community who genuinely yearned to see greater diversity in their midst, recognition grew that it might be time for a new approach. They had done it their way—the MSI was a well-funded culmination of their efforts—and had not moved the needle. Now, thanks to the financial commitment and marketing mindset  that business was injecting, the pieces of this newly-named PhD Project were magically coalescing into a mosaic no one had imagined before— outreach to a more mature target audience, a well-funded advertising campaign and a conference to promote the very career path they themselves had chosen. More and more business academics began to think that it might be worth a try.

As the plan for a big national conference took  shape,  it focused on large amounts of information delivery. A few dozen members of the higher education community—deans,  department chairs, faculty and current doctoral students— would be needed to pull back the curtain and reveal some of the hidden mysteries of how academia works that were hidden from the world at large. What exactly did a professor do? What was scholarly research and how did it get done? What was the daily life of a professor like? What were the disciplines within business study, and what were the career prospects within them? What were the secrets to crafting a successful doctoral program application? What did it cost to leave a business job and become a student again? What about the family issues?  And  what might it be like to encounter all these issues as the only representative of a minority group in the business school?

These, and many more, were questions that could only be answered by those who were living the life. Dr. Callahan and others were dispatched to reach out to anyone who might be willing to help. To Chapel Hill and Arizona State, to Texas A&M and M.I.T, to Austin and Ann Arbor—anywhere they knew anyone who might be willing, they reached out.

There remained the question of when to hold the conference. Summer was approaching, and an entire ad campaign was yet to be devised and rolled out. Milano and Thorp, involved heavily in so many professional and nonprofit organizations, swiftly put together a list of all the groups with large membership lists of minorities in business, or interested in business. These individuals would be the  campaign’s target audience. Milano and Thorp worked the phones incessantly to secure pledges from dozens of such groups to lend their mailing lists to the direct mail campaign. These organizations were dubbed “The Supply Alliance.” An ad buy for media advertising was put in place; direct mail pieces went into design.

The admissions calendar for doctoral programs dictated that the conference be held no later than mid-December if it was to impact the 1995-96 admissions cycle. This was not much time to carry out a campaign or arrange a meeting. Geography and cost suggested Chicago as the location. Now that Tara Perino knew the purpose and location of the meeting she had been asked to arrange, she and her team turned to their first challenge: finding an airport hotel that could accommodate a two and a half day conference that December 14 through 16, perhaps for several hundred people. Or perhaps not: No one organizing  The PhD Project’s first marketing campaign and conference yet had any real idea of how much response they would receive.

Nor had a clear strategy emerged for attracting the additional funding, from other companies and organizations, that would be needed to cover the costs of the marketing campaign followed by full travel and hotel expenses for several hundred. Milano and Thorp  had  just been calling people they knew.

One day, Milano telephoned Thorp, as alarmed as it was possible to be over exceptionally good news:

“Peter! Chrysler wants in! What do we tell them? How much do we ask for?”

There was no strategic or fundraising plan to offer an answer.

There was no alternative but to improvise.

The two men agreed that the fledgling organization needed reasonably substantial contributions. They also realized, with  time short, that asking for too much would backfire: large grants required a corporate foundation’s board approval, and these boards met infrequently. Fortunately, both Milano and Thorp were themselves in the business of running a corporate foundation and were easily able to identify the sweet spot: a contribution of $25,000 was meaningful enough to make a difference and small enough that a staff director could approve it without board approval.

Milano called back the Chrysler representative to request $25,000. In a few weeks, a check in that amount bearing the company’s iconic five-sided star logo arrived. The PhD Project had its first new corporate sponsor to add to the four founding sponsors.

In Memoriam Sandra Shelton