Leonard's Big Day A Big Story In Business Education

Receiving her PhD from the University of Cincinnati last Friday was a moment of great reward – and relief – for Ana Sierra Leonard.

"I think I’ve found my niche, but it was exhausting. I really had a very naive perspective about how difficult it would be to do. Having overcome so many obstacles and barriers in my corporate life, I thought how hard can this be? It’s just school, right?," Leonard laughs.

Earning a PhD is very difficult, even if, like Leonard, you have 20 years of experience in information technology, including eight years on Wall Street as a vice president at Kidder Peabody. And that helps to make the larger point about why her success is particularly notable.

Leonard is the first UC graduate recruited through the PhD Project to earn her doctorate. The PhD Project is an effort supported by some of the nation’s largest corporations to increase diversity among business school faculty as a strategy for battling a vexing, chronic problem – how to better support minority students pursuing a business education.

"The premise we were working from was that if were going to get more minority students in the classroom, we have to have more minority faculty in the front of the classroom," says Ralph Katerberg, the former head of the College of Business Administration’s doctoral program and currently an associate professor of organizational behavior.

Ten years ago, Katerberg was the president of the Association of Doctoral Program Directors of Business, which got him involved in the formative work for the PhD Project. At the second PhD Project Conference in 1995, he first met Leonard, who had been attracted by a small ad she saw in the Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Leonard, who was toying with the idea of becoming a researcher and teacher, considered the ad "a sign from God. I was tired of Wall Street, and I had always thought in the back of my mind of getting my doctorate."

Coming to UC was no small matter. Leonard had never lived outside of New York before, and she had to convince her husband and daughter to make the move.

Her husband was supportive, but she knows now that "he couldn’t have anticipated all those issues that accompanied this – leaving his job of 16 years, going to a new area, and for six-and-a- half years, basically having your spouse absent herself from the family. It’s intense, emotionally intense – I don’t think I had any realization of just how intense it could be."

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Leonard’s doctoral research eventually led her to focus on that realization.

Her initial research interest was examining the ways that women fit into the hierarchy of the workplace. Two things happened once she was at UC that helped to sharpen that focus – the support offered by colleagues in the PhD Project, along with the arrival on the management faculty of Ajay Mehra.

Mehra, an assistant professor who had just finished his PhD work at Penn State, studies social networks in the workplace, a close match to Leonard’s interests. He became the faculty advisor on her thesis, "The Effects of Ethnicity and Self-Construal on Friendship Networks: Enabling Career Success in Academia?"

Leonard, a woman of Hispanic background, concluded that minorities do benefit from peer networks, something she had confirmed anecdotally by her experience through the PhD Project. Early on, the PhD Project created peer associations for each of the major business disciplines, anticipating that its students would particularly benefit through peer support. Leonard says e-mails and phone conversations with other PhD Project students helped carry her through her rockiest moments. The fact that the drop-out rate for PhD Project students is about five percent, well below the national average for all doctoral students, also speaks to the strength of peer support.

"When you’re ready to go out of your mind, there’s always someone there to pick you up," she says. "They know how to talk through issues like dealing with family issues, or dealing with issues in approaching faculty to do research, and how to deal with the occasional racist comment from a student. Obviously, that’s something that is difficult to deal with, which most faculty can’t help you with."

She believes that the same theory applies in the business world. "One of things I discovered in research was that where people are in a social network makes a difference in their success in an organization," Leonard says. "My research looks at how those networks are structured and how people are clustered together. A lot of research hasn’t been able to study this in depth, because there are not the numbers of minorities in organizations to allow it, so I had a unique opportunity."

Leonard, who last year won both UC’s university-wide award and CBA's award as the best graduate teaching assistant, had lots of her family in to witness her doctoral hooding, including her 87-year-old grandmother from New York. This summer, Leonard will be teaching an MBA course in leadership at UC. In the fall, she will begin the second year of a two-year visiting professorship at Miami University, while also beginning to look in earnest for a full-time faculty assignment that will allow her to put her education to work.

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