Taking on a new role is never easy—especially not during a pandemic.
However, Nicole Thorne Jenkins, the new John A. Griffin Dean of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, hasn’t shied away from the challenges she faces in the position, and she has good reasons for her fearlessness.
She comes to UVA on the strength of a lifetime of experiences that have given her a genuine respect for the power of business education.
Growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland outskirts, Jenkins worked in her family’s company, which provides both residential and commercial trash removal. As a middle schooler, Jenkins helped with billing customers, filling out deposit slips, and other tasks. In the early days of home computers, she automated the billing process, which saved both time and money.
She saw firsthand how commerce was capable of improving lives, starting with her parents, both first-generation college students. Their commitment to their business provided them with the means to send all four of their children to college, as well as help launch the entrepreneurial ventures of three of Jenkins’ uncles.
“I think a lot about what they would have accomplished if they had been business majors. Can you imagine?” Jenkins muses.
Her parents’ success, which had a positive effect across generations of her family, stayed with her, guiding Jenkins through undergraduate studies at Drexel University, where she double-majored in Accounting and Finance. After graduation, she became an Auditor with PwC and earned her CPA before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in Accounting from the University of Iowa.
A stint as an accounting faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis and another at Vanderbilt University followed, then eight years at the University of Kentucky, where Jenkins was the Von Allmen Endowed Chair of Accountancy and Vice Dean in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. She left that position to take the helm at McIntire in July.
In a career that has woven together experience in both business and business education, Jenkins has seen how, in the same way that her parents’ prosperity enabled them to help the rest of her family, business graduates can improve not only their quality of life, but their community’s.
“Graduates from business schools are successful when they bring others along with them,” Jenkins said. “When their accomplishments are tempered with an understanding of the power of business to set the pace of life for a city, a state, a country, they can use their agency to positively affect the quality of life for others.
“Being successful is not about making lots of money. It is about financial security, yes, but it is also about lifting others as you climb.”
We recently spoke with Jenkins to find out how she’s settling into the new role during this unprecedented time in higher education, and history.
How would you describe your first 30 days as the Commerce School Dean?
Exhausting! Sitting in front of the computer on back-to-back Zoom calls all day is really tiring. The most challenging part of my first 30 days has been figuring out how to lead a group of people I have never actually met in person. The approach I am taking is to assume that everyone is my dear friend and wants only the best for me and the organization. With this mindset, I have been able to develop strong personal and professional relationships with many in leadership roles across the School.
Additionally, I have been able to give every member of the staff and faculty an opportunity to meet with me, which has been a tremendous gift. I am hopeful that over the next few months, I will have had the opportunity to spend some time with each member of the School.
Even though we are in the midst of a pandemic, that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to innovate and to imagine what we can do with our curriculum, delivery methods, levels of access, and more that would be transformational for our students. It’s exciting to think about how to incorporate the unimaginable into our new normal for the benefit of the students we serve.
You come to the Commerce School after serving as Vice Dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky. What was your greatest accomplishment in your previous role?
I have had many administrative accomplishments that will endure. However, I feel most accomplished when students realize their dreams. By far, my greatest accomplishment was supporting students as they navigated both personal and academic challenges.
I remember one student I mentored in her second year, when she did not believe that she would be successful as an Accounting major. She made it through her third year and secured an internship at a regional firm. Over the summer, before the fall return, we met up, and she shared with me that she was pregnant and due that October. She cried, convinced that she was a failure and never going to graduate. I congratulated her and reminded her that having babies and continuing living life is what women do.
She not only had her baby, but graduated on time and earned her M.S. in Finance the following year before moving on to a successful career.
Your first job was when you were still a student working in your family business. What lessons or ideas do you continue to carry with you today from that experience?
When you are responsible for billing clients and preparing bank deposits, you are keenly aware of the importance of collections and the timing of cash flows. Revenues are great, but net cash flows let you know what you are working with at the end of the day. When running an organization or managing your personal finances, there are always things you could do, but being able to connect the dots between activities, operational capacity, and related net cash flows differentiates good decisions from bad ones.
President Jim Ryan has made supporting first-generation students a priority of his presidency. As the daughter of first-generation college students, how do you hope to support these learners in the Commerce School?
My parents were both first-generation college students, and business is what lifted them out of poverty and had a ripple effect that did the same for multiple generations in my extended family. Because so much of life occurs through the conduit of commerce, I believe a commerce degree can provide students with opportunities to make significant, far-reaching, and scalable impact on the lives of others. Ultimately, we need to do a better job at telling the story of commerce to both prospective and current first-generation students.
There remains a lack of transparency about navigating the university experience for many first-generation college students. And since research shows that students in this demographic are less likely than their peers to pick business as a major, we have an opportunity in the Comm School to help them see how a Commerce credential translates into occupations that are well-defined, in high demand, and economically beneficial. Additionally, degrees in commerce provide a pathway to a seat at the decision-making table, where one has the ability to influence policy with far-reaching effects.
Let’s talk about how you’re adapting to life at UVA. Despite COVID protocols, what has become a place you enjoy visiting on Grounds outside of Rouss & Robertson Halls?
I take a three-mile walk most mornings around Grounds. While my family will move to Pavilion V on the Lawn in the spring, I am currently living in a smaller property on the Range that was originally a home for enslaved people. I frequently end my walk at the Memorial for Enslaved Workers. Both locations evoke a mixed set of emotions for me, and I am sure the sentiment is shared by many. Given social distancing, these are the two places where I spend most of my time on Grounds as I work remotely from the apartment.
As a Black woman who is Dean of the School of Commerce at UVA, it is surreal that I am living in such close proximity to the memorial. In some small way, it makes me think that I am reclaiming a level of dignity and respect for the enslaved people who traversed this hallowed ground through the most difficult of circumstances.
What’s something unique to you personally that you miss about pre-pandemic life?
Spending time with friends and extended family. My oldest sister and her family are in Brooklyn, and it feels as though I have not seen them in forever. Also, I belong to a book club in Nashville, which I usually am able to connect with a few times a year.
I took up swimming with my husband a year ago when I trained for my first triathlon. The experience reminded me how much I hate running, but I really enjoy swimming and hope that I will be able to return to that sometime soon.
What accomplishment do you hope to have on your resume 10 years from now?
Professionally, I would like to look back over my early days at McIntire as ones where we collaborated to disrupt business education in a way that allowed us to increase our footprint, to produce culturally fluent students who possessed a unique set of skills that prepared them for professional success over a lifetime, and to show the world the pathway to maintain excellence in faculty research and pre-professional instruction within an operationally viable model.
Personally, in 10 years, I hope to be able to introduce the world to my two adult children who are gainfully employed and living on their own, doing amazing things to make the lives of others better.
Also, I would really love to be able to say that on a good day I could beat my husband by a few strokes at golf.
Ok, now for something fun. You were a basketball player in high school; which UVA basketball player—past or present—would you most like to hit the courts with?
Hall-of-Famer Dawn Staley. She is in a league all by herself. The only player with more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists, and 400 steals. One of two people to play for and coach a #1-ranked team. The first person to win the Naismith Award as a player and as a coach. She has an 81% free-throw percentage. I’m a pretty good free-throw shooter. I would like to shoot free throws with her sometime and hear her leadership story as a player and now as a coach.
(Photo at top by Robert Radifera)
Director of Communications & Marketing, McIntire School of Commerce