The PhD Project was founded under the belief that the lack of diversity of students was due to a lack of faculty of color in the classroom and in university administration, and by increasing the numbers of diverse faculty who could serve as role models and mentors to students of color, it would generate an increase in the enrollment of diverse students in business programs. Twenty-six years later, the PhD Project has quintupled the number of minority faculty who now serve in various roles including teachers, researchers, Department Chairs, Deans and University Presidents. The ability of these Ph.D. Project alum to influence the diversity of their own campuses, and academia in general, continues to increase as they help make it a more inclusive environment.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing President of The Ph.D. Project, Blane Ruschak.
Blane Ruschak began his career in the Audit department of KPMG’s Honolulu office where he serviced clients in the healthcare, nonprofit, real estate, agribusiness, and hospitality industries. Throughout his time at KPMG, Blane has helped lead professional development and recruiting for the firm at various offices, working from Honolulu, Long Beach and Los Angeles, before taking on a role as a National Director of Campus Recruiting in 2000 in Montvale, New Jersey. In 2008, he took on the role as Executive Director of Campus Recruiting and University Relations for the firm and in 2020, Blane became President of the KPMG Foundation and The Ph.D. Project.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
While obtaining my master’s degree in accounting at the University of Hawaii, I was hired as a graduate teaching assistant. I soon realized that I loved being in classroom environment as a professor — to have the ability to help students understand the material, to bring it to life, to motivate them to want to learn more.
Once my career began at KPMG (working in audit, advisory, training and development and campus recruitment), I immediately engaged with teaching classes at KPMG as well as serving as an adjunct faculty member at three Universities. The “bug” for academia was alive and well and paired nicely with my eventual role overseeing campus recruiting for KPMG. So, nine months ago when I was offered the opportunity to serve as the President of the KPMG US Foundation (whose mission includes support for Higher Education initiatives) and to serve as President of The Ph.D. Project (whose mission is to increase the number of faculty of color in the college classroom), I felt like fate had knocked on my door and I was meant to answer it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Like most organizations, COVID caused a major shift in how we operate. For The Ph.D. Project — whose formula for success revolves around the creation and maintenance of powerful networks of faculty, students, universities and PhD sponsor organizations — we had to pivot from our traditional in-person conferences and training programs where these bonds are normally created or strengthened to an all virtual model. The 9-month listening tour that I had discussed when I assumed the role in January quickly became a 9-month video-conference tour. Needless to say, we all survived, had some amazing conferences and training sessions for our members while finding new ways to “connect” in the virtual world. Having a greater than 90% completion rate, The Ph.D. Project knew we had to stay commited to finding new ways to keep the network as strong, if not even more powerful, than before especially for the new Ph.D. students that needed mentorship and guidance as they entered their programs during this difficult time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started with KPMG in Honolulu, I was in my first week of work and waiting to be assigned to a client. When I received the call, I immediately packed up my supplies and headed to the client’s office, only a few blocks away. I got there and the manager looked at my briefcase and other supplies I had brought and said, “What did you bring all that stuff for? I just need you to help get all of the material from the audit back to the office”. While I totally disappointed that I was not getting my first audit (bad assumption in my part), I started to talk to the manager and learned about the other clients that he managed, which included numerous luxury hotels on the neighboring Hawaii islands. I shared my love of travel and willingness to go anywhere, and two weeks later I looked at the schedule of assignments and saw that I was scheduled for three hotel audits in the upcoming months. My lesson was learned; take advantage of all opportunities to show a positive attitude, listen and learn from the people in your organization and don’t be afraid to openly discuss things you would like to do.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
There has been a clear historical lack of diversity of Black, Hispanic and Native Americans in business, which can be traced back to the lack of minority students in business programs. The PhD Project was founded under the belief that the lack of diversity of students was due to a lack of faculty of color in the classroom and in university administration, and by increasing the numbers of diverse faculty who could serve as role models and mentors to students of color, it would generate an increase in the enrollment of diverse students in business programs. Twenty-six years later, the PhD Project has quintupled the number of minority faculty who now serve in various roles including teachers, researchers, Department Chairs, Deans and University Presidents. The ability of these Ph.D. Project alum to influence the diversity of their own campuses, and academia in general, continues to increase as they help make it a more inclusive environment.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many incredible stories that we hear from the struggling Ph.D. student, who is sometimes the only student of color in their program, that it is hard to pick just one. It’s always touched me to see how our program participants rely on The Ph.D. Project community and alumni for support and encouragement as they balance life and their studies. We have seen single mothers manage raising children while keeping up with a full schedule of coursework, and stories of people who have gone onto become leaders with a purpose to further The Ph.D. Project’s cause within their own academic communities. We have honored many of these participants by publishing their stories in two books, Living the Dream and Paying It Forward.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Increase the efforts at middle schools and high schools to help students of color (and their parents) understand what a career in business would look like and what it would take to get there.
- Universities need to look at their diversity efforts and increase and enhance the effort to attract more students of color. This may include looking at their current admission standards to see if there might be some unconscious bias in their selection standards or some barrier to admission that should be removed. They should have their faculty engage with local high school and middle school awareness programs, in conjunction with successful professionals of color from the area, to help students see that there are many successful business people and academics who look just like them.
- All companies need to look internally at their own culture and environment and do some soul-searching to see if they are really an inclusive workplace. The recent phenomenon of having courageous conversations to explore everyone’s thoughts, actions, deeds, feelings and try and understand where biases, whether intentional of not, exist is making a difference in having us all move to true diverse, equitable and inclusive culture. If students see the business workplace as a great place to build a career, one in which they are supported and valued as members of diverse teams with diverse leaders, we would hope to see an increase in students of color choosing a career in business.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ll define Leadership more in terms of what leaders do:
Listen: Everyone has a voice which is critical to developing the needed global mindset for making good decisions. One-way communication is only effective in limited circumstances and good leaders listen more than they talk. Listening also makes other members of the team feel more enabled to have a voice and feel like their involvement matters.
Learn: In today’s dynamic world, there is a constant need to stay current, learn new technologies, new processes, new challenges, new competitors, new models for working and deploying services or products. As quick as one can become a subject matter expert, their knowledge can be outdated just as quick. So everyday needs to be treated as learning opportunity.
Lead: Taking decisive action when appropriate and know how to leverage the diverse talents of a team. Acknowledging that sometimes the best action to take is to let the collective team determine next steps, especially in cases where you have been asked to lead a project where you are not the subject matter expert and others on your team are.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Where you live is almost as important as what you do. I transferred from Hawaii to a location that was not aligned with my personal interests, had a climate that was not like Hawaii and a work culture that was very different from the “Aloha spirit” I enjoyed. I quickly transferred back to Hawaii realizing that I needed to love the city where I worked, and now split my time between Charleston, SC and Palm Springs, CA.
Change is often painful, but also the best way to grow and develop. When I took on this new role, I was leaving a position that I had grown to love and could see myself retiring in. The thought of starting a new career at this juncture was somewhat uncomfortable, but I soon realized that I had a lot of ideas to bring to The Ph.D. Project and the KPMG US Foundation and my new teams were so receptive and willing to try new ideas, so it has been an amazing first nine months.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. My world for the last 20 years revolved around understanding accounting, finance and information systems curriculum, given those were the backgrounds that KPMG hired. Given my own CPA background, that created a comfort zone for me. In my new role, I suddenly had to immerse myself in management, marketing, economics and other business disciples that I was much less familiar with. However, I needed to understand including the path to a Ph.D. for each discipline. I honestly think it unearthed a hidden desire to go back and become a marketing major.
Take as many “styles of leadership/management” tests as you can and learn to understand that people all embrace different ways of working, learning, being motivated, leading, etc. I wish I had taken these tests early on in my career. They have helped me better understand the leadership styles of my supervisors and what motivate them, how my peers enjoy working as a team and how the teams I manage like to be motivated. There are so many difficult situations that could have been avoided if I had a better understanding of my teams working dynamics and preferences. With some minor adjustments, I look back and see places I could have created peace and harmony instead of angst or frustration.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe in using humor more than sarcasm, embracing positive words and view the glass as always half full. Approach cultural differences as a celebration of life experience and above all, act with integrity at all times. A world built on a lack of trust is one doomed for failure.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world; someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” Tom Bodett
I have hit the trifecta with my life partner of 25 years who has made this challenging job of nonstop travel and networking one of ease and joy. I have found five different career paths in my 38 years at KPMG and The Ph.D. Project that have all been stimulating and rewarding, bringing a strong sense of purpose to what I do each and every day. (Yes! I wake up happy each day wanting to go to work!) Finally, I have realized my desire to, one day, retire and become a full time professor teaching Introduction to Accounting and help students appreciate (but not necessarily like) the importance and joy of understanding numbers and how the world uses them to make decisions for professional and personal purposes. This is the full 360-degree return to my start in the classroom as a graduate assistant 40 years ago.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit down with Sir Richard Branson. He revolutionized travel through his innovative approaches to traditional experiences from airlines to hotels to space travel to cruise lines. I would love to meet and see what amazing travel experience he has lined up (post-COVID) so I can start saving now.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!