The Fox School often refers to alumni as “changemakers”—professionals who are focused on social impact, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and shape their careers around making the world a better place.
Bernie Milano, BS ’61, is a quintessential example of a changemaker. With support from the KPMG Foundation, Milano founded the PhD Project; over the last 28 years, he and the organization have helped African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans return to academia to earn their doctorates and become business professors. His work has dramatically increased the number of minority faculty teaching in business schools today—according to AACSB, there were just 294 in 1994 and now there are over 1,300. Milano has also given back to his alma mater through his work on the Center for Ethics, Diversity and Workplace Culture advisory board, where he provides support for the center in accomplishing its goals of educating students, sponsoring research and engaging with industry.
Due to this service to his community and much more, Milano was recently presented with the AACSB 2022 Influential Leaders Award by the Fox School of Business.
The Fox editorial team sat down with Milano to find out more about the beginnings of the PhD Project, diversity in academia and what lessons business schools can learn from his work.
What inspired you to start the PhD Project?
In 1994, I was responsible for college recruiting for KPMG and I was very frustrated because I was not able to find students of color coming out of the business schools, especially in accounting and finance.
It’s one thing to have metrics about hiring practices and goals. Every company has those. But I really felt that we couldn’t have a very successful organization if we didn’t have more diversity. We saw that at Historically Black Colleges, the faculty were diverse and Black students were thriving. Students could come in and see themselves represented in the classroom. Other colleges were nowhere close in terms of diversity.
So rather than continuing to say, ‘Well, we can’t find diverse graduates coming out of business schools,’ I was proud of KPMG for saying, ‘Okay, let’s try something we haven’t done before.’ Let’s try a systemic approach, as opposed to something that looks good for two or three years and then it’s over. So that’s why we launched.
What was that initial work like?
We had no clue—there was no template to follow. We knew we had to find a way to educate people in the corporate world about this career opportunity, so we decided to have a conference.
To spread the word, we partnered with organizations like the National Black MBA Association, National Society of Hispanic MBAs and the National Association of Black Accountants to send our information to their membership.
Can you talk a bit about how your privilege and experience in the business world has allowed you to take a risk like the PhD Project?
So, personally, I grew up in the apartment above my father’s dry cleaning store. My mother and father both finished eighth grade and that was the end of their education. My brother, who is 12 years older, led the way for me by going to Temple’s School of Dentistry.
But on the side of taking a risk, I give KPMG a lot of credit. We basically approached leadership and said, this is a business problem, a pipeline problem. We have to have more diversity—the clients demand it, society demands it, our people demand it. We can’t walk away from it. We freed up funding and we knew that this was a project with a long lead time to get people interested in the idea of pursuing their PhD. It was not a quick fix.
How do programs like this benefit business schools like Fox?
I think the benefit on the business school side is you’re producing a product that’s supposed to be able to assume leadership roles when they graduate. Now, if you’re producing that in a monocultural environment, you’re doing not as good of a job because if you don’t have minority faculty, you’re not gonna have minority students.
And it’s only when the classroom reflects the diversity they are likely to find in society and in the corporate world that they’re ready for it. For example, for students who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, go to a predominantly white high school and college, the first time they really experience people who are different from them is when they start their job. It’s likely that they will not be prepared for that, and will not do as well as they could. And there is a chance that, on the organizational side, there will be problems with the way that employee interacts and communicates with people who are different from them.
A lot of people see hiring practices as being ‘broken.’ Practices like ‘blind hiring’ do not account for a person’s specific background in terms of gender identity or race, which seems counterintuitive to the goal of inclusion and wanting a diverse range of voices in the room when it comes time to make business decisions, or for educating the next generation of business leaders. What strategies do you recommend for recruiting and hiring?
I ran recruiting for KPMG for a couple of decades and if you seriously believe that diversity is critical to your organization, then you have to go out and find the right candidates.
You can’t be satisfied taking the easy road. Any time there’s a serious business issue, people work really, really hard at trying to solve that business problem. So to suggest that the way to solve a diversity problem, in terms of total acquisition, is going to be easy? Forget it.
One of the things I found personally when I reached out to companies to get involved with the PhD Project was they were unwilling to change the way they recruit. Organizations have to go in recognizing that if they are really serious, they will have to put the resources behind this work.
The other thing that can be crucial for both recruitment and retention is the idea of ‘cluster hiring.’ (Faculty cluster hiring is an emerging practice in higher education and involves hiring faculty into multiple departments or colleges around interdisciplinary research topics, or “clusters.) Being a pioneer can be exhausting. If these people went to a diverse high school, they probably know what it’s like to be on their own. They know what it’s like to be isolated. Then they go to college where they might be one of a few minority students. Then a doctoral program where they might be the ONLY minority student. Hiring a group of faculty at the same time, where they can form a community and share experiences, can help make people want to stay.
How about schools, colleges or businesses that might not have the funding for cluster hiring?
I’ll tell you something that a couple of schools are doing. One school is running a research support program for minority doctoral students. They bring in minority doctoral students from other universities for a few days to work with senior faculty who are researching in the same area. So the school is helping the doctoral student get a different perspective on their research than they’re getting in their own doctoral program, but they also can present their research in a very safe, trusting environment. Subliminally, of course, what that school’s doing is saying, ‘When you finish your doctoral program, we hope you will come here.’
Another university is taking PhD Project doctoral students and teaching them how to be better presenters. They’re really helping these people be better at their first job and, again, the subliminal message is, ‘We care about you and look how great our school is. Look how great our community is. Look how great the city is.’ And so it helps their hiring. So it’s really stepping out to do something different and there are lots of opportunities to do that.