From the Ivory Tower to the Boardroom
Marketing executive used doctorate to unlock door to business world
By Ben Hammer
Dr. Shahron Williams van Rooij, a marketing executive for technology firm Datatel, recently traveled to Nassau, Bahamas, to scuba dive and take slide photography of the colorful underwater marine life — one of her favorite hobbies.
Van Rooij thrives in uncommon surroundings. She earned her master’s in international politics in Beirut, then returned to the City University of New York (CUNY) for her doctorate in quantitative techniques. She pursued an uncommon path after earning her degree, using her quantitative research skills to land marketing positions with the help of several headhunters.
Today, she occupies a spacious office at Datatel’s corporate headquarters and oversees a team of managers and a half-a-million dollar budget. Van Rooij has advanced in a field once the exclusive domain of White men — and her story offers important lessons for graduate students considering what to do with their degree.
“A career decision is not a single decision,” she advises doctoral candidates. “So if you decide today that you want to be a professor at a university, and that is the track you want to pursue, that doesn’t mean if you evolve into something else that you have betrayed academia.”
While pursuing her doctorate in the social sciences, van Rooij taught at Queens College in New York. Even before a city budget crisis sharply reduced the number of tenure-track positions open to her, she began to consider whether academia was where she wanted to be.
“I would read articles or hear professors talk about their work and the question that always popped into my mind was, ‘Who knows about this or even cares about this besides other professors in the discipline,’ ” she says. “Because it’s nice to write about things and publish it, but if only four other people are going to read it, then so what.”
Van Rooij says she liked the teaching aspect of her work, but found the university to be focused more on research.
“When learners learn and come back and say, ‘I was able to take what I learned in this class and do X, Y and Z,’ I found that very rewarding,” she says. “You just can’t do that at the university because the university is structured upon research, teaching second, community service third.”
So when she saw a newspaper ad looking for a non-MBA with strong academic credentials she responded and secured a market research job with Gray Advertising, a top agency.
“What it made me realize is that doctoral students have a choice,” she says of the unexpected turn of events. “Private industry and even nonprofit organizations and foundations are aware of the value of the doctorate beyond just the value of teaching academics.”
After a stint at another advertising firm, van Rooij moved to the Roseland, N.J.-based business services provider Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP) as a market research director helping the firm reorient its strategy to an accounting industry being transformed by the personal computer.
She married a Dutchman and from 1985 to 1991 worked for Dow Jones Telerate in the Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg form the Benelux countries) where she led the company’s marketing for the opening of new offices in Amsterdam, Brussels and Luxembourg. New York-based Telerate is a leading provider of real-time and historical financial data to Wall Street traders, delivered through a deep, proprietary technology infrastructure.
She founded and ran her own marketing firm in the Netherlands for five years before joining Datatel at their Fairfax, Va., headquarters, where she is now director of product marketing. The company builds software that supports the business functions of 600 colleges and universities, including eight historically Black institutions.
Making the Shift
Van Rooij says the initial shift from the ivory tower to the boardroom was a “startling” one.
“An academic is very much a lone ranger if you will. They’re used to working in isolation,” she says. “So learning to work on a team and work collaboratively without taking it as a personal criticism was something I had to learn.”
In the business world you serve more masters, adds van Rooij, but the work can be more rewarding because your work has a real-world impact.
“There are a lot more pulls on you in the business world,” she says in comparison to academia. “But with that said, I find it a lot more satisfying being able to respond to those pulls with evidence. Don’t always win,” she says with a laugh, “but at least responding with evidence, and even anticipating what some of those points might be.”
Van Rooij says she finds business more rewarding because it focuses more on application than theory.
“If someone takes the work that I do and makes a decision, that’s excellent,” she says. “I would prefer someone to execute on the results of what I put together and researched, and that’s the primary difference.”
While minorities and women continue to face discrimination in the workplace, van Rooij says she never met overt resistance while advancing in the technology industry. Working for many years overseas may have made a big difference, she says.
“Europe was a lot different than the States,” she says. “Ethnicity doesn’t play the same role in Europe that it does in the States.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an African American woman with a doctorate in the United States was met with skepticism, van Rooij says.
“Check her references, make sure she’s really got it,” she says. “And some of the reactions were, ‘Hey, we’ll look really good if we hire her.’ Others were, ‘We should hire her, take a chance.’ Either way you have to sell yourself on what you can contribute as an individual as opposed to how you’re going to look if you hire this token.”
This kind of degrading approach to her qualifications never discouraged her, she says.
“If you think I’m a token and that I’ll make a good token for you, and on the other hand I think this will be a great career move for me, I’ll happily be your token,” says van Rooij. “I never shied away from that.”
Though never discouraged by the number of minorities and women in the technology world, she says representation in the field is still a problem largely because of perception.
“If you don’t know the path exists, or the path is positioned in such a way that it makes it unattractive, then of course you’re not going to find a lot” of minorities or women, she says. “Even in general now, there aren’t a lot of people going after a degree in technology because technology is positioned as being uncool.”
Van Rooij is doing her part to open the door a little wider to others following in her footsteps. She stays active in the Black caucuses of the American Association for Higher Education, the Association for Computing in Education and the American Marketing Association (AMA).
She also mentors an MBA student at the University of Maryland through an AMA program. The advice she offers applies to all graduate students.
“Not to think of it as a bad thing if you make a career change or two or three in your life,” she says. “Because sometimes it takes that to get to the thing that suits you best and where you can make the best contribution.”
Though she left academia long ago, van Rooij has continued to teach evening classes at George Mason University and the University of Phoenix online campus, and she plans to return to teaching full-time after retiring from Datatel.
Van Rooij is also a vocal proponent of community colleges for minorities.
“Community colleges for ethnic groups should be considered an opportunity rather than a penalty,” she says. “If you’re not absolutely clear of who you are, what you want to do, or the means for financing what you want to do, start with the community colleges. Give yourself a chance to go out and experience the working world while you’re doing that. You’ll be a much better person.”
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