Erika James / Darden

I am pleased to communicate to you my “dream idea” that I will pursue in recognition of the Colley-Mead award.

For the past 9 years I have been a member of the teaching faculty at the Darden Business School, and in that time have had the pleasure of teaching and learning from over 1200 MBA students.  Although most of the transfer of concrete knowledge has occurred in the classroom setting, many of my most enjoyable and life enhancing experiences with students are represented by the small moments that occur beyond the classroom.  Initially these small moments were primarily with women students but recently, more men have approached men for guidance in the area of work-life, and in particular the management of long-distance relationships as one pursues his or her professional goals.

On one level, I am an obvious choice to have these conversations.  For the past 11 years I have experienced both the joy and heartache of managing a long-distance marriage while I pursued a career in academia and my husband pursued a career in the private sector.   During the course of our marriage we have had two children and by every measure experienced success in our respective careers.  I have come to learn that many of the Darden students anticipate the need to pursue similar long distance work-life arrangements and have real trepidation about doing so.  They use language to describe their potential future state in what I consider to be very disturbing ways and I worry that a negative mindset going into the situation will create unnecessary complications for them both professionally and personally.  Given the changing nature of work and how and where business is handled, I anticipate that an increasing number of students will be faced with the reality of being separated from a spouse or significant other for short or long periods of time over the course of their careers.

Given my experiences and a desire to use those experiences to help people manage their future career and personal goals, my dream-idea is to work with a small group of students on the creation of a book and documentary that addresses these issues.  There is a “research” component to this project in that the book will be based on the experiences of actual couples who have successfully and unsuccessfully lived through commuter relationships.  The students and I will meet on a regular basis to identify couples, create an interview protocol, engage in in-depth interviews, analyze the data to identify themes that will form the foundation of the book, and ultimately draft and outline each of the chapters.  The book is tentatively titled “The Commute.”

As a second phase to this project (albeit one that is potentially beyond the scope of the award) I will be working with the same group of students, as well as two Darden alumni filmmakers, to create a documentary of the couples whose stories we profile in the book. My goal is for the book and the documentary to be a resource for people who are committed to pursuing a profession that might challenge traditional norms of family life.  I want to show a complete picture of the joys and challenges that professional couples experience and offer a set of tools for successfully managing various forms of commuter relationships.  As a secondary market, the book will also speak to HR professionals and others who are responsible for managing people who are in commuter relationships.  These can be some of the most productive and committed employees and yet to be so requires a partnership, understanding, and potentially a willingness by their employer to consider unconventional ways to tap the talent of people whose circumstances may be erroneously perceived as difficult or undesirable.

I understand that this project may seem a bit unusual.  I have tried to convey the importance of this work and I look forward to exploring the projects outlined above with the Darden students.  The students who have signed up to participate have a personal interest in the topic of commuter professional couples (primarily because they expect to be a part of one), and therefore I am confident that they will learn a great deal from interacting with the couples they meet and from the rigor of the research involved in the data collection and analysis.  In communicating the idea of “The Commute” to others there has been, without exception, a response that the need for this type of work is critical, and that timing is perfect.

As I stated earlier, I am honored to be the recipient of the Colley-Mead award and am tremendously excited about the work we have planned and being able to deliver “The Commute”.