Career Paths

Studying Change to Affect Change: A History PhD in Human Resources

Camille Henderson, October 2013

Camille Henderson

I came to the University of Chicago to study the history of race in America. From the day I applied, I knew I didn't want to be an academic. I kept my plans to myself, because career paths outside of academia weren't valued in my department. Instead, I pursued a targeted approach to my studies and my work as an organizational development consultant to prepare for my career. I wanted to help companies diversify their workforce successfully. To me, that meant they would broaden their definitions of leadership, build cultures that encouraged different ways of thinking and solving problems, and measure talent and performance through merit.

My desire to study the history of race stemmed from my personal background. My parents married interracially in the early 1970s, which led to our visibly different family, and they raised us with a strong social justice background. We lived in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb on the north shore of Chicago. I felt comfortable being a mix of black and white even at a time when little mixing took place anywhere. In the summers, my parents sent my siblings and me to an interracial day camp in a neighboring suburb where black children were bussed in from the south side of the city. In addition to being one of the only brown faces that didn't take the bus, the camp was a formative moment for me in another way.

On my first day, the bus pulled up to the curb and the kids from Chicago filed out. A girl with long braids, who was around my age of nine, stepped off the bus and made a beeline over to me. "What are you?" she asked. "Black and white," I said. "You can't be both, you have to choose one," she replied. "No, I don't, my parents said I could be both." As she shook her head and walked away, I wondered: why couldn't I be both?

That experience pushed me to consider how my personal history compared to external perceptions of black and white race relations in the US and I wanted to learn more. I did this, in part, by attending diversity seminars and conferences on race as a high school and college student. The speakers at diversity conferences in the 1980s and 90s often addressed their subject matter from a social justice standpoint, rather than a related academic discipline such as history, political science, or psychology and, in my mind, their messages didn't add up. People were viewed as "experts" in diversity and race relations because they were passionate about the subject or because they were a person of color.

But, I felt, if you weren't qualified to be an engineer because you were passionate about design, or to be a doctor because doctors raised you, then you weren't qualified to diagnose the root causes of complex racial issues just because the topic was of personal interest or you were born into a minority group. To make progress on multi-faceted, centuries­old social problems, we would need people trained to analyze both the history of our problems and our progress.

I wrestled with two questions when I came to the University of Chicago. My parents were not the only ones capable of connecting to one another and having a successful interracial family, so why did this kind of connection seem impossible to so many? Secondly, despite the fact that race is often thought of as a collection of static categories and chronic injustices, we've made tremendous changes. So, how did we make this happen as a nation and why is our progress typically overshadowed by the belief that race is a social constant? Long talks with my step­grandfather, a professor of Russian history at Yale, convinced me that the study of history would help me answer these questions. Our conversations made me think of history like an investigative tool. If you wanted to understand something, you needed to take it apart, study its evolution, and examine how it worked. Through history, I could trace the seminal moments, the hidden actors, and the incremental shifts that translated into major changes in how race was understood and acted out in America.

I majored in history at the University of Illinois and then came to Chicago's history department to pursue my PhD. One could argue that a master's degree in the history of race would have sufficed for me to gain a comprehensive knowledge of American race relations and prepare me to work first as a consultant, and now as a leader in human resources and people strategy. But understanding the history of 19th­ and 20th­century race relations wasn't enough. There were historical questions I needed to answer for myself. What are the mechanics of racial change? What are those hidden moments in US history where we made small adjustments to race relations that led to a progressive transformation of large­scale conceptions of race?

I had come to believe that much of the improvement we have made as a nation is encapsulated in these moments, where the microcosm influenced the macrocosm, and vice versa, in an evolutionary feedback cycle. Exploring some of these moments would challenge the historiography of race in America, which was primarily a record of conflict and strife. This historical lens explained how a law was overturned or schools were desegregated, but it didn't explain the multitude of interactions that shifted and became normalized, altering how race was lived and experienced in America at the level of the everyday. I had grown up in this space; I knew it existed through my personal history, but I wanted to find national echoes of this history as well. The purpose of doctoral work is to make a contribution of new knowledge to your field. Offering answers to these questions was the contribution I wanted to make to my field and then take with me in my work outside of academia.

My time in the academy was incredible. My professors, Tom Holt, Kathy McHugh, George Chauncey, and Jim Grossman, provided me with opportunities to learn how to analyze and challenge data, create complex thematic pictures from historical information, refine my writing (endlessly), debate, and conceptualize and answer difficult, complicated questions. These skills have been invaluable to me in my academic and professional life. Most importantly, these skills helped me create a sophisticated, nuanced approach to my work in my current role as the head of human resources for Agios, a biopharmaceutical company focused on cancer and rare metabolic diseases. At Agios (and at Genentech, my previous employer), leaders understand that our company culture directly influences our ability to make great medicines for patients. A key aspect of my role is to study our corporate culture and design strategies that facilitate scientific work by improving employees' ability to form and lead successful teams, make decisions, resolve difficult issues, and develop effective leadership skills. My doctoral research taught me how to approach my work because through it, I learned how cultures could be influenced and changed.

One of the last classes I took at Chicago was Tom Holt's seminar on race theory. Who should walk into class one day but the girl in long braids who challenged me on the first day of camp. Though we never had a chance to speak in class, this girl had pushed me to question my understanding of race in a fundamental way that started a fascinating intellectual journey, a journey that was realized through the PhD program at the University of Chicago.

The work I have done since completing my PhD has moved beyond race to broader questions of how to remove the obstacles to high performance that exist because of differences in how we each think and act. This "cognitive diversity" presents fascinating organizational challenges and, if harnessed effectively, a potential stimulus to drive development and creativity within companies. Tackling this question has felt like an evolution of the questions that brought me to Chicago and I continue to use the skills I learned there daily.


-Camille Henderson is the head of human resources at Agios Pharmaceuticals, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.