Written by
Lois Elfman

Published
Feb 27, 2018

Business Scholar Leads Students and Companies to Embrace Diversity

Feb 27, 2018 • by Lois Elfman

An assistant professor of management in the School of Business & Industry at Florida A&M University and a sought-after consultant for businesses, Dr. Atira Charles brings real-world insight into the classroom and scholarly research into the business world. She says the blend of the two enables her to give both students and clients understanding of the complex issues facing businesses in the 21st century.

A Scholar

Charles, who earned a doctorate in organizational behavior and management from Arizona State University, teaches courses in organizational behavior and principles of management to undergraduates and organizational theory and analysis at the graduate level. She also teaches business ethics for the university's online MBA program. Her undergraduate courses are required for all business and health care management majors.

Students often tell her that her classes provide personal insights because she focuses on identity, self-awareness and introspection. She gives her classroom an uplifting, motivating vibe. It is important that students are able to understand the course content and apply it to their lives—especially students who aspire to be leaders. There are self-reflection exercises and sharing of life stories.

“In organizational behavior, we're talking about motivation, stress, personality, conflict and communication,” says Charles. “The class doesn't just stay within the workplace/business context. I create more of a real-world application. I'm of a philosophy that we can't teach them to lead other people if they don't know themselves and how to lead themselves and their own lives.”

Reflective of today's world, weekly assignments have a social media component—for example, developing a leadership meme. Charles found success metrics rose when she began doing this.

A Consultant

Her research focuses on racial and gender identity management in the workplace and how communication and feedback can create positive and productive environments. Companies, municipalities and organizations bring her in to look at organizational structures and help people manage their differences while striving for organizational success.

Charles says being a scholar enables her to simplify the complex business world for the everyday business practitioner. She takes data points and puts them into something more easily understandable.

“My ability to teach well allows them to have their organizational members be more transformed—actually taking them through a process of learning,” she says.

One example of her impact as a consultant is work she did with a professional sports team in a sport that is predominantly white. The team wanted increased focus on diversity. She created a three-month curriculum for the entire organization—top to bottom. While diversity shifts take time, she did see a tangible impact of her training on the mindsets of the personnel.

For a firm in the financial services industry, she presented self-awareness training for younger employees. Charles gave them strategies for how to be aware of their own identities in order to create identity alignment with clients.

“A lot of the companies that I go into, I'm the first black woman to come in as an expert to speak to them,” says Charles. “Presence and role models matter.”

Double Impact

“Being a diversity consultant, you see a lot of situations, so I'm able to share real-life scenarios with my students, and I think that makes them attach to it more, rather than it just being a theory,” says Charles, who says the university sees her business-world success as a positive reflection on Florida A&M.

“It also allows me to make connections in the business world that have value to FAMU,” she notes.

Charles thrives on being a faculty member at an historically black university, building future leaders. She also appreciates bringing her knowledge and experience as a woman of color into her work as a consultant, noting that the people she encounters often tell her they wish they'd known the strategies she suggests back when they were in college or early in their careers.

“The fact that I'm able to integrate that in the university setting for this next generation of future business leaders feels good,” Charles says. “I'm in a place where I'm able to equip them more effectively—catching them now rather than catching them down the road if their companies decide it's important to hire a consultant.”

When expressing herself on social media, she frames her messages to be teachable lessons.

Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as the Journal of Management DevelopmentHuman Resource Management and Organizational Dynamics, as well as in publications like Black Enterprise and Essence. On her website OurMasks.com, she collects stories about the internalized masks people wear as they traverse different parts of their lives. She says she has shed her masks and moves between academia and the business world as her authentic self.

“My mom told me, ‘If you have a light, shine it,’” says Charles, who enjoys shattering stereotypes. “The whole point is to be an expert in a lane that allows me to have a voice for populations that may not have a voice and be a knowledge keeper for people that may not have the knowledge.”