Wanda Costen is leading change in business education.
The Smith School of Business Dean discusses her own journey and preparing students to be leaders who understand their role in society.
A tremendous change is underway in business. Technology is altering how organizations operate. COVID-19 continues to test governments, institutions and businesses. Companies are being called upon to address racial injustice and pressing societal issues like poverty and climate change.
Business needs are changing as a result. As the Dean of Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Wanda Costen is working to ensure that organizations have access to the talent they need to succeed.
“At the end of the day, we’re providers of talent. As business needs change, talent must also evolve,” Wanda explains. “Business education must adapt its curricula, research and student experience to meet these changing needs.”
Wanda is helping to lead that change in business education. She sees three key areas in which schools must adapt.
The first is recruitment. Are schools enrolling the right students to meet global talent needs? It’s an important question. The business world is diverse and graduates can expect to work with people from many different backgrounds, countries and cultures. The classroom experience should reflect that diversity—both in its students and professors.
“It’s not enough to simply graduate good corporate citizens.”
Second, schools must rethink how they teach. “We must focus on the competencies and skills that employers need going forward,” Wanda says. Core business skills are important, but students need to learn how to navigate the world, solve problems and engage with others.
Third, business schools must become leaders in making a positive difference in society. Through research and partnerships, business schools can contribute to solving the world’s biggest issues. At the same time, they must use their considerable resources—including faculty and student expertise—to improve their own communities.
“It’s not enough to simply graduate good corporate citizens,” Wanda says. “We must prepare students to be leaders who understand their role in society regardless of the sector: business, government, entrepreneurship or not-for-profit.”
The army life.
Wanda’s life and career make her well-suited to guide Smith through this evolution.
As a child, Wanda moved every three to five years. Her dad was a U.S. soldier; her mom worked for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, the military’s retail arm. Postings took the family from Texas to Kansas to Oklahoma, and back to Texas again. The family’s first significant trek was to Germany.
“It was a very different experience for a 12-year-old with two younger brothers, but we weren’t worried because my parents—working-class people from the Northeast—were excited about it. They fell in love with Germany. They embraced the language and told us to learn the culture. I think that taught us not to be afraid of new cultures and new experiences,” she recalls.
After high school, Costen attended the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“Most people expect to hear that I grew up in a military family and followed those footsteps, but that is not what happened,” she says. It was her Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. high school elective that inspired her to join the Army.
“I took [JROTC] and was good at it. By the time I moved into my senior year, I was the battalion commander for the entire school, and I realized that all the people ahead of me who had been in that role went to West Point,” Wanda says.
“The experience taught me a lot about the evolution of a historic, traditional institution, how people’s experiences can differ, and what it means to be welcomed, invited in and treated equally.”
She was in West Point’s seventh class that included women. “The first class entered in 1976. I graduated in ’86, so we were the 10-year anniversary of women just being at the academy.” Wanda recalls “a lot of backlash against us from male cadets, and we didn’t understand why that was happening.” But she adds: “The experience taught me a lot about the evolution of a historic, traditional institution, how people’s experiences can differ, and what it means to be welcomed, invited in and treated equally.”
After graduation, Wanda served as a platoon leader and military police officer. Following that, she moved into business, working at PacTel Paging, Xerox, Pepsi, Greyhound and Aramark. “I developed a background in sales, moved into operations and then human resources.”
Her pivot into academia came while visiting universities in her role as an HR director with Aramark. “One of my responsibilities was to recruit new talent. I would be invited into the classrooms at Washington State University where I would guest lecture and meet the students. The director of the program kept saying to me, ‘We need people like you in post-secondary,’” she recalls. “The next thing I knew, I had an offer to teach as an instructor and get my PhD.”
While earning her executive MBA from Pepperdine University, Wanda read a book called The Path that changed her life. “I’ll never forget it. It helps you write a mission statement for your life. At the end of the book, it asks: Are you living your mission statement? My answer was: kind of, but not really…so I just took a leap [into academia],” she says.
With teaching, she’d found her calling. “I fully believe this is what I’m put here to do. I loved every job I had, but when I got in the classroom, it just fit,” she says. “It’s about impact. It’s about passion. It’s about love. It’s about integrity. It’s about helping people achieve their best.”
A new vision.
Wanda joined Smith in July 2021 from MacEwan University, where she was dean of the business school. She’s now leveraging her skills from a 35-year career spanning the military, private industry and academia, and her lived experience of the challenges of lack of diversity in business and education, to contribute to Queen’s University’s strategic vision.
“I wanted to be part of an organization that is ready to do things differently, that’s ready to position itself for what I believe business education is for the 21st century,” she says.
In her first year on the job, Wanda has spent considerable time talking to business leaders locally, nationally and internationally. A common theme has emerged: the need for talent that not only possesses strong core business knowledge, but also has an understanding of the importance of a business’ societal impact. Companies want proven abilities in teamwork, communication, cultural competence and social skills.
“We have to recognize that today raw talent looks differently, presents differently, has different experiences.”
Meeting these new organizational expectations not only requires business schools to transform how and what they teach, but also broaden who is taught and who gets to teach.
“We have to recognize that today raw talent looks differently, presents differently, has different experiences,” she says. “Business education must be accessible to people from different backgrounds. In a global business world, students benefit when they learn from professors with varied experiences from around the world,” Wanda says.
Wanda notes that Smith is working from a foundation of strength, with faculty, staff and alumni who support her commitment to providing a transformative, innovative and inclusive approach to business education.
“We can impact the global business education sector, and as such, impact global business. I intend to take us there.”