Making Black History at UIC: Dr. Benét DeBerry-Spence

As Black History Month comes to a close, UIC Business would like to highlight one of our own Black History makers, Dr. Benét DeBerry-Spence, Professor and Department Head of Managerial Studies, the first African American department head and first African American tenured professor in the UIC College of Business. Chicago born and raised, Professor DeBerry-Spence stayed local in her pursuit of higher education. She attended the University of Notre Dame for undergrad, the University of Chicago for her MBA, and then ultimately landed at Northwestern University for her Ph.D. What’s interesting is that Professor DeBerry-Spence did not initially study marketing. As an undergraduate student, she was a pre-med major and subsequently began her career in the pharmaceutical industry. “I initially worked in the pharma industry for almost 12 years – so being a marketing professor is a second career for me.” Though her work involved some marketing, she did not study marketing academically until starting her Ph.D. at Northwestern.

Professor DeBerry-Spence admits that during her undergrad years, her laser-focus on pre-med courses averted her attention from other areas of study on campus. Thus, she wanted to do things differently during her Ph.D. program. “When I went back for my Ph.D., I wanted to capitalize on all that a college campus and university had to offer.” One of these offerings was a lunch talk hosted by a woman in Northwestern’s anthropology department. “Anthropology hosted a talk on second-hand clothing in Zambia. It was during lunchtime so I went to check it out and it was absolutely fascinating!” She recounted how the speaker detailed the entire journey and life cycle of second-hand clothing, as well as the implications second-hand clothing had on local textile markets. What mildly piqued her interest initially turned into a major source of inspiration for Professor DeBerry-Spence. While she had experience leading global teams across the world, in Brazil, Japan, and Western Europe, she had never worked in an African market. “This was an opportunity to do something different.”

Thus, she began her research in West African markets. Her dissertation takes a look at African clothing and its consumption by African Americans. “In the process of learning about African clothing, I traced the product from its point of inception in weaving villages through the entire commercialization process.” Through tracing the life cycle of these clothing items, Professor DeBerry-Spence had the chance to actively get involved with African microbusinesses. This prompted her to start her engaged research initiative with the MASAZI Visitor & Welcome Centre in Accra, Ghana.

As the second-largest continent, with just over a billion people, (according to The United Nations Population Fund), there is a huge opportunity for growth in development in African nations. By 2050 around 2.2 billion people could be added to the global population and more than half of that growth will occur in Africa (Kazeem, 2017). “Over the past ten years, we’ve seen a lot of companies, particularly consumer packaged goods companies, rushing to focus on African markets because of saturation in existing markets and the projected growth in African countries. It’s a huge opportunity.”

As she continued to conduct research in African markets, she came to an interesting realization: African microbusinesses are highly diverse. “One of the things I learned earlier on is that microbusinesses are some of the most diverse businesses you’ll run into. In emerging countries, there is often a lot of instability. When instability exists in a marketplace, businesses must rely on other things. For example: if I have a barbershop, I might sell drinks on the side. So when one thing is going down, you can rely on another.”

Upon earning her Ph.D. in 2003, Professor DeBerry-Spence remained local and accepted a faculty position at UIC and has been researching and teaching here since. Today, she is the Department Head of Managerial Studies and teaches graduate and Ph.D. level courses. “One of the things that attracted me to UIC is that it is an outstanding research institution. That’s a given. I wanted a place that would fit with the scholarly interests I had. It’s such a diverse institution in so many ways. Not only with the student population, but also with the type of scholarship that takes place on this campus. We have great people here.”

Professor DeBerry-Spence’s research and experience are enlightening and inspiring, to say the least. Upon reflecting on her own academic and professional experience, she leaves future student marketers and entrepreneurs with the following piece of advice: “Make sure you take advantage of the opportunities and resources available to you. Sometimes we’re limited by our own apathy. There are a lot of great things going on here on campus. You do eventually graduate and move and you don’t want to look back and say ‘I wish I had done this.’ Take advantage of these resources available to you and put that into your plan.”