2020 Alumni Fall 2020 News

Successful tech leader sees opportunities for real change

Author, serial entrepreneur and Silicon Valley CEO Promise Phelon ’93 talks about opportunity, bias and why institutions must change to thrive.
Phelon describes her younger self as somewhat “naive about bias.” Growing up outside Dallas, she was often one of the few nonwhite students in classrooms and clubs. At SMU, that naivete was an asset, Phelon says, giving her the courage to lead in settings where she was often in the minority. The successful CEO and author lives in the San Francisco Bay Area today, and has a new book, The Way of the Growth Warrior, written for underdogs of all sorts.
“We have to start talking about the fact that most people are underrepresented,” she says. “Most of us didn’t go to Stanford, we’re over 40, maybe we’re divorced. It’s beyond gender and race. All these things are biased. As an underdog, you often don’t know you are one.”
Phelon says that while she did face bias in college, she also encountered opportunity. She recalls sharing a sorority house with people from massively privileged families, and being stunned to learn how they handled finances and mortgages, borrowed money and invested in the stock market. “I feel privileged that, as someone who considers herself an underdog, early in life I got access to people who were crushing it economically,” she says.

“If you’re an institution of any kind – an organization, government, university, corporation – you can no longer give lip service to change. You have to actually do it.”

While writing her book, Phelon reflected on her time at SMU and how it shaped her. “I found that one of my superpowers is that I am a divergent thinker,” she says. It’s a quality she traces directly to specific classroom experiences and professors. Phelon, who studied world religion at SMU, says she benefited from a liberal arts degree that taught her to think comparatively and empathetically.
“What I learned in religion was culture, anthropology, language, critical thinking,” she says, tools that helped her thrive as a leader in Silicon Valley. As positively as she remembers her time at SMU, Phelon is honest about the prejudice, and how that needs to change.
“SMU was a hostile environment for people of color when I was there,” she says. “As I progressed in SMU’s culture, I saw there was a certain fraternity that was extremely racist. I realized how hard it was to get into a ‘top sorority’ if you were a person of color or if you weren’t pretty or if you weren’t wealthy.”
Phelon is inspired by the people taking to the streets to march for equality and protest injustice. “Youth culture and Black culture have merged,” she explains. “It’s moved from being ‘those people’ to ‘it’s us.’ Youth today feel a deep sense of kinship with people of color … our cultures are no longer bifurcated. We’re one.” Phelon says this movement, fueled by young people, is one the world can no longer ignore. “If you’re an institution of any kind – an organization, government, university, corporation – you can no longer give lip service to change. You have to actually do it.”
When she advises CEOs and other leaders, Phelon asks them to consider the “why” behind their actions to increase diversity and inclusion. She says it’s important for leaders to see, articulate and believe in the benefit of these actions.
“So I applaud President Turner for starting the conversation,” she says. “And I also implore him to effect real change.”
Visit Promise Phelan’s The Growth Warrior website.

2017 Fall 2017 News

The Way Of The Servant Leader

Craig C. Hill joined SMU’s Perkins School of Theology as dean and professor of New Testament in July 2016 from Duke University Divinity School. Although his latest book, Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016), is aimed at church leaders, its lessons can be readily employed by people leading institutions, corporations and even nations – and, he told SMU Magazine with a hint of irony, by him as well.
What is a servant leader?
The term “servant leader” can seem like an oxymoron because we tend to view leaders as persons who dominate and command. By contrast, servants are typically located far down on the ladder of social status and influence. Parents don’t dream of raising their children to be servants. Nevertheless, choosing to engage in a lifetime of service requires a strong sense of personal identity. Ironically, egocentrism is a position of great weakness. If we constantly look to others for affirmation – in effect, to tell us who we are – we place ourselves in a chronically servile position. True service doesn’t come from a place of weakness but rather a place of strength.
Why did you use the foot-washing story found in John 13 to reflect Jesus’ thoughts about status and serving?
Throughout the Gospels, the disciples were the egocentric ones, always worrying about their relative position, competing with each other for status. In this story, Jesus is the only one in the room who truly knows who he is, who isn’t constrained by the opinions of others and, therefore, the only one free to serve. Jesus voluntarily assumed what was then considered the lowest task – that of washing the feet of others – to set an example of true leadership and true standing. Elsewhere when the disciples bickered over rank, Jesus said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He didn’t say they must empty themselves of meaning or value, or that it is wrong to want to have a life of significance. Instead, he turned on its head the conventional understanding of where significance was to be found: through service, not supremacy. Those who lose themselves in something greater than themselves are the very ones who find themselves.
How does this correlate to positions of authority and power in today’s world?
Researcher and author Jim Collins observed that companies that have transitioned from “good to great” shared a common factor: their leaders didn’t have “larger than life” personalities, as one would expect, but were instead remarkably humble. Their CEOs weren’t focused on drawing attention to themselves but were laser-focused on the mission of the institution. They were unselfconsciously “self-forgetful,” putting their passion for the mission of the company ahead of themselves.
How do you apply this philosophy to your leadership of Perkins Theology?
I often reflect on the story of the “widow’s mite,” about a woman who gave a gift to the temple that everyone but Jesus regarded as insignificant. Jesus saw a person invisible to others and recognized the quality and depth of her sacrifice. It reminds me that the more prominent a position you’re in, the more people will likely recognize you, but also the more tempted you might be to overlook those less noticed whom God would honor ahead of you. Universities are typically hierarchical places, where staff can feel unseen and disregarded. I don’t want Perkins to be guilty of that. Everyone here is a partner in the mission of the school; everyone has a contribution to make.
How did you handle the irony of being named dean of Perkins Theology only months before your book on status and ambition was published?
That put me in an awkward and rather humorous position. It was somewhat safer tackling this topic as a professor. Moreover, the book made a few explicit references to theological school deans. Rather than expunge these, I retained them as an inside joke at my own expense. On a more serious note, it made me all more conscious of the fact that the book contains essential lessons that I myself need to remember and to heed.


SMU alumnae named among world’s Top 10 Servant-Leader CEOs

SMU alumnae Melissa Reiff ’77, CEO of The Container Store, and Brittany Merrill Underwood ’06, founder and CEO of the Akola Project, made’s list of the world’s Top 10 servant-leader CEOs.
Underwood, No. 5 on the list, was cited as a “clear example of a servant leader practicing conscious capitalism to transform the lives of impoverished women and families.”
Her commitment to that cause was sparked by a summer she spent in Uganda while an SMU undergraduate. In 2007 she established the Akola Project, and over the last decade, it has blossomed into a thriving social business.
The nonprofit offers jewelry-making jobs that provide a living wage to women living in poverty in Uganda and Dallas.
When the jewelry was introduced in Neiman Marcus last fall, the “full impact brand” became a bestseller. The luxury retailer has since doubled its Akola business.
Underwood, who received SMU’s Emerging Leader Award in 2013, plans to build on Akola’s success in the luxury market after winning the top prize of $75,000 at the United Way GroundFloor’s OneUp the Pitch contest in April.
Reiff, No. 8 on the list, was commended for “continuing the company’s commitment to ‘conscious capitalism’ and its servant leadership-driven culture.”
Reiff joined The Container Store in 1995 as vice president of sales and marketing. She was promoted to executive vice president of stores and marketing in 2003. She served as chief operating office and president before being elevated to CEO in 2016.
She is credited with improving The Container Store’s approach to launching new stores and has played a critical role in enhancing and strengthening the retailer’s “employee-first” culture, a philosophy that has led to 18 consecutive appearances on Fortune’s annual list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
Reiff received an SMU Cox Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013 and has served on the school’s executive board and been active on the Cox Associate Board.
Read the full story at