Gelila Sebhatu

With 15 years of strategic consulting experience and an Executive MBA from Pamplin in 2011, Gelila Sebhatu entered the Executive Ph.D. program unaware of the biggest challenge she would face.

“It was not that the work was ten times harder than anything I had ever done before, but having to adjust my whole way of thinking and problem solving from a ‘what is the problem and how can I best solve it’ practitioner point of view to a more academic, theoretical approach of ‘what does existing research say and how can I build upon it,” Sebhatu said. “I had to clear my brain.”

There have been bumps in navigating the road between the corporate world and academic culture but, refusing to give up, Sebhatu is now on the home stretch of writing her dissertation and is projected to graduate in Spring 2023.

She overcame one hurdle when she took one of Richard Hunt’s classes. Hunt, now her dissertation advisor, was open to research topics outside of his own. He was, she said, a complimentary fit for what she needed to refine her area of research.

“Dr. Hunt has been instrumental in showing me how I can steer my interest in human behavior within the space of entrepreneurship, which has become my concentration area,” Sebhatu said.

Last year, she presented research from her dissertation in progress, entitled “Early-stage Investor Decision Making: The Role of Narcissism and Gender,” at the 2021 Babson College Entrepreneurship Research Conference (BCERC). 

Attending this and other conferences while a Ph.D. student has allowed her to meet experts in her research field, she said, some with whom she remains in contact and one who has even become a mentor and friend.

Being able to make these kinds of connections is invaluable and helps you feel part of the academic community,” she said.

Sebhatu said she has also benefitted from being a student in the Ph.D. Project, an organization that offers mentoring, networking, and unique events and connects businesses to a diverse pool of high-potential candidates. Its goal is to build a national movement that continues to gain momentum as more diverse business faculties inspire more diverse business students who will one day lead more diverse corporations.

Sebhatu had thought about pursuing a Ph.D. in business for a while. “There are not many universities that offer such a program,” she said, “and Virginia Tech was at the top of my list because of such a positive experience in the Executive MBA program.”

Pamplin’s cohort model is one of the things she liked best about both programs. “Students in the cohort offer each other so much emotional support,” she said. “We are there for one another.”

While she has been able to adapt to a more academic culture and has reached the final stage of the Executive Ph.D. program, Sebhatu is still trying to decide whether a traditional academic career of teaching and conducting research is in her future. 

But, one thing she knows for sure.

“The program made me realize how much I really love research and I want to continue to research and publish in journals so, even if I wind up back in a corporate environment, I am determined to find a way to do that,” she said. 

- Written by Barbara Micale