Intercultural collaborations forge first business PhD

Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, Graduate Studies

- Sasha Milam


“I’ve always been fascinated by how people work across differences,” says Sarah Easter, the Sardul S. Gill Graduate School’s first PhD alumna. Her recently-defended dissertation stands as testament to this passion: her work explores (among other things) which traits allow individuals to successfully collaborate, despite culturally-based differences. The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness—comprised of over forty organizations and associations from different sectors—provided the perfect case study for her to research these individuals in action.

Easter’s curiosity in this ability to bridge culturally-based differences—dubbed boundary spanning in academic literature—sprouted when she first saw it in action as a young member of a faith-based community in Pennsylvania. “Growing up in churches, where people are brought together because they have a common faith, but come from all different backgrounds, showed me the challenges and potential of people uniting around a common factor despite being very diverse in other ways.”

Her curiosity about how this principle applied in an organizational context emerged gradually. Easter earned a BA in business from Abilene Christian University and continued on to Rollins College to graduate with an MBA. She thought this would eventually lead to taking a position as a marketing executive in the consumer packaged goods industry. While taking an international marketing course at Rollins, however, she found herself drawn to the idea of social entrepreneurship.

“The thought of using business skillsets to address how organizations could pursue social goals really aligned with my personal values,” Easter recalls. She became interested in organizations that had more of an intentional social focus, and how they could balance the multiple, and sometimes competing, social and financial influences they faced. This new angle led to a stint in Vietnam working with local craftspeople with disabilities to help market their products abroad. Easter’s experience working with these artisans cemented her passion for social enterprise and further piqued her curiosity about how organizations navigated across differences in cultural values, and she started looking at PhD programs. Serendipity led her to a conference in New York City where UVic business professor Dr. Ana Maria Peredo was a keynote speaker. Peredo’s keynote address sounded like an invitation to Easter. She visited the UVic campus and found the culture at the business school to be a great fit: the faculty specialized in sustainability, social responsibility in business and cross-cultural management. Here she connected with her dissertation supervisor, Dr. Mary Yoko Brannen, and began to articulate her specific interest in boundary spanning.

Four years later, she is crossing the stage into UVic history as the business school’s first PhD graduate. Two of those years were spent doing qualitative research with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, examining how a partnership comprised of private, public and non-profit participants worked together to address the complex social issue of homelessness.

“I was really interested in these diverse organizations that are coming together to work on a complex social challenge,” Easter says. “[The participants] are still maintaining their own organizations, their own goals, their own values, yet they’re coming together to work on this issue.”

Her study has relevance beyond multi-stakeholder partnerships, however—there are also implications for more traditionally-structured businesses. “The research is saying more and more that in order to address complex societal issues, we need partnerships involving players from a variety of different sectors that have different skillsets,” she explains.

Easter will doubtless find applications for her findings in her next endeavor. This fall, she will be returning to Abilene Christian University, her first alma mater, as an assistant professor at their business school. She’s excited to be going back, in part because she sees several clear ways she can add value. “I think they’re really wanting to focus on explicitly incorporating sustainability into their curriculum.” With her interdisciplinary mindset and passion for social responsibility in business, Easter is perfectly teed up to spark an answering interest in the next generation of business leaders.


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Keywords: graduate research, convocation, alumni, community

People: Sarah Easter

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