Charlotte DBA graduate fulfills decades-long dream

DBA graduate Denise Wynn
Monday, December 11, 2023
Wynn builds strategic skills, connections through doctoral program

Years ago, Denise Wynn knew she wanted to earn a doctoral degree. Yet, with bills to pay and a demanding life tugging at her time and energy, she set the idea aside. Two decades later, she is now adding the long-desired "Dr." to her name as she completes a Doctorate in Business Administration degree from UNC Charlotte.

"Education has always been at the forefront in my family," Wynn said. "Our parents didn't really give my sisters and brothers and me a lot of options other than we were going to get our education. Education does unlock all kinds of doors. It’s the one thing that no one can take from you."

Wynn’s mother had earned a bachelor’s degree in the 1970s and went on to obtain a master’s degree, enabling her role as an elementary school principal in the Winston-Salem, N.C. area. Wynn’s father was an executive chef and had attended culinary school. They emphasized to Wynn and her siblings — her twin and a second set of twins — that education was the best way to ensure their futures.

Wynn took her parents’ advice to heart, completing two bachelor’s degrees at North Carolina Central University and an MBA at Pfeiffer University. She forged a career in academia, healthcare and clinical research at Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, FHI 360 and Duke University School of Medicine, where she currently is director of research administration.

Doctorate keeps calling

Despite her impressive educational and career achievements, Wynn still felt the pull of the unfinished business of a doctoral degree. As a younger scholar, she had perhaps viewed the degree as simply the next logical step. Now a more mature professional, she saw the doctoral program as a critical key to open locked doors.Denise Wynn

"I view things differently now than when I was younger," she said. "I was pretty much just working day-to-day. Now I'm in a place where I'm trying to think operationally how to make things better, strategically how to make things better. I think the motivation changed when I got to that point in my career where I felt that a doctoral degree would be advantageous."

One factor driving her was her journey as an African American woman in leadership roles, which has not always been easy.

"I’ve always had to get additional education — to make sure that I was fully equipped — to be in that same board room as others," she said. "It sometimes is exhausting, but that is the way it is. This doctoral degree is one of those additions that I thought would be vital for me to get to the next step. I think this degree gives me a slight edge."

Charlotte DBA creates opportunity

A doctorate also held the promise for Wynn to push, challenge and develop herself — just as her parents had encouraged. To fulfill the vision, she needed a program that allowed her to work in her demanding research career while also allowing her to develop new skills that would be respected.

"I found at Charlotte a DBA program that was able to accommodate a working candidate," she said. "That made it something that was doable. It was extremely hard, but I wouldn't change it for the world."

The practical turning point came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Wynn found herself working from home. The work-life shift carved out a few extra hours she usually spent commuting. "It was an excruciating time, but it also opened up an opportunity for me," she said. "I now had capacity, and I wanted to seize the moment."

She reached out to Reginald Silver, now the associate dean for graduate and executive programs with the Belk College of Business, who then was the college’s DBA program director. She asked penetrating questions, wanting to know about the graduation rate and other success indicators and seeking proof that the program would not let her down.

"I've had the opportunity to work in academia for 20 years, and I'm very familiar with how faculty are the catalyst in determining which direction you go," she said. "I wanted to make sure I was in an environment where I had the full support of the faculty before I even started the program."

Faculty urge scholars to dig deep

She found that — and more. Faculty have challenged and mentored her and other scholars to develop a higher-level mindset. They helped DBA candidates understand that they were in the program to learn the "why," not necessarily to focus on the "what." In other words, they were concerned with the undergirding theory and issues, and they pushed students to think beyond quick fixes. This shift was hard for students, who were at levels in their organizations that led them to focus on problem-solving, Wynn said.

"I have benefited from the theoretical thinking, and the type of learning we do in that program," she said. "The pushing it to a different level was just priceless. I think the design of the program having so many touch points with different faculty was beneficial. We probably had over 20 or 30 faculty members that we interacted with. I think the way they designed it gave us a well-rounded curriculum."

She particularly notes Silver, who was instrumental in ensuring students grasped data analytics. He also worked diligently to diversify cohorts of students, so that different perspectives could be brought into the learning process.

"It was comforting to see people in the cohort that look like me, and also that we all weren't the same," Wynn said. "He said, 'I just want smart people.' I think we banded together regardless of where we had been raised, what we look like, where we worked, and we really became like this family. We got to learn about different people, from all kinds of backgrounds. And it made the learning environment that much better even if it's just because we were challenging each other."

Her thesis committee chair, Scott Tonidandel, encouraged her to research a subject that interested her, which in her case was the difference between star and non-star performers at private research institutions who pursue external funding.

"He didn't give me answers," she said. "But he pushed me by saying, 'You can do this. We're here for you.' And that was encouraging, because it's a very hard program."

Students face challenges together

She also has gained support from fellow students, and she has given the same back.

"Fearing the unknown I think in our minds was the exciting part, like we didn't know what was going to happen," she said. But we decided, 'Let's try it out,' where most people fear it and never try it. We were very cohesive, because for two years we did everything online because of COVID. We never met in person until our last two courses. We had to have a different type of bond."

By the completion of her time in the program, Wynn had moved into a role with 40 employees reporting to her, managing over $260 million dollars in research funding and working all around the world.

"When I was enrolled, I was ecstatic," she said. "Little did I know that I would go through two job changes during the program, which did hinder me just a bit. But it did make me really not procrastinate. I've really had to focus. As difficult as it was, I would do it all over again. The life-altering part is that this is an investment in myself."