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Faculty Showcase: Adrienne Hall-Phillips

DEPARTMENT(S): 
April 19, 2022

As the child of an English teacher and millwright, I learned at an early age to appreciate learning, tinkering, exploration, and curiosity. As a kid, every extra-curricular activity from choir to Girl Scouts prepared me for a life of discovering problems and finding ways to solve them. It is because of this, that I was drawn to the world of engineering and all the wonderful possibilities that it offered. After a co-op with a polymers company and completing a degree in Chemical Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, I started my full-time career as a product developer at a large consumer products company. I spent several years developing new textiles, creating prototypes from basic concepts, finding new market opportunities, and getting to know why and how consumers used a variety of products. I worked with some talented professionals who all had the same goal: to make better products. I loved every minute of it. I had a dream job that provided opportunities for travel, projects with folks from all over the world, time in the lab and on the manufacturing floor, and an 18-month international assignment in Germany. Along the way, I realized that what I enjoyed most was talking with consumers about their experiences with everyday products and the stories about why a particular brand is their favorite. It was also during this time that I learned a very important lesson about the importance of the intersection of STEM and business. No matter how dazzling the product, if you can’t get consumers to try it or convince them that they need it, you won’t sell a thing, nor will you solve any problem. 

You might be wondering; how did she end up as faculty at WPI? Well, this was definitely not in my plan. While still working in corporate, I started to entertain the idea of going to graduate school to study more about how consumers make decisions. I started the journey by leaving my job and enrolling in a consumer behavior master’s degree program. Originally, I thought that post master’s degree, I would stay in research & development, but move to a position that was more focused on market research and consumer insights. I was perfectly happy with my corporate career and had no intentions of doing anything else. While in graduate school at Purdue University, I had the opportunity to serve as a TA for a single lab class, including teaching the module for the day’s activity. The moment the class was over, I realized that I really enjoyed the engagement with the students and wanted to do it again. Within a month I was applying for the doctoral program. I found my skills and experiences from my corporate career were a way to connect with students in the classroom. This was also the first time I was able to share my research with students. To my surprise, and that of my friends and family, I began the journey to a career in academia. In Fall 2011, after earning a PhD in Consumer Behavior, I left my home state of Indiana, to join the WPI community. 

The WPI School of Business is a perfect fit for me. I was thrilled to join a group of scholars who share my passion for science, tech, and business. I was first introduced to WPI when I met students from the WPI National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter when I was an undergrad student. I developed as a leader through my involvement with NSBE, so this connection is something that I cherish deeply. Fond memories of NSBE students long ago, a welcoming group of colleagues, and the opportunity to advise IQP projects around the world are the reasons why I came to this institution and part of why I have stayed. As business school faculty, I don’t see as many students in my classes as I would like, so I spend a considerable amount of time with students outside of the classroom, especially our Black students. Serving as the NSBE advisor affords me an opportunity to pass along not only my love for the organization but also the mentoring and career guidance that I received while attending a historically Black university. The transition to college, academic expectations and professional development required to be successful in the corporate world are all things that we prepare students for at WPI. These things can be more challenging for underrepresented groups of students who are trying to thrive in a world that has systemically been designed for them to fail. Serving the WPI community in this way brings me joy and is another reason why I have stayed at this institution.  

In addition to teaching and mentoring students, I also have an active research agenda. I have spent the last fifteen years learning as much as I can about why we as consumers do what we do – our motivations, influences, biases, attitudes, and consumption patterns. Most recently my focus has been on consumers and social media and how it has transformed our lives even if we aren’t actively participating on a single platform. What interests me most is how individuals are using social media platforms to express public discourse on any number of social issues without the boundaries of traditional communication structures. The virtual world provides a connected space where individuals, communities, and businesses can be connected in a way that allows for individuals to wield a power that is often unpredictable, but formidable. I’m actively working on getting students interested in social media research, by providing undergraduate research opportunities so students can explore social media data collection and analysis techniques, with the goal for them to sharpen their data analytics and consumer insight skills. Society is at a point where we need to change, with some of the most blatant evidence clearly represented in conversations online. I believe that these collective voices have the power to create that change in the world, and I can’t wait to observe and take note.