Virginia Kay with her foster puppy Worthy who died this month © Hand out

Virginia Kay is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US, where she is well-known for fostering and training service dogs for people who have disabling medical conditions such as quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. The dogs are then placed with owners by Eyes Ears Nose Paws, a non-profit organisation. In September, she will be joining the teaching staff at the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business.

Before starting her PhD in business, Ms Kay worked for the US intelligence community as an economist and undercover counter-terrorism case officer. She has also worked in the economic and commercial affairs section of the US Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago.

In her spare time, Ms Kay enjoys trail running in the woods and travelling around the world – her father was a US diplomat so she grew up in Germany, India, Pakistan, Romania and The Bahamas.

1. What is an average day like?

Unless I am teaching or travelling for conferences, I spend the majority of my time collaborating with co-authors or studying. At school, the dogs I train get practice riding the elevator, ignoring food in the cafeteria, meeting strangers, staying close to me in throngs of people, and staying quiet and still for long periods of time during classes and meetings. It’s important for the dog to make mistakes but in a safe environment. I have to be very flexible because the path to a training goal isn’t always straight and sometimes we take a few steps back before making a giant leap forward. It’s also important to be consistent; it’s crucial for building trust and gives us a chance to have many good experiences to counter possible bad experiences in the future. This is key when learning something new.

2. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

I love the show Undercover Bosses and my past career gave me a fondness for disguises, so I would go undercover for the day and spend my time working with employees in the dining hall, admissions office, technology support, facilities management, and so on. I would hope to learn more about what people honestly think about their employment and potentially identify areas of frustration that may not have previously come to my attention so that I could address them.

3. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

When my Austrian mother agreed to marry my Texan father, he promised her that their future children would learn German. They put me in a local middle school when we moved to Bonn even though I didn’t speak a word of German other than “Abendessen,” which means dinner. It was frustrating to understand nothing at first. However, after a year, my German was passable and during my second year there, I was invited to skip forward and join an older class. I am incredibly proud of my young self for not giving up because of the language barrier.

4. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

My work rarely translates into immediate rewards and even in graduate school there is tremendous pressure to publish even when you are new to the game. At my desk I keep a piece of advice by Confucius that has helped me stay focused despite the caprice of success in academia, which is that “it does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.”

5. What is the worst job you ever had?

When I was a college student I spent a summer working as a visa assistant for the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. My job was to pull hundreds of visa applications from the file room and prepare them for the consular officers conducting interviews the following day. I carefully removed the staples from all the documents in a visa applicant’s file, put the documents in the prescribed order, and then put a single massive staple through the file. I repeated this 500 times, for about 90 days. My hands were covered in paper cuts and I had blisters from the staple remover.

6. What advice would you give women in business?

Women are just as qualified as their male counterparts but tend to question their abilities more frequently. Whom you surround yourself with can make a big difference in your career progress. Mark Twain once advised “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” I have found this to be so true and would strongly recommend that if you are a self-doubter, you make an effort to surround yourself with truly great people who believe in your abilities.

7. What is the last book you read?

The last novel I read was Intersex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Based on my experiences living in many different countries, I’m drawn to immigrant stories that illuminate the complexities of maintaining a coherent sense of self despite the need to adapt to new conditions in order to survive. Plus the primary protagonist is raised as a girl but as an adolescent he transitions to a life as a man. Through his narrative, the reader gets incredible insight into the full spectrum of gender and how much of our identity stems from nurture versus nature.

8. Where would be your favourite place to teach?

I would be interested in teaching a class at the campus of Southern Methodist University in Taos, New Mexico. The small classes and compressed format give instructors more individualised time with students and the time I’ve spent in New Mexico has convinced me that the state slogan is quite true: it really is the land of enchantment. The sunsets are incredible, the mountain and desert scenery are gorgeous, the residents have a live-and-let-live mentality that is refreshing, plus I have no problem with green chillies garnishing everything on my dinner plate.

9. What is your life philosophy?

I believe that we are responsible for making our own happiness. I made a list in my early twenties of the activities that bring me the most joy and put a price on each item on my list. Surprisingly, most of the things I enjoy doing are constantly available and free, for example reading library books, running outdoors with a dog, relaxing with my friends and family, and giving my time to help those who cannot do things for themselves. If I’m undecided about committing to something, I think carefully about where that item ranks on my happy list. Identifying priorities in advance makes it easy to decide how to spend your time in ways that directly increase your well-being.

10. What are your future plans?

I’m elated to be joining the faculty at Cox Business School. I’ll be teaching three sections of the core management course in their business programme for undergraduates. The rest of my time will be spent advancing my current research projects and figuring out how to be a Texan. I think the time has come for me to finally learn the rules of American football.

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