Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
Dr. Janis Dietz is as tough as professors come, but her students emerge ready to meet the challenges of and be successful in the business world.
And so, in the warm embrace of spring, Commencement ceremonies bloom at colleges and universities across the nation, bringing pomp and circumstance, distant relatives and, in some cases, a suffocating anxiety or a knee-buckling terror to graduates not sure if they’ve been prepared well enough to hang in the real world.
Fortunately, the latter does not befall students of Janis Dietz.
Dietz, a professor of business administration at the University of La Verne for the past 18 years, presents her Marketing students with a simple business proposal: If they work hard — perhaps harder than they ever have — learn the concepts, polish the presentation, write the papers, re-write the papers, give her all they’ve got, she will make sure that, by the time they don cap and gown, they’re ready to succeed in the business world.
Dietz is tough. Like a drill sergeant in boot camp, she knows that what she teaches her students could very well be the difference between financial life or death in the battles ahead. So she has to be demanding.
“This generation was brought up with, ‘Everybody gets a valentine,’ and ‘Everybody passes the class,’ Dietz said. “I don’t pass everybody. Everybody doesn’t pass. The real world is that everybody doesn’t pass. I’m not doing you any favors if I pass you through and you can’t do the work.”
Dietz is not a theoretical business professor. She spent 27 years in corporate sales and marketing, working with and for such giants as Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Masco (Delta Faucets), Home Depot. So, when she speaks to her students of movers and shakers in the business world, they know she’s been there, on the inside.
“When you call on a buyer, such as Home Depot, you’ve got to know your stuff,” Dietz said. “You’ve got to know exactly what they’re looking for and you have to listen to the buyer’s needs, so that when I’m teaching a course about, say, General Electric, I worked for General Electric and I can say, ‘Well, this is what GE is doing, and these are the mistakes they’ve made.
“I’ve got a lot of experience knowing who these companies are. I can talk to my students, in some ways, first-hand, knowing the names of some of these people and knowing them personally. That’s pretty important to them, that I can relate to them. That helps them relate to exactly what really happens in the real world.”
The lessons can be complex and maddening. Students may not like her exacting methods at first, may not like having their young minds pushed to the point of stress and near-exhaustion, especially when friends are waiting at the coffee house. But as it relates to their careers, Dietz is one of the best friends they’ve got.
“We have this integrated class, where some of the professors teach a class that makes a product,” Dietz said. “They need to know what would really happen if they tried to sell this. When such a student comes into my class and tries to sell this product to my students, I say, ‘You’d better dress professionally, you’d better speak professionally, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.’ This is college, but we need to make sure they have the skills we tell the employers that they have.
“A lot of them don’t get to that point until I tell them, ‘Listen, this is no dress rehearsal here. You’re going to have to be ready and you’re going to have to be professional. You may have an idea of how you want to look, how many tattoos you want to have. But the people hiring you are going to make the decisions based on what they are looking for, and they are going to be looking for something different, perhaps, than what you thought.”
Dietz walks with a cane. She has progressive multiple sclerosis, an insidious disease that killed her older sister. Dietz doesn’t let on, but the pain in her right leg is excruciating. Just as it once prompted her to leave the lucrative corporate sales world for academia, it has now progressed to the point that she must leave the classroom and teach her classes online.
“It hasn’t limited my ability to do this job,” Dietz said. “It limits my ability to walk. The pain is very severe, so that’s why I can’t continue in the classroom. And it’s getting worse. That’s why I was told, ‘No more.’ So I asked the doctor if I could teach one more class and he said no, but I did it anyway. But look how lucky I am. How many people with progressive multiple sclerosis could sit here and say, ‘I have a full-time job at age 62?’ How many people are that lucky?”
And though she’s nearing conventional retirement age, Dietz has no intention to stop anytime soon, nor is it likely to temper her tough-love philosophy.
“When they say, ‘I had something to do this weekend, I couldn’t turn my paper in,’ then it’s, ‘Too bad, you got zero,’ ” Dietz said. “You have to walk the talk. If I’m going to hold to these tough-love standards, say I don’t accept late work or whatever, I have to do it because otherwise, they come out of here thinking that in their next job, people will let them act like that.
“I spend a lot of time online. I write lectures on Saturdays and Sundays. I say, ‘Look, I went to Claremont Graduate School and what my degree says is that you should expect way more than you’re paying. If I do anything to devalue the quality of what I’m giving you or what you’re expecting of me, then you’re not getting your money’s worth.”
Having been there, out pounding the pavement in the business world, Dietz speaks with authority. She is unyielding, and the message in Dietz’s eyes, to any student looking for a break is, “If I could do it, you can do it.”
“I inherited the Jewish work ethic, thank goodness, so I’ve always worked hard,” Dietz said. “I’m a second-generation American. My father grew up very, very poor in Brooklyn, New York, and, not for one minute, do I take for granted the fact that he sent all four of his children to college.
“When I came to California in 1976 with my first husband, who wanted to make it in music, I got a job with a food broker who said, ‘No woman has ever made it, and no woman ever will.’ But I had a husband to support, so I didn’t think much about that. I’m not a feminist. So I took the job and I started work at 5 in the morning every day and within six months, I was salesman of the month.”
That started a career in which Dietz worked her way up to national sales manager for several companies, the last one with Delta Faucets. But her struggle with MS forced her to think about her future in very real terms.
“I never wanted to be a teacher,” said Dietz, who last year received the “Ahmed Ispahani Excellence in Teaching Award” at La Verne. “I was invited to teach at Cal Poly, out of the blue. I had no intention of ever doing that. But I had progressive multiple sclerosis, so I had to look at making a change in my career.
“So I taught at Cal Poly, and that was the moment. That was 1988 and the light bulb went on. People were saying to me, ‘Wow, you’ve got this experience, it’s helping me so much to understand,’ so it was then that I decided that I would pursue a Ph.D., so that I could teach when I couldn’t physically get around.
Now, I’ve been here for 18 years, and moments like that, I’ve had again and again and again. Like the card I got from my students, and others who say, ‘Oh, you taught me so much.’ My goal is to make a contribution. That’s all my goal is, to make a contribution to the lives of my students. As long as they feel that I’ve given them more than they’re paying, then I’ve done my job.”
That’s the transaction, one to which she often refers in conversation, and in cold business terms. That’s what Dietz teaches, a healthy bottom line, keeping it in the black, and buyers vs. sellers. But there’s also a twinkle in those sparkling blue eyes, as she reflects on two careers: One in which she reached the pinnacle of riches and success; the other at the base of the mountain, now teaching young climbers.
In her office on La Verne’s main campus, Dietz reaches for a Thank You card that she keeps within reach and shares it with a visitor. Inside are handwritten notes, paragraph-length, from several of her students, thanking Dietz for what she had taught them and for her impact on their lives.
“I loved my job (in the corporate world), I loved that career; but I love this job too,” Dietz said. “Being real excited when you sell a million dollars to Home Depot is one thing; but when a student writes you a note, that’s a whole different ballgame, when they say, ‘You have really affected my life.’ How can I possibly compare a million dollars to Home Depot with somebody saying you affected my life in ways I can’t imagine?”