Alumni Spotlight: Elandre Dedrick
Elandre Dedrick Ph.D.
Elandre graduated from Stanford in 2019 with a doctoral degree in Anthropology. After graduation, he accepted a Program Officer position for Leadership Programs at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is currently working as a Senior Design Researcher at D-Ford.
Could you tell me about your work right now?
I work at D Ford, which is essentially a design thinking lab within Ford Motor Company. So, of course, it's dealing with mobility and transportation. D Ford, came out of the Stanford D School-line of design thinking and a lot of those major figures who helped bring design thinking to Ford and the Ford family and the CEO and execs of the company. So within the past 10 years or so, design thinking has been giving a larger and larger investment by Ford. Now we have our own lab with various teams of researchers, prototypers, design thinkers. Essentially, we help various teams throughout Ford answer various research questions that they have, since human centered research has not been an area of focus for Ford for most of their 120 year history. They essentially made the car and put it out to people. They didn't really think about the “customer” prior to producing and manufacturing the vehicles. Now, of course, in order to have an advantage and have a greater market share than its competition, it has become paramount to think about customers and what they actually want. Thus, you need people who can actually do research geared toward asking people what they want and also what they think because what people actually desire is, of course, a product of what society puts in front of them. If you really want to get good at what moves human behavior, you need people who are well versed at studying humans.
How did an anthropology PhD prepare you for this field?
At this point, so many corporations like Ford tech companies, especially, are looking specifically for anthropologists and other social scientists. It was essentially the work that I do every day, leading various teams and conducting human centered research is ethnographic research. A lot of times, the research truly is ethnographic. A lot of times, even when it isn't ethnographic, in order to create a decent up-to-snuff research methodology, you need someone who understands what it means to research social phenomena. What that means is that, essentially, there's a central epistemological dilemma, right? When we study social phenomena, we study human beings, right? When you do qualitative research, there's always that question, Well, how do you actually know? You talked to this many people and now you're generalizing to everyone? To all Americans, to all of these consumers? So it really is about having that expertise to know what really counts as a strong epistemological foundation for these claims that you're making. In this case, with Ford or any company, there's a business case being made off of your research. So there has to be reliability in what you're saying about people, there has to be that rigorous research. Thus, it has to prove itself in a business case in the market and an anthropology PhD is perfect for thinking through that rigor. Thinking through and really weighing what it means to say that you know something about the social and that you know something about a group of humans.
What did you study for your PhD? And how do you think that topic has applied here in your career?
I actually studied urban renewal in the south of France, in Marseille. I looked at the ways in which the state, the city and, specifically, the French fashion industry worked together to remake Marseille into this international destination for global capital. My focus was the ways in which the spectacle of urban renewal and the justifications for urban renewal. Oh, it's going to bring jobs for everyone, it's going to provide economic growth for everyone. These claims were, essentially, deployed to cover up the reality that it was about the rich in Marseille, this very small class of elite. It was about the political class of both Marseille and the French state, coming together with the French fashion industry and a number of other industries, to actually push out those poor and colored folks in the city center, in order to bring in international and global capital. Just looking at these processes, and what it actually means politically and socially, to accomplish this feat in the midst of deep, deep political apathy, and the feeling that the French politics are entirely too corrupt to actually combat these processes. You’re just a witness to the destruction of a way of life. That played out really neatly, at least in the way that I framed it while being interviewed, is that mobility and transportation, especially when thinking about Ford. Ford made the personal vehicle a “thing”, right? With the Model T. Now, what they're attempting to do with electrification and this pivot to autonomous vehicles, it really is about once again, because of the size of this corporation, thinking about the remaking of urban life. When we think about how the car has shaped what the urban environment looks like physically, and how urban lives are lived, and suburban logic, just the very fact of suburbs throughout America. This moment in time is such a huge pivot to what will be the future of transportation mobility. Ford is right on that pulse. When you think about what cities allow movement and mobility, and who gets to go where and do what in which places, it strongly shapes city life. I thought a lot about, of course, when you're doing field work, you're looking at everything, and researching everything and reading into everything. There's a lot about how transportation in the city and public transportation, specifically, throughout Marseille was created and invested in these really terrible ways. But, once again, just to feed into the spectacle of renewal in ways that did not benefit the actual citizens there, especially those who are already disenfranchised. The public transit did not help them. I was already very interested in transportation and what that means for cities and what that means for remaking city spaces in urban environments. So it kind of made for a good justification. And also, they want experienced anthropologists, why not me?
What advice would you give to other anthropology students who want to enter your field?
I would say focus on all the various skills that you've mastered throughout the P.h.D. I think so many people, especially if you were already focused on going into the PhD, that you would follow this track towards academia, and are now questioning that because of the reality of academia being terrible. If you're questioning that, you really have to think about the ways in which your skills are perfect for a high paying job in the corporate world. You have to value your research skills clearly but then also your writing skills. What I mean by writing is that good writing is a rare skill these days. Good writing also means the ability to translate complex ideas to different audiences, which is hopefully something that's also been worked on and honed personally throughout the years. It's these skills that companies are really looking for because, as I said earlier, tech companies, and corporations in general, have now realized that they need these deep understandings of their customers prior to putting services and products on the market and that works to your benefit. Especially if they are not looking specifically for anthropologists. A lot of times you'll see sociology mentioned or qualitative research. A lot of times, it's still on you to make the case of why your research skills and your research perspective are necessary and why you're better than any sociologists, because of course you are. I think those are the things to keep at the top of your mind.
What's next for you?
At this point, I've been at D Ford for under a year. I will most likely stick around. What's really great about this opportunity is working across so many different areas of such a huge corporation, a global corporation, so you're working with completely different teams on very different projects, asking completely different questions, some very specific and very oriented towards the goal of profit, whereas others are very much oriented to just understanding and painting a picture of the future, for a company that still wants profits, but also just needs to have a deeper understanding of the world that we live in now. I'm enjoying the opportunity to be a well-compensated anthropologist, which is not something I thought I would be when going into the PhD program, but then I realized it would soon be necessary as I was quickly reaching 30. It's also one of those things you have to realize, you know, you're finishing the PhD, you're rapidly reaching 30, you know other people have already started their careers. You have to think, am I making enough to save for retirement? That's something I should probably be thinking about. I think it's been really good. They have centered design research at D Ford, so, even when you aren't leading the team, you still find yourself working in a leadership capacity, because you're the one who can educate the team on how the research should go. You're owning the methodology, you're owning what comes out of the research, and, a lot of times, you're leading the research process itself. So you have a lot of ownership over the work and a lot of say in how research gets done. So, once again, you actually find yourself in a teaching position, because you're telling all of these people in an entire corporation that doesn't focus on human centered research naturally, how to do it, and what it means and how it should be done. You find yourself in a lot of conversations and situations where you get to enlighten people about how to understand others, as well as lead research efforts. It has been really great to actually have a lot of practice. As an anthropologist, that's appreciated and rewarded. Academia, once upon a time, was good, but at the same time, you're a human being, and, unless you're already independently wealthy, or you marry up or something like that, you have to realize that 40k, 50k, and nowadays, even 60k and 70k just aren't going to cut it. Especially if you're living in urban markets and especially if you've already put off saving towards retirement and having an adult salary and all of these things for a while. So it's nice to hit the ground running. I found it really encouraging when I realized there are a lot of companies and places out here that are looking for the skills that you have. It really is about framing those skills in the right way in your cover letter and on your resume. Framing those in the right way so that people think, oh, they have the research skills and they have a PhD from Stanford. People in the corporate world love that. So you just have to flex it and not be ashamed and just really go after it. I think you'll find really, really exciting opportunities where you don't have to become this totally corporate person who only dreams of the days where they wouldn't have to apologize. No, you really are bringing your anthropological and ethnographic skills to bear on the work you're doing each day.