Keeping an open mind to new possibilities landed Fort Valley State University alumna Dr. Erika Styles in a position to continue her education, teach, work for corporate America and to give back.
The Bonaire, Georgia, native never saw herself pursuing a career in agriculture. A firm believer that everything happens by the grace of God, her journey to FVSU came about by chance. Her mother, a former teacher, met the late Levi Glover, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 1890 liaison for FVSU, at the Georgia National Fair, where he introduced her to the USDA’s 1890 National Scholars Program.
The 1999 Warner Robins High School graduate knew she could not turn down the opportunities offered through the program. Styles applied for the scholarship, and as she described it, her life forever changed.
Exposed to agriculture at a young age, her father and grandfather owned a farm in Wilkinson County, Georgia. “It was not until I started researching some of the possibilities listed in the 1890 scholarship that agricultural economics really stood out to me, partly because of the business side,” she said.
The scholarship allowed her to intern with the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and participate in a summer research program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Having that diversity of working for the government and at an institution of higher learning helped me understand the different ways to conduct research,” Styles said.
Those experiences also inspired her to pursue graduate school. She graduated from FVSU in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in agricultural economics and then attended the University of Florida, earning a Master of Science in 2005 and Doctor of Philosophy in food and resource economics in 2008. Following graduation, the Wildcat returned to her alma mater as an assistant professor in agricultural economics.
“I did not see a lot of representation in the program of people who looked like me,” Styles said. “It was always a passion of mine to return to where I started and hopefully inspire and cultivate a new generation.”
In 2014, she received a promotion as associate professor. During her tenure, she secured numerous grants for research and skill development to provide students with the advantages of studying abroad, internships and scholarships.
“I learned a lot during those years. I am proud of what I accomplished and the impact that I made,” Styles said. “To whom much is given, much is required. It is fulfilling when you can create opportunities and see others grow.”
In 2015, Styles transitioned to corporate America and became an experience researcher for State Farm Insurance in Atlanta, Georgia. She said the analytical, communications and interpersonal skills she gained while at FVSU came in handy for her new role at the company. She currently serves as a strategy engagement manager and leads high impact cross-functional strategy efforts. She engages with multiple departments to execute initiatives to create better experiences for customers and enhance satisfaction.
“It has been a great experience,” Styles said. “As an agricultural economist, you are trained to look at things holistically. Whenever I look at a problem, I focus on the core, which is understanding how people make decisions.”
Styles also teaches two online classes (macroeconomics and microeconomics) in FVSU’s Business Administration and Economics Department as an adjunct instructor. “It is nice to reconnect with students and help build that foundation,” she said. She emphasized it is important that she can bring her experience to the table for students by applying theory to practice.
Furthermore, the FVSU educator used her entrepreneurial skills to birth a successful nonprofit organization, Keris Kares (keriskares.org), with her family in honor of her niece who died in 2015 from brain cancer. They help families impacted by childhood cancer.
“When I think about the simple principles of decision-making and how to run a business, it shows how this degree has helped me with my professional career and toward something that has become a passion,” Styles said.
The Newnan, Georgia, resident challenges students to keep an open mind. “The older me realizes that my major and FVSU allowed me to expand my network and relationships, which is critical to lifelong success,” she said.
Styles said she appreciates the amazing instructors who became mentors and lifelong family. Mentioning the key role that Glover played in her path to FVSU, she also commended retired agricultural professor Dr. Mack Nelson.
Throughout her career, Styles said her faith and family have been her biggest motivations. She is married to Mike, and they have three children, Karmyn, Peyton and Ryder.
“They are my why,” she said.