Sociologist Bill Bielby: researcher, retailer and rocker
There are at least four Bill Bielbys:
• a nationally prominent researcher on racial and gender diversity in large corporations
• the co-owner of a boutique offering “rustic chic” products in a former train station
• the co-owner of a vintage market located in a large warehouse
• a guitarist in two rock/blues bands.
Bielby, a sociology professor at UIC — he’s also a research scholar at the University of Arizona —often testifies in class-action court cases.
The one with the highest profile is against Walmart, claiming that the giant retailer owes billions of dollars to as many as 1.5 million women who say they were unfairly treated on pay and promotions.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a nationwide class-action suit, several regional suits were filed.
“Most of my research on race and gender in corporations has been about how workplace policies create barriers and/or facilitate equal employment opportunities,” he said.
Bielby has collaborated with Clayton Rose, a Harvard Business School professor and former senior executive at J.P. Morgan Chase who has “unique insider access.”
“His argument is that companies support African Americans on boards of directors when they are in markets where it’s important to demonstrate commitment to diversity,” he said.
“There is an African American slot on the board.”
One of Bielby’s ongoing studies looks at the experience of black financial advisers in a large brokerage firm.
“The interesting thing there is, how can it be discriminatory when they’re paid on commission?” he said.
“What they do to make advisers more productive is to work on teams. The difficulty African Americans have is being accepted on a team.
“The dilemma they’re facing is that they’re welcomed into the firm and encouraged to get money from African American leaders and celebrities — they’re tracked into racially defined niches.”
The defense of companies in these cases is, “It’s not our fault there is more wealth in the white community,” he said.
Bielby’s non-academic pursuits include co-ownership of Blais Design, a home furnishings and design boutique in Three Oaks, Mich.
He and his wife, Keek — an interior designer and artist who worked as a designer for a handbag company (“Keek” is a nickname for Kathleen) — started the business in 2011. It’s located in a former men’s clothing store that until 50 years ago was a railroad station.
The business is open from the end of April until Christmas.
In April the Bielbys started a spinoff, the Blackbird Crossing Vintage Market, also in Three Oaks.
The warehouse-like venue is open three days a month through October, offering fresh merchandise each time.
“We have about 15 vendors, with vintage items displayed in a cool way, such as boats suspended from the ceiling,” he said.
“It’s been remarkably successful — like a three-day carnival.”
Every once in a while, Bielby will be working at one of his two businesses when he runs into someone from academia who asks, “Aren’t you Bill Bielby?”
“I had never done anything retail in my whole life,” he said. “I never thought I’d be a member of the Chamber of Commerce.”
When Bielby was in eighth grade, he and some classmates in his south suburban school formed a rock/blues band called the Newports. He played both rhythm guitar and bass guitar.
Bielby was in good company — he was the only one who didn’t become a professional musician. “Our drummer once played with Van Morrison,” he said.
On occasion the Newports get back together — their 40th high school reunion, for example.
With another group of classmates, sociology grad students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he started a band called Thin Vitae.
Though its members are now spread around the country, they reunite for such events as the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.
The band’s name is ironic.
“Until you have tenure, you have thin vitae [vitae being short for curriculum vitae]. It’s the sign of a failed career,” Bielby noted. “None of us have thin vitae.”
Bielby earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, with high honors, at Urbana-Champaign.
But it being the ’60s, “I wanted to do something socially relevant, and the social sciences were becoming more quantitative,” he said.
So he took a master’s in economics, again at Urbana-Champaign, and a Ph.D. in sociology at UW-Madison.
Bielby and his wife live in Union Pier, Mich., a couple of miles from their businesses in Three Oaks.
He has four stepchildren and 14 grandchildren.
“With spouses, there are 24 of us,” Bielby said. “They stayed with us for a week. We had a talent show. And big meals — you can’t take 24 people out for dinner.”