2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Dan Wang, Columbia Business School

Dan Wang

David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business and (by courtesy) Sociology

Columbia Business School

Dan Wang is the best instructor that I’ve ever had.”

Whoa! Now, there’s an endorsement. And that’s not the only kind words that Jonathan Yan (’18) had to say.

I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without his guidance.”

What brought that on? For one, Wang’s courses, which examine the intersection between technology, strategy, entrepreneurship, and disruption, changed the way that Yan looked at the world. More than that, Wang provided a model for what it takes to be truly great.

“What makes him one of a kind is his infectious passion for technology and level of engagement with students. The amount of time he spends to get to know his students outside of the classroom and keep them energized inside the classroom is unparalleled.”

Just 32, Wang is a proud second generation college professor who teaches Columbia Business School’s core strategy course. A dog lover who dreams of someday running the Pittsburgh Steelers’ analytics department, this Stanford Ph.D. has already become the embodiment of the kind of professors who can truly reach today’s young leaders says Miriam Rapaport-Hindin (’18).

“Wang is brilliant, engaging and transparently committed to his students,” she writes. “He draws in the students by conveying an authentic desire to be present and to execute his job to the best of his ability in a manner that truly serves the students’ needs and professional goals.”

Age: 32

At current institution since what year? 2013

Education:

Ph.D., Sociology, Stanford University, 2013

M.A., Sociology, Stanford University, 2009

B.A., Sociology and Comparative Literature, Columbia University – Columbia College, 2007

List of courses you currently teach:

Strategy (Core, MBA and EMBA)

Technology Strategy (Elective, MBA)

Organizational Theory (PhD)

Twitter handle: @dansalright (but I never tweet anything)

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…as a PhD student, I specialized in economic and organizational sociology, and it was easy to get lost in highly theoretical discussions in this field. I knew that plenty of folks in the same field taught in business schools, but I didn’t quite understand the appeal of doing so until one senior faculty at a business school sat down with me in his office, pointed out of his window and said, “The questions you are interested in are not in here [gesturing toward his computer screen]. They are out there.”  That’s when I realized that I’d like to teach in a setting that puts me much closer to the very phenomena I’m interested in studying.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

Currently, I am focused on understanding the question of who becomes an entrepreneur in a couple of different settings. In one project, I find that immigrants who return to their home countries draw on their overseas connections to form ventures, but cultural differences between their host and home countries can create barriers to doing so. In another project, we find that MBA students’ tendency to start companies while in business school can depend considerably on the composition of the 4-6 person study groups, to which they are randomly assigned in their first semester.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…I would want to be in charge of organizational and sports analytics for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

In the classroom, I think students like that I try to cater the material of each session to their backgrounds. As a result, even if I am teaching the same session to two or more different sections on the same day, I anticipate the discussion to go differently in each section, given the differences in the mix of personalities as well as work and educational experiences across sections. For me, this creates a greater connection between me, the students, and the material, enhancing their engagement and making each session’s takeaways more meaningful.

One word that describes my first time teaching:

Anxcited (a portmanteau of ‘anxious’ and ‘excited’ that I just made up)

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be?

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems – The Notorious B.I.G., Mase, and Puff Daddy, because being well-capitalized alone cannot give a company a sustainable competitive advantage!

As a b-school professor, what motivates you?

My colleagues. My junior and senior colleagues all contribute to their fields in unique and impressive ways while also cultivating their own styles in the classroom. I really enjoy going to lunch or coffee with them because I learn something new each time – this is one of the big benefits to being part of a department that is so diverse. They are terrific when it comes to advice and support, and they also have not let the grittiness of New York City dull their collective sense of humor.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:

Say goodbye to your free time.

Professor you most admire and why:

My Dad, who is a professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  He came to study in the U.S. from pre-reform China at the age of 30. Other Chinese graduate students from his cohort studying in the U.S. typically went into science or engineering. Instead, for his PhD, my dad specialized in African-American history – specifically, the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction period. Do you know how hard it is for a curly-haired Chinese immigrant to not only convince a classroom of American college kids that he is an expert in the history of the 15th Amendment and the role of black Republicans in its passage, but also make them care deeply about the topic? Very hard. But he is very successful at it. My Dad epitomizes scholarship, perseverance, thoughtfulness, and empathy – all qualities that a professor should have.

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

Their diversity, boldness, and curiosity. There are lots of stereotypes about MBA students being Type-A managers who only care about efficiency and shareholder value. This is not true at all.  The students at CBS are creative, and they represent different domains of expertise, backgrounds, and cultures. As a result, my favorite part of teaching is getting to know each student individually. It is such a privilege to be responsible for creating an environment in which students are not afraid to share their knowledge so that their experiences can be synthesized into useful lessons for each class.

What is most challenging?

It is bittersweet to see them graduate.  Also, having to grade on a curve.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student:

Curious

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student”

Late

What is the most impressive thing one of your students has done?

During my first year in 2013-2014, I supervised an MBA student on an independent study project, in which he generated a comprehensive analysis of the unattractive unit-economics of New York City’s then publicly managed and owned bike-share program, Citibike. Many analysts at the time were convinced that Citibike would receive an infusion of public funding to survive, and my student showed how it was in the greater interest of a private investor to save the program as a public-private partnership. It turns out, that’s exactly what happened, so he was right. Hat’s off.

What is the least favorite thing one has done?

Also during my first year, there was a student who would arrive routinely, but also exactly, 10 minutes late to class.  Given that consistency is clearly not the problem here, why not just wake up 10 minutes earlier?

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class?

As a school-wide policy, the core Strategy class I teach has a grading curve, so it can get pretty competitive among students. Participation in class discussion is critical, and I’d say the best students win respect from their classmates by not just effectively articulating one point of view but also by reinterpreting other students’ perspectives to help them understand the crux of their differences.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as…

Fair

But I would describe myself as…

Persistent

Fill in the blank: “If my students can ____________________, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

One of the most humbling comments I received from a student by email was the following (paraphrased from memory): “I found myself inadvertently applying what you taught us in class.  It looks like this: I figure out something insightful and am really proud of myself. And then a few minutes later, I realize I actually just applied a takeaway or framework that you taught in a class discussion.” I would feel successful if all my students “inadvertently” take these lessons from the classroom into the real world without realizing it.

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Fun fact about yourself:

One summer, I made a living entirely from tips as a bicycle tour guide of various historical sites in Berlin, Germany.

What are your hobbies?

Discovering and cataloguing the different cultural interpretations of meat-filled dough pockets in Queens, NY (e.g., dumplings, samosas, momos, beef patties, pierogies, salteñas… the varieties are countless).

How will you spend your summer?

Mostly writing and revising papers, presenting the same papers at academic conferences, and updating and preparing cases for the next school year. Oh, and to kick off the summer, I’ll be the faculty sponsor of an MBA student study trip to Mongolia. I’m really looking forward to falling off a tiny horse.

Favorite place to vacation:

Tokyo – it is the most magical food destination on Earth.  Whatever culinary specialty you’re into, Tokyo has the best version of it.

Favorite book:

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

Futurama, a sci-fi cartoon comedy that ran for 7-ish seasons over 14 years created by Matt Groening (who was also responsible for The Simpsons). I love Futurama because of the writers’ dogmatic series-long commitment to certain minute plot points and running jokes that were established in the show’s very first episode. The attention to detail and continuity is astounding.  Episode 7 of Season 4 also convinced me to get a dog.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist:

Currently, The Hamilton Mix-Tape.

Bucket list item #1:

Is there a place that is not too humid with an uncrowded pristine beach and good waves for surfing, where I can also get on-demand whitefish salad and Korean fried chicken? I’d go there.

THOUGHTS OF REFLECTION

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Not many folks in the business school world know about this part of my research, but over the past few years – with Sarah Soule and Hayagreeva Rao (at Stanford GSB) and one of my PhD students (Alessandro Piazza, who will be starting as a professor at Rice in Fall 2018) – I published a series of articles that develops a new approach to explaining the dynamics of social protest using theory and methods from research on technology diffusion and network analysis.  This year, I published a paper in the Annual Review of Sociology summarizing the key developments in this new area and its future, and I am proud to say that I have even brought insights from this work into the MBA classroom to show how strategic frameworks apply in all types of settings.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor?

One time, a student brought her mom to my Strategy class, in which we had a discussion about Disney. Part of the teaching plan entails evoking childhood experiences to try to understand Disney’s competitive advantage in generating timeless media content. This particular student shared a touching story about her family’s first vacation to Disneyland, which brought her mother (and other students) to tears. We ended class early that day.

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…

Dog-friendly classrooms

And much less of this…

Departmental and disciplinary silos

In your opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at doing what? Please explain.

Understanding that workforce diversity (along many different dimensions) can be a competitive advantage.  There are countless scientific studies (including my own) on how team-level or organization-level diversity enhances creativity and innovation, yet firms still valorize singular personalities as a sources of new ideas and transformation (Steve Jobs and Apple, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, to name a couple). The reality is that most innovation, including radical innovation, is realized through iterative interactions across traditional boundaries. I would like to see organizations truly embrace this ethos in their management practices rather than treat workplace diversity as a matter of legal compliance.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you

I would like to have spent some time applying some of my research ideas in an innovative technology company.  More and more, novel research questions, methods, and data are emerging from companies like Microsoft, Pinterest, Uber, and others. Most universities lack the resources and organizational incentives to keep up. Granted, these companies all have their own fair share of issues, but they are also innovating new ways of addressing large-scale human problems related to inequality, labor markets, and social change through scientific research. The result is that there has been a migration of PhDs away from academia and into industry. I think research faculty like myself would benefit from a more transparent and immersive engagement in industry settings. I’d like to be part of an effort to transform the traditional role of university faculty into cross-boundary researchers and teachers.

Students Say…

“Engaging. Passionate. Invested. Those are a few words that immediately come to mind when I think of Professor Wang. From the moment you walk in class, you can feel his excitement. When you raise your hand to participate, he provides a quick background of your work experience, from memory, so that the other students have an idea of your experience. At first, you may think he was lucky, but after he does the same thing for every student, you come away impressed and wanting to invest even more in his class. Whether he is advising you on an independent study, volunteering his time to the numerous clubs on campus, or surprising you with his lineup of phenomenal guest speakers, his students come away with an appreciation for his investment in their MBA experience, and their lives outside of the classroom.”
Eric Perkins (’18)

“Professor Dan Wang is the most well-prepared person in any room he walks into! He’s got his jokes lined up, his slides are prepped and he’s always looking sharp. The whole experience of sitting through his strategy classes is like experiencing an impromptu show. In each session, students spend most of our time talking about the various aspects of each business, often throwing in strong opinions in favor of taking the company one direction or the other, while Dan is constantly populating the board with all the ideas being thrown around. And towards the end, he , magically, brings the whole puzzle together. He never tries to push a single-all-powerful-strategy-framework, instead he sticks to fundamental tenets of strategy formulation and technology strategy drivers. We love it. He’s a data scientist by background, so everything is backed by data. Yet, he loves stories, and one isn’t surprised if an emotional story is being used to drive a point home! If you’re coming to Columbia Business School, definitely take one of his super popular strategy courses, it will change the way you think about business.”
Prateek Jain (’18)

“What really stood out to me about Professor Wang was how he demonstrates so many of the qualities one hopes to see in a business school professor. He is brilliant, engaging and transparently committed to his students. He draws in the students by conveying an authentic desire to be present and to execute his job to the best of his ability in a manner that truly serves the students’ needs and professional goals. This is also wholly evident through the structure of the course, the topics and the class requirements. To my mind he embodies a new-age interpretation of professorship and the understanding of how to effectively engage with the young leaders of today.”
Miriam Rapaport-Hindin (’18)

“In class, we do not only learn about Tech Strategy and business frameworks that we can apply in our future jobs, but also about how to smoothly run a 90-minute session without any flaws. What makes Professor Wang´s classes so special is that he takes a lot of time to get to know the students in front of him – he knows everyone´s background and everyone´s name before the course starts! Also, during his courses it is always made evident that he spends hours preparing each case with additional examples, data and recent news related to the company being studied. As a student I have always felt that he is putting in the effort, that he really wants you to have a perfect learning experience.”
Luis Hector Rubio (’18)

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