2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Ileana Stigliani, Imperial College Business School

Ileana Stigliani

Assistant Professor of Design and Innovation

Imperial College Business School

“Design thinking” is more than a buzzword at Imperial College among MBAs. Instead, it is a process of asking questions, framing issues, understanding implications, and tailoring solutions that meet consumer needs and serve the greater good. It is an approach that is grounded in empathizing, challenging, and testing, where the why informs the what. It is realm that increasingly resonates among Imperial College MBAs…and Ileana Stigliani has been the force behind this.

“She has been the sharp end of the spear for Design Thinking at Imperial,” writes Tom Gray, “inspiring MBAs to adopt design thinking methods not just in her class, but in the way that they approach the rest of their courses and in their everyday lives. And she has done it with style, grace and the sass required to manage classes of high-achieving, ambitious, self-confident MBAs.”

Stigliani has been an academic on a mission during her career, treating design thinking as a means of doing as much as learning. That became readily apparent to Ariel Lerner, who experienced the real world applications of design through Stigliani’s hands-on, minds-on projects. “In one instance, we redesigned a museum experience to be more inclusive of the visually impaired,” she writes. “We conducted research, visited the physical space, and created journey maps and service design blueprints. I find myself using what I learned in Ileana’s class regularly, and I strongly believe I would not be where I am now without her teaching.”

Her classroom prowess was strong enough that she collected the Imperial’s Teaching Excellence Prize in 2016. And she recently partnered with IDEO to establish a design thinking award competition for her students. However, her impact extends far beyond the classroom, as her research has been published in leading academic outlets like Organizational Dynamics and the Academy of Management Journal.

Age: 38

At current institution since what year? Started in 2009 as Post-Doc researcher first, then promoted to Assistant Professor in 2012.


PhD in Management, Bocconi University, 2009

List of courses you currently teach: Design Thinking for Innovation, Design Management

Twitter handle: @IStigliani


“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when I was at Bocconi University completing my undergraduate degree. I was fortunate to meet some brilliant professors who inspired me to pursue this career.”

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I’m currently researching how new fields of practices come to be – in my specific case how the field of Service Design emerged and gained legitimacy.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…I would be either a designer seeking to make the world a better place or a medical doctor improving people’s lives.”

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I’m very passionate about what I teach, and I care about my students. So, I make sure they have a fulfilling learning experience.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Challenging!

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

“Faith” by George Michael, because students need to have faith in the Design Thinking process.

As a b-school professor, what motivates you? I’m motivated by the fact that I can have a real impact on my students’ career path and on their mindset by opening their eyes to what Design Thinking can do for them and their organizations.

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

As a female professor, life can be tough!

Professor you most admire and why: Kimberly D. Elsbach from UC Davis, she’s an absolute powerhouse of talent.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? I like the fact that most of them come to our Business School because they have a purpose and want to have an impact.

What is most challenging? Being a strong woman, sometimes I’m perceived as intimidating by male students…

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

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

What is the most impressive thing one of your students has done? A former Executive MBA student of mine delivered a talk about Design Thinking in Pharma to a group of senior executives and she blew them away!

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Yelling at me in front of their entire cohort…

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Engage in their design thinking challenge passionately and open-mindedly, trust me during the process and create emotionally engaging narratives of how they went from problem articulation to solution.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as…a tough marker.

“But I would describe myself as…demanding. I simply have high standards!

Fill in the blank: “If my students can use in-depth qualitative research to identify insights, and experimentation and failure as a learning opportunity, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”


Fun fact about yourself: I once walked a full marathon across London in a bra for charity.

What are your hobbies? Exercising, travelling, and learning new things. I’m currently trying to learn Swedish…

How will you spend your summer? Teaching my MBA Elective, going to conferences and hopefully vacationing in Italy and Greece.

Favorite place to vacation: Bali – I have been there 3 times already.

Favorite book: Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse

What is your favorite movie and/or television show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I’m a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy. I like the fact that they deal with new challenges in each episode. Oh, and the drama – I like that too!

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Italian singer Laura Pausini. Originally from a small town in Northern Italy, she is now an internationally acclaimed artist.

Bucket list item #1: Be on the P&Q Top 40 Business Professors Under 40 List. Check!


What professional achievement are you most proud of?  The “IDEO Design Thinking award” that global design company IDEO will sponsor for the next five years. The price is awarded to the best performing team of MBA students in my Design Thinking module.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? Every time my students thank me for the learning experience I provided in class.

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…They would have Design Thinking as a core module, just like Imperial College Business School, and in general more modules on soft skills. These are the skills of the future.

And much less of this…Fewer modules that teach students how to do things that can be done by machines.

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

At empathizing with their customers. We live in an era of big data. While there can be no denying its importance, the problem with quantitative data is it can only tell us what is happening; it cannot tell us why. Many companies fall into the trap of assuming that their customers think like them. This approach is deeply flawed and cannot take the place of real empathy, without which it is impossible to properly understand customers’ needs or wants. Companies need to collect fine-grained qualitative data is the answer to obtaining this valuable insight as to why the phenomena represented by quantitative data occur.

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

Having contributed to change the way my students see the world and solve business and social issues to make the world a better place.

Students and Faculty say…

“From my perspective as a healthcare professional, she has singlehandedly and profoundly influenced and challenged the way I deliver healthcare services in a truly patient centred and empathetic way. I want to be a healthcare leader one day and her lectures will be central to my ethos.

In the top-down world we live in, the important of ground up, rapid user testing design thinking is so important to achieving good outcomes.

Her subject matter is taught in such an interactive and lively way – we got into wheelchairs / crutches and roamed the streets one afternoon instead of sitting in a lecture theatre to really understand our subject matter and gain real life experiences and ‘data’.

Her teaching style is also memorable, full of enthusiasm and charisma. She truly deserves this award. I’m very lucky to have gained some of her insights.”

Aroon Baskaradas

“Energetic, passionate, lively, professional – this is how our students describe Ileana. She is a remarkable female professor who lives and breathes design thinking. Her subject expertise is invaluable in an MBA – many students come back from her elective writing to Deans that the it should be a core topic, and she converts even the toughest sceptics.  She understands the MBA audience making her classes engaging and interactive – a portion of the day might be spent taking photos outside the classroom, or students will whizz through design management exercises that take professionals a few weeks in a matter of hours.  In 2016, she received the Imperial College Business School Teaching Excellence Award for Innovation in teaching, we are proud of her for this achievement and expect her to continue to achieve greater successes.”

Somaya Ebrahim

Senior Programme Manager | Executive MBA

“Ileana was the most inspirational and influential professor of my MBA course. I initially was not going to select her elective because I thought I am an engineer I ‘know design’. She opened my eyes to not only the latest techniques and practical use, but in her delivery and passion inspired me to believe in its wider application across business and society. I am now implementing her teaching almost every day and am looking to shift careers across to one with more design focus, as I know a number of other students are, inspired by the passion she instilled. She is always more than happy to help and discuss outside of the classroom and her generosity is limitless. I could not think of anyone more deserving of this honor.”

Joshua Moran CEng MIMechE

“Unlike other professors, Prof Stigliani managed to attract the top minds in Service Design to speak with us during her elective. Including Directors from McKinsey, EY and Deloitte. This shows the influence and credibility she holds in the Design Industry, and as a result also positively impacted the entire Design Management class.”

Teodor-Raul Hlihor

MBA Candidate

Imperial College Business School

“Her classes were always hands-on and pushed students to get out of the classroom, interview complete strangers and generate creative ideas that had real impact. Without a doubt, her course and teaching style stood out and was incredibly captivating. I have her to thank for allowing me to discover my passion!”

Giuliana Mazzetta



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