2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Jessica Kennedy, Owen Graduate School of Management

Jessica Kennedy

Assistant Professor of Management

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

Among men and women, which demographic values ethics more? Why are women held to higher ethical standards than their male counterparts? These and other questions related to ethics, gender, and negotiations are the centerpiece of the award-winning research conducted by Jessica Kennedy, a management professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Though she’s highly respected and well-known for her research — whether it’s serving as the lead article for high profile academic journals, being recognized by the Owen school, or highlighted in nearly every business press outlet you can think of — Professor Kennedy is admired by MBAs who take her Negotiations course or her Leading Teams and Organizations class. Besides a classroom experience driven by students, and outside help whenever needed, there’s another perk to having this rising star as a professor: help with salary negotiations! As one student shares, “I wasn’t going to negotiate, but Jessica explained why I should and how to write my counter. I took her advice and the firm ended up offering even more than I asked for.”

Age: 35

At current institution since what year? 2014


Ph.D. in Business Administration, University of California-Berkeley, 2012

B.S. in Economics, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

List of courses you currently teach:


Leading Teams and Organizations

Twitter handle: @ProfJAKennedy…but I’ve yet to use it.


“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…”

… my former professor suggested it over lunch a few years after I had graduated.  The nature of my coursework as a Wharton undergrad had really spoken to me, especially during my senior year when I was trying to produce original ideas through independent studies and an honors thesis.  However, my interest in finance was strongest at the time and I definitely wanted to work in investment banking after graduating. After a few years, I reflected on what I wanted out of work and that lunch conversation left me confident that if I could get into a Ph.D. program, I had to give it my best shot.  It was an atypical decision, but one that has worked out extremely well.

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

Broadly, I study hierarchies and gender.  I want to know when and why hierarchies are not meritocratic.  One reason is that groups accord higher status to people who are overconfident.  To encourage meritocracy, groups would need to be more punitive when overconfidence is revealed.  I also explore how and why gender affects career outcomes. I think my most significant finding so far is that women negotiators possess important ethical and relational strengths that make them appealing exchange partners in real world contexts.  Stereotypes portraying women as bad negotiators make sense only in a very narrow and often unrealistic type of negotiation setting. My current research continues to explore how groups accord power and status and how gender impacts exchange.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…” I would probably be working in investment banking or private equity.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?  The combination of very high standards with a tendency to place a lot of value on relationships.  A group once called me “a nice drill sergeant.”

“One word that describes my first time teaching”:


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

Lose Yourself by Eminem—maybe mashed up with Bach

As a b-school professor, what motivates you?

The freedom and the intellectual environment.  To be responsible for producing new knowledge is really quite a privilege.

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

How to apportion my time.  There are too many worthwhile ways to spend it.

Professor you most admire and why: There are so many!  I would highlight Alan Strudler, Laura Kray, and Maurice Schweitzer for their intellect, their generosity, and their integrity.  I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have enormous admiration for Cameron Anderson, Jenny Chatman, Barry Staw, and Phil Tetlock, who helped train me and continue to inspire me every day as a researcher.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

It is a joy to meet so many new people every year.  This context allows us to move beyond superficial exchanges and really get to know each other intellectually and morally.  

What is most challenging?

Not everyone is open-minded.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student


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

Devious and superficial compete for that title

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

One person is using her background in ecology to start a business focused on sustainable seafood.  Additionally, this year, a few students publicly shared their worst failures so that others could learn from their comebacks.  

What is the least favorite thing one has done?

Now and then, someone humiliates himself by throwing a tantrum over a grade.  It’s rare, thankfully. My theme song for those situations is “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Pat Benatar).

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

Demonstrate mastery of the course content and advance others’ learning by contributing intelligently to classroom discussions.

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

Providing a lot of comments

“But I would describe myself as …”

Painfully slow

Fill in the blank:

“If my students can resolve conflict and correct group-level performance problems while maintaining positive relationships with others then I’ve done my job as their professor.”


Fun fact about yourself:

In high school, I was co-captain of a national championship-winning cheerleading team.

What are your hobbies?

I do a lot of Pilates and reading.  I also enjoy skiing, going to plays and the symphony, and learning about art.  I am a big fan of Vadis Turner’s work.

How will you spend your summer?

Doing lots of research!  I typically spend some time in California and Austin for inspiration.

Favorite place to vacation:

Aspen, Colorado

Favorite book:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barberry), Status Anxiety (Alain de Botton), and Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

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

The Crown and Match Point.  I love watching Queen Elizabeth rise to challenges and gracefully handle life’s inevitable indignities on The Crown.  Both works do a beautiful job of exploring the tensions between authenticity, love, and holding high status positions.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist:

Concerts in Nashville have left me a fan of Maren Morris, Alessia Cara, and Kacey Musgraves.

Bucket list item #1:

Attend the Westminster Dog Show, take a picture with Bean the Sussex Spaniel (who absolutely should have won this year), and borrow him for a fine dinner at Blue Hill Farm, where he can temporarily be a farm dog and not a show dog.


What professional achievement are you most proud of?

I still think my best work lies ahead of me – I tend toward perfectionism – but I am proud of having won the Organization Science Dissertation Proposal competition because it was judged on the quality of the ideas alone and I care a lot about producing interesting ideas.  I am also very proud of my 2015 Research in Organizational Behavior paper with Laura Kray.  There, we introduce a very theoretically new idea—that people may apply different relational frames to negotiations with women versus men—and I can’t wait to explore that idea empirically.  I think it’s one of my best ones so far.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor?

My very first class once had an extremely open-minded and thoughtful discussion of gender bias in business.  People shared experiences that made others curious and it was amazing to see the students come to understand perspectives they previously did not.  Also in that class, a mouse once ran out of the podium while I was speaking and I screamed. It was hilarious and loosened us all up.

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

Champagne at the weekly social event on Thursdays

“And much less of this…”

Brutish, crude misunderstandings of the purpose of business

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

Organizations need to do a better job of preventing abuses of power.  One problematic aspect of hierarchy across cultures is that it is a relational system which specifies only who gets more and who gets less.  Ratios remain unspecified, so it can be difficult to assess what is equitable and what is exploitative. I am glad that blatant abuses of power in the context of gender have recently received so much scrutiny in the media.  Still, enormous power over the lives of others is handed to higher-ranking people in organizations every day. I have heard so many people who rise to the top in part due to luck claim that because the system worked for them, it must be fine.  I wish those leaders would do more to ensure respect, justice, and an admirable exercise of power in the organizations they lead.

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

Success to me is constituted of meaningful work and meaningful relationships.  The former means continuing the tradition of excellent research passed onto me by my advisors and teaching courses that my MBAs find to be cutting-edge and interesting.  I would like to conduct some field research in the finance industry, as well. I would find it very meaningful to produce knowledge in the industry that I came from.

Students say…

“Jessica’s Leading Teams and Organizations class was one of my favorites in my first year at Owen, and she’s the reason why. She is an excellent lecturer and incredibly knowledgeable in her field, but the class is structured so that students drive the conversation. Her expertise around power, ethics and gender is one that might not have received due recognition 10 or even five years ago, but is incredibly important as a new generation of businessmen and women enter corporate America. As team-based work proliferates in the business world, I am grateful to have learned how to manage teams and interpersonal dynamics from someone as intelligent, passionate and experienced as Jessica”

“Studying negotiation with Jessica Kennedy was an exceptional experience. In class, she helped us truly understand and experience each concept. Outside of class, she offered to help me negotiate my offer from a top consulting firm. I wasn’t going to negotiate, but Jessica explained why I should and how to write my counter. I took her advice and the firm ended up offering even more than I asked for.”

“Jessica has a profound impact on students, many of whom have her for one of their first classes of b-school (Leading Teams & Organizations). This is an important foundational course, and Jessica leads students through seminal cases, leadership frameworks, and discussions that push us to think about all dimensions of strategy, organizational leadership, diversity, etc. She brings an impressive career background and professional experience into the classroom and invests meaningful time and energy into getting to know each of her students.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.