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2018 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Natalya Vinokurova, Wharton

Natalya Vinokurova

Assistant Professor of Management

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School

More than just a phenomenal and recognized expert on how decisions get made in the real world and how decision-making processes evolve over time, Wharton’s Natalya Vinokurova is an innovative educator greatly admired by students. Students praise her for her accessibility and assistance in helping students identify their passions and to pursue their personal interests. To date, she’s won two “Goes above and beyond the call of duty” MBA Core Curriculum teaching awards and she’s credited with developing a student workshop on reading business cases strategically that has been incorporated into Wharton’s orientation program for incoming MBA students. What’s more, she’s often cited by students as the professor who has had the greatest impact on their Wharton MBA experience. For her research, Vinokurova has received several “best paper” accolades, grants, and other honors.

Age: 38

At current institution since what year? 2012

Education:

PhD in Business Administration from the NYU Stern School of Business

List of courses you currently teach: I teach the strategy module of Managing the Established Enterprise (the core management class in the MBA program)

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” As a high school senior living in Minsk, Belarus, I saw a marketing professor from UC Riverside teach a class. It was the most engaging form of instruction I had encountered and I was fascinated by the possibility of turning that engagement into a career.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My research focuses on the evolution of the market for mortgage-backed securities in the U.S. I study the evolution of market participants’ beliefs about the securities and how the changes in these beliefs contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. I find that the fragmentation of financial markets makes it difficult for the market participants to predict the consequences of innovation diffusion.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…” I would work for Institute for Health Care Improvement (IHI). It is an organization dedicated to improving safety in hospitals by redesigning hospital processes and saving tens of thousands of lives. One way of thinking about their work is that they apply the Toyota production model to healthcare.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I have been very fortunate to benefit from my colleagues’ dedication to teaching and their generosity with helping me succeed in the classroom whether that be by sharing their teaching materials, providing me feedback on my teaching, or allowing me to observe their classes. Among the most important things they have taught me is the efficacy of humor in the classroom.

“One word that describes my first time teaching”:

Courage.

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

I have a number of songs in my teaching repertoire that come out on different days. They range from the Muppets theme song to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Dire Straits and the Grateful Dead.

As a b-school professor, what motivates you?

I am motivated by the possibility of making a difference in the world both through research and helping students achieve their full potential.

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

It is the best job in the world.

Professor you most admire and why:

I would not be here today without the help and support of Adam Brandenburger who, in addition to being a brilliant scholar, has been an advisor, mentor, and friend.

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

I enjoy the energy and the diversity of experiences the students bring to the classrooms. Every time I enter the classroom, I hope to learn something new and I am rarely disappointed.

What is most challenging?

One of the things I find very challenging is convincing students that they can ask for advice whether career-related or academic when they need it. There is nothing as frustrating as learning that I could have helped somebody make a better decision after the fact.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student

Inquisitive.

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

Absentee.

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

What impresses me most in my students is the courage they have to not just look for their authentic selves, but to make a difference in the lives of others in the process. I am always impressed by the variety of paths my students take—blazing their own trails in a variety of industries.

What is the least favorite thing one has done?

I am yet to encounter this, but my worst teaching nightmare is to have a former colleague call me and say “I am working with your student and s/he had you for strategy. What on earth did you teach them?”

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

My goal is to incentivize hard work—if a student is willing to put in the time, it is hard not to get an A.

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

Tough.

“But I would describe myself as …”

Reasonable.

Fill in the blank:

“If my students can think critically about the decisions businesses make, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Fun fact about yourself:

During my time at Wharton, I have swum about 400 miles in the Penn pool (1,000 meters at a time).

What are your hobbies?

I like swing dancing, but have not had a chance to practice much in the past few years.

How will you spend your summer?

Working

Favorite place to vacation:

The Outer Banks in North Carolina

Favorite book:

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

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

King’s Speech is one of my favorite films as a story of perseverance.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist:

Classical, Shostakovich’s 5th

THOUGHTS OF REFLECTION

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Wharton MBA students voting to give me two teaching awards

What is your most memorable moment as a professor?

Making it into the script of the Wharton Follies

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

Tutorial-style small group classes

“And much less of this…”

Grading. Grades distract from learning.

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

Companies today by and large underinvest in their human resources. As job security becomes scarce, the underinvestment in training and development undermines firms’ capacity for innovation.

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

Research and teaching. This job is a privilege and I hope to continue getting to do what I am doing.

Students say…

“Professor Vinokurova’s ability to keep a class of 75 students of varied interests and backgrounds engrossed in a case discussion is unparalleled. She pulled insights that went layers deep, and engaged even the most reluctant students. Natalya focused on the practical and was the professor who best prepared me for my post-MBA career. She focused on how to make decisions with imperfect information.”

“It is my last semester at Wharton and as I look back at the classes I have taken, Natalya’s class stands out most. Her ability to challenge us with her rather unexpected cold calls, engaging teaching style, and humor, is truly phenomenal. Dr. Vinokurova case-based class is taught very diligently. She comes clearly extremely prepared, to answer very hard questions that students ask, and ask the right questions to stimulate our thinking of the case. She has had the most impact on me during my experience.”

“Natalya teaches a section of the Wharton core course “Managing the Established Enterprise,” and her combination of humor, sound analysis and insightful questions brings strategic decision-making to life. Natalya regularly goes above and beyond for her students: she reviews assignment drafts, provides an excellent written summary of key course learnings, and she even put together a decision-making and life advice document – a trove of wisdom that students love.”

“Outstanding management professor whose skill and expertise in tackling business strategy problems extends beyond the classroom. She has been exceptionally helpful and accessible in providing thoughts on my own startup as well.”

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