When Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin needed a professor to help develop and teach a novel course on artificial intelligence this year, he turned to a familiar and charismatic face on the business school campus: Jennifer Aaker. His decision to pair Aaker, a social psychologist, with Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science at Stanford and the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, to teach the course was no accident.
In 2019, Aaker’s 20th year teaching MBA students at Stanford, she has established herself as one of the most creative thinkers and innovators at the school, having taught elective courses in such topics as happiness, humor and purpose are rare at most business schools. She already was teaching another truly unique offering, Designing For Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality: Scaling Empathy In An Immersive World. So it seemed something of a no-brainer to move onto AI. “He knows my goal is to scale social science through both technology and business practice to positively impact human well being,” says Aaker.
“A lot of my research is anchored on how meaning and purpose shapes choices that individuals make,” she says. “And how money and time are spent in ways that cultivate long-lasting happiness, meaning and purpose. But I am also very interested in how technology can be used to positively impact people.” So this coming winter quarter, she will be co-teaching Designing AI To Cultivate Human Well-Being.
MBA PROFESSOR OF THE YEAR: JENNIFER AAKER
For bringing such unique perspectives into the MBA classroom over the course of her 22-year-old career as a professor, Aaker is Poets&Quants‘ MBA Professor of the Year in 2018. She is only the second professor to earn the honor which was given last year to UVA Darden’s Greg Fairchild for the honor (see MBA Prof Of The Year: Darden’s Greg Fairchild).
While the 51-year-old Aaker has racked up her fair share of honors in best paper awards and outstanding teaching accolades, she is no ordinary business school professor. She has devoted her professional life to studying the psychology of time, money and happiness. Aaker attempts to find out how people chose to spend their time and money, and when and why those choices are associated with lasting value. Noted for her early work on the dimensions of brand personality, Aaker’s current research is rooted in the psychology of choice and the shifting meaning of happiness.
“When you think about what decisions you make when you are optimizing for happiness, you tend to make decisions on the here and now and what you are feeling,” she believes. ‘You often make decisions that are self-centered and self-oriented. You also tend to make decisions that are optimIzing for positive affect and minimizing negative affect. This idea of how do I feel happy all of the time and never sad or fearful becomes front of mind. When you are making decisions around meaning, you tend to think of different things. You think of the past, present and future and you tend to be more other oriented.”
DAUGHTER OF TWO TEACHERS INCLUDING AN ACCLAIMED ACADEMIC AT BERKELEY HAAS
It was perhaps inevitable that Aaker would become an educator. Her mother was an award-winning school teacher for 50 years and now works with hospice full time serving others. Her father, David, was an acclaimed academic at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business where he taught marketing for 30 years. Many consider him the father of modern branding.
“I was lucky to grow up with two remarkable parents and role models,” she says. “It was my desire to have an impact in the world, serving others and having impact on the lives of others.”
Her desire to serve did not come as a result of many dinner conversations, however. “At most of our dinners, we focused on what we did today and what we were going to do tomorrow. We had to eat liver and it was awful,” laughs Aaker. “Instead, we saw their actions and that made a difference.”
Her journey into the academic world, starting with an undergraduate degree in psychology from UC-Berkeley in 1989 and later a PhD in marketing from Stanford with a minor in psychology in 1995, was also a conscious one. “I thought about what I was disproportionately good at. I was always strong at math and science so becoming a social scientist and using social science in ways that I could positively impact others didn’t come early. It’s always an ever evolving journey.”
A CLOSET-INTROVERT, SHE FINDS SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH A JOY
A self-described “closet introvert,” Aaker says she naturally found research to be a joy. “It’s where I spend by far the most of my time,” she notes. “But these classes I view as an opportunity to learn. Each of our classes is very academic and the social science guides the content and the frameworks.”
Over her 22 years in the classroom as a teacher, Aaker has taught MBAs more than a dozen different courses, starting with such basics as Consumer Behavior to such highly novel business courses as How To Tell A Story, Designing For Happiness, and Humor: Serious Business. Those are classes that you would rarely find in a course catalog at any typical business school. But Stanford is not your typical B-school and Aaker is not your typical business school professor.
Yet, Aaker insists, she has learned far more from the students in her classrooms than they have learned from her. “I usually teach subjects I know very little or nothing about,” she says. “So on day one I usually tell them we are all going to be learning together. My students have taught me significantly more than I’ve taught them.”
What Aaker Has Taught MBA Students
• Designing for VR/AR (2017-present, Stanford MBA)
• Humor: Serious Business (2017-present, Stanford MBA)
• Rethinking Purpose (2016-present,Stanford MBA and d.school)
• Designing Story in a Digital World (2014-2016, Stanford MBA)
• The Power of Story (2012-2017, Stanford MBA)
• Building Innovative Brands (2010-2016, Stanford MBA and d.school), with Chris Flink
• Designing (for) Happiness (2010-2013, Stanford MBA)
• How to Tell a Story (2008-2012, Stanford MBA)
• The Power of Social Technology (2008-2010, Stanford MBA)
• Creativity and Innovation in Marketing (2006-2008, Haas MBA)
• Understanding Cultures and Consumers (2001-07, Stanford MBA)
• Marketing Management (1996-2001, UCLA and Stanford MBA)
• Culture and Persuasion (1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, Columbia and Stanford Ph.D)
• Consumer Behavior (1996, 1998, 2001, 2003-2007 UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford Ph.D)
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.