MBA Prof Of The Year: Stanford’s Jennifer Aaker

Jennifer Aaker in class


One of her favorites is her humor course, which she has been co-teaching with lecturer Naomi Bagdonas since 2017. While a course on humor in a business school may seem out of place, it’s just more evidence of the new thinking that Aaker has brought to business. The pair believe that humor is an effective and under-leveraged tool for power, offering a competitive advantage against peers, higher retention rates of employees, innovative solutions, and teams that are more resilient to stress.

Yet, Aaker has found what she calls a “humor cliff,” when young professionals enter the workforce. “The interesting thing is that as kids, we are all hilarious — we’re killin’ it on a daily basis,” she says. “As middle schoolers and teenagers, we continue to be funny. But then something changes and we stop being funny. And in our research, we think we’re beginning to pinpoint a shift — a humor cliff’ when people enter the workforce.”

Gallup surveys, for example, show that when people are asked to rate themselves against the prompts “I believe I am a funny person” and “I laugh frequently” people’s responses to the questions plummet around age 23.  “We go to work, and all of a sudden we’re very important, and we’re very efficient, and we’re no longer allowed to leave the house in sweatpants or count ice cream as a food group,” says Aaker. “Plus, some of us have a scarring moment of a joke gone wrong — so we stop trying.”


Jennifer Aaker

That’s a mistake in her view because humor can be used to make and scale positive change in the world, to achieve business objectives, and to cultivate stronger bonds, especially at a time when some research has shown that workplace stress is causing real harm. “Humor can build bonds and strengthen relationships. This is particularly important because workplaces are killing us,” she says. “Recent research by Jeff Pfeffer, Stefanos Zenios, and Joel Goh shows that workplace stress — fueled long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance — to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs. This concept of tackling big challenges but doing it with a sense of levity is powerful.”

Ironically, her class on humor is rooted in sadness. Eight years ago, with the publication of The Dragonfly Effect, a book co-authored with her husband Andy Smith, Aaker explored how it was possible to harness the power of social media to achieve major goals. One of the most inspiring stories in the book started with an MBA student in one of her classes. 

For a final assignment, the student had emailed her a PowerPoint doc that told the story of his best friend, Sameer Bhatia, a South Asian who had been recently diagnosed with leukemia. Sameer needed a bone marrow transplant to have a chance to survive but the one-in-20,000 odds of finding one made that unlikely.


The Stanford student essentially started a business to get 20,000 South Asians in the bone marrow registry for his friend. Leveraging Facebook, Google Docs, and YouTube to organize bone marrow drives, he was able to recruit 24,611 potential donors in 11 weeks and found the perfect match for his 32-year-old friend. The transplant was made, but sadly it was not in time, and Sameer died.

“So what Andy and I thought we would do in the first year of the book launch was to work with 12 volunteers in the Haas school to get over 100,000 people into the bone marrow registry in a year,” recalls Aaker. “During that year, we worked with 17 families to find a bone marrow match for their sons or daughters or moms. Out of the 17 we worked with, we lost 16 of them. It was soul crushing, frankly. There was no humor in it. It was the opposite of fun.

But it brought me to this realization that the power of humor was so significant. The only person who survived was both fun and funny and the way his friends, family and my students worked with him was really based on a culture of levity. That power of levity really created a truly happy ending. As we take on these big challenges in the world, I think there is power with designing for levity and humor.”


Fei-Fei Li will teach a new AI course at Stanford with Jennifer Aaker

Aaker’s newest course on artificial intelligence takes direct aim at all the fear and anxiety that technology is now arousing in the world of work. “We are at a moment in time where distrust is on the rise, and the negative unintended consequences of our technology are being flushed out,” she says. “We used to get a lot of our meaning from the jobs that we have and as we move into the next decade there is high potential for job displacement. This is going to be a course focused on AI that has the goal of trying to build machine learning capacity. Our goal really is to envision what AI technology might look like when it is used to as a tool to collaborate and to augment people, not displace them.” 

Her partnership on the course with Li also fulfills for Dean Levin a goal of increasing the connections between the business school and the rest of Stanford University. No less crucial, though, it has exposed Aaker to new thinking. “We really bonded as humans and friends,” she notes. “We are both moms of kids who are scientists. Our parents are important to us. Our partners are important and our careers and our research is really important to us. When we started brainstorming around the class and what we wanted to do in the course, our mutual commonalities was the starting point.” 

For Aaker, integrating social science lessons into the technology that students are building can ultimately optimize the positive impact of that technology and minimize stress-inducing worry and fear from the inevitable disruption and dislocation that the technology will cause. “It’s about how to harness tech for social change and impact,” she says. “The VR class was how to cultivate empathy for people who are not similar to us and empathy for the planet.”

Even in her newest class on AI, there is a direct link to her earlier studies on happiness, purpose and meaning. “A lot of our research on this and our humor class tries to make the case that what makes us really human is what creates meaning and bonds us with others and a larger purpose in the world,” says Aaker. “What I find to be so interesting is we are in a moment in time where individuals are starting to be potentially more interested in understanding what drives human thriving. We have these preconceived notions of what creates our happiness and what I’m hoping for is that there will be an increasing amount of insight into understanding what is actually good for us.”