2020 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Ivanka Visnjic, Esade Business School

Ivanka Visnjic of ESADE is a Poets&Quants Best 40 Under 40 MBA Professor

Many believe innovation is the lifeblood of business. Without creativity and innovation, companies will often stall and eventually perish. ESADE Business School‘s Ivanka Visnjic is the school’s pillar of innovation and creativity. “Ivanka lives and breathes innovation,” one nominator told us. “Innovation at ESADE has been benchmarked by Ivanka’s extremely structured and state of the art approach of helping students understand the scope of innovation and its implications in the real-world problem-solving scenarios,” another said. The two classes Visnjic currently teaches are Innovation (a core course) and Creativity and Innovation — Creating Radically New Products and Services (an elective). Visnjic also serves as the Director of ESADE’s Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Management.

Her passion for the subject derives from a fascinating personal narrative. She grew up in Serbia at a time when the turmoil on the Balkans was at its peak. Visnjic was a teenager, all of 17 years of age, when the brutal conflict ended in 1999 with Serbia beaten and battered, a years-long struggle that cost more than 100,000 lives. An undergraduate professor she was lucky to have at the University of Novi Sad in her home country encouraged her to dream beyond the constraints of her environment and taught Visnjic how to pursue her dream of a very different future.  She would move on to earn her Ph.D. in Applied Economics and begin an academic life once she realized, in hjer words, “the potential that this role has to inspire and shape individuals and future leaders and, in doing so, participate in creating a better society.”

Judging from the many admiring statements sent to us by her students, she has succeeded. “Professor Visnjic has an excellent way of teaching and engaging students. Every class is designed interactively, guiding us with questions to the right conclusions. She facilitates active discussions by leveraging our diverse backgrounds, creating memorable results,” one nominator said.

Being an innovation professor is her “purpose and lifestyle,” Visnjic told us. “My goal is to help students break out of believing that they are not creative, equip them with innovation methodologies and empower them to take creative risks in a smart way,” she says.

Outside of the classroom, Visnjic says she spends time practicing yoga and traveling. “I equally enjoy writing an academic article, giving a keynote in front of hundreds of executives, working on a new student project, or attending Burning Man festival,” she says.

Ivanka Visnjic

Associate Professor, Department of Operations, Innovation and Data Sciences and Director, Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Management

Esade Business School

Current age: 38

At current institution since what year? January 2011

Education: Ph.D. in Applied Economics, Faculty of Economics and Business, K.U. Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

List of MBA courses you currently teach:

  • Innovation (core course)
  • Creativity and Innovation- Creating Radically New Products and Services (elective)


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I realized the potential that this role has to inspire and shape individuals and future leaders and, in doing so, participate in creating a better society.

I grew up in Serbia, at the time that the turmoil in Balkans was at its highest. My undergraduate professor of consumer behavior, Ružica Kovač Žnideršić (University of Novi Sad), encouraged me to dream beyond the constraints of the present environment and taught me how to pursue those dreams.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? Together with my colleagues, I am studying innovation processes that lead to breakthrough innovations in industries ranging from cleantech, biotech to molecular cuisine. I believe that we spotted an overlooked or underappreciated component that could explain the difference between the process leading to incremental innovations versus breakthrough innovations. I am very excited about it; I have a hunch that it will have strong implications for research, teaching and practice.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be a consultant, a coach or a writer. I believe that my fundamental purpose is to help people learn and reach their creative potential. Regardless of what my job title says, I am sure I would end up doing exactly that.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

In their thank you notes, my students often write that I inspire and guide them. I suppose this comes naturally, as being an innovation professor is not just a job for me; it is strongly aligned with my sense of purpose and lifestyle. That resonates with people.

One word that describes my first-time teaching: Improvisation.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: There are at least 5 entirely different skills that are needed to be good in this role – you will need to be an analytical researcher, a practical advisor, a creative storyteller, an empathetic pedagogist and an inspirational speaker. It is really hard to excel in all at the same time. Be patient, you will get there.

Professor I most admire and why: I admire Professors Julian Birkinshaw (London Business School), Henry Chesbrough (UC Berkley), Ann Majchrzak (University of Southern California) and  Sebastian Raisch (University of Geneva) for their achievements as innovation scholars, thought leaders, mentors, and inspiring individuals.


What do you enjoy the most about teaching business students? Their motivation, engagement and impact. I am energized by their drive and eagerness to learn and I am grateful that they take that learning and transform it to tangible societal impact.

What is most challenging? Making sure that you address the specific needs of individual students. That you meet them at the specific point of their learning trajectory. Within the constraints of time allocated to your course.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Cynical

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as focused on the key learning outcomes


What are your hobbies?

Yoga and travel! I thrive on discovering new places, new cultures and communities.

How will you spend your summer?

I am currently planning a course that helps students whose internships are cancelled make most of the summer by starting their innovation projects. I expect I will be helping them along the way… and I get to learn about their innovation process.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: The next place that will surprise me into changing my perspective.

Favorite book(s): I have many. I am just wrapping up “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking. Wow.

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

Recently I watched again Inception, which is probably my favorite movie after The Matrix. What I love about both movies is that they force you to question the notion of reality.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

I enjoy electronic music. Most of my favorite DJs are less-well-known artists from the Burning Man community. Mira, Kora, David Hohme or Unders. Why? I find their music to be profound, liberating, loving and inspirational.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this Less rigid formats, more experiential learning and more co-creation projects between students, faculty and broader business ecosystem and community.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at Identifying and managing talent, particularly creatives, finding new ways to engage them, motivate them and nurture their abilities.

I’m grateful for The energy I was blessed with and the dozens of people that inspired me, encouraged me or supported me along my journey.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say

“Innovation at ESADE has been benchmarked by Ivanka’s extremely structured and state of the art approach of helping students understand the scope of innovation and its implications in the real-world problem-solving scenarios. It has been an absolutely exciting experience to listen and interact with industry leaders across all business industries who have been able to utilize innovation as their business’s way to maintain their market leader position. More than the coursework, Ivanka takes a personal interest in the cultivation of an innovative perspective in everyone and goes far and beyond by providing guidance and tangible support in terms of in-class interactions, thinking through business problems, or providing networking support. Her perspective on Innovation and its application is not only engaging, but inspiring to say the least, and echoes very strongly the contemporary business world’s emphasis on sustainable innovation and how to spot and create value by effective execution. Ivanka can effectively lead sustainable business change by creating the perspective of lasting innovative processes in the minds of businesspeople for tomorrow and has had a considerable and significant impact on how I will think about delivering business value to future institutions I will be associated with. It has been one of the inspiring experiences at ESADE.”

“Ivanka lives and breathes innovation. Back in 2018/2019, Ivanka launched an entirely new MBA Elective, dubbed “Moonshot thinking”, based on a new radical innovation methodology which she is constantly improving. She has built educational simulation on creativity, classroom games, and a new form of real case teaching, where she brings the case protagonist to the classroom (physically or digitally). She coached an Esade MBA team for highly competitive LVMH Future of Luxury Challenge. We won 2nd place, just after a fashion school. Assignments from her classroom are being turned into startups, such as Solytic. Outside of the classroom, Ivanka is shaping into a thought-leader on discontinuous technologies and disruptive business models. After a period at McKinsey & Co, Ivanka dedicated her Ph.D. to service business model innovation in the high-tech industry. Her research has had a profound impact on academics and executives. It has been used to guide the decisions of senior executives of large companies, such as IBM or Caterpillar. She helped set-up academia-business led partnerships and is currently leading ESADE´s Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Management that develops research with practitioner impact. She has received awards such as the IBM Faculty Award or the Journal of Operations Management Ambassador Award.”

“I can still remember the day I entered late at Professor Visnjic’s innovation class to find my classmates brainstorming under her guidance with one of the companies that inspired me to leave my career in public affairs and pursue an MBA. This incident encapsulates Prof Visnjic’s teaching approach: instead of delivering theoretical concepts in a vacuum, she cultivates the conditions for students to become part of real business innovation processes. She goes above and beyond to provide her students with intellectual stimuli by bringing leading innovative ventures to class and probing students to solve real-life challenges. Her passion to support her students thrive is unparalleled, be it in case competitions or through career opportunities and advice. This represents the real ethos of a teacher, who is self-fulfilled through the success of her students.”


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