2021 Best 40-Under-40 Professors: Trent Williams, Indiana University (Kelley)

Trent Williams of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business is a 2021 Best 40 Under 40 Business School Professor. Courtesy photo

Trenton Alma Williams

William L. Haeberle Professor of Entrepreneurship, Associate Professor

Kelley School of Business, Indiana University

Trent Williams is an award-winning professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. In 2019, Williams was awarded the Emerging Scholar Award—Entrepreneurship Division of the Academy of Management. Before that, Williams earned the 2018 Kelley School of Business Eyster Teaching Award. We were impressed by Williams’ recognitions as well as the more than 1,800 Google Scholar citations he’s wracked up.

“In recent years I have been exploring entrepreneurial emergence in extremely constrained environments,” Williams says of his recent research. “This has included venturing by victims of natural disasters (e.g., Haiti earthquake, bushfires in Australia) and more recently, entrepreneurial efforts by refugees (in Sweden, Lebanon, and the United States).”

Williams teaches in both the full-time MBA program as well as the Kelley Direct online MBA program, which placed first in the Poets&Quants annual ranking of online MBA programs last year.

Current age: 39

At current institution since what year? 2017


BA—English/Philosophy, Brigham Young University

MS—OBHR / Strategy, Purdue University

MS—Business, Indiana University

PhD—Entrepreneurship and Strategy, Indiana University

List of MBA courses you currently teach:

  • W503—Generating new venture ideas—Course focused on Design Sprints in residence MBA program
  • J-596—Core Strategy course in Kelley Direct online MBA program


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I had completed several years working as a management consultant. While I loved consulting and the opportunity it provided me to explore critical challenges for organizations, I wanted to delve deeper into these problems and seek to identify the nuances and complexity that surround fundamental questions of organizational emergence, growth, and renewal. My hope was that conducting research would allow for a greater depth of research, and I was right!

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? In recent years I have been exploring entrepreneurial emergence in extremely constrained environments. This has included venturing by victims of natural disasters (e.g., Haiti earthquake, bushfires in Australia) and more recently, entrepreneurial efforts by refugees (in Sweden, Lebanon, and the United States). My co-authors and I have found that “victims” of difficult circumstances are often the best positioned to offer customized solutions and, far from being without resources, often possess the greatest types of resources (i.e., social capital, resilience, local knowledge, etc.) needed to launch organizations in a post-crisis context. Our research reveals patterns of responding to challenges that can benefit individual actors, their organizations, and their communities. We believe that this research is especially important now as we continue to endure the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be an entrepreneur. Being a professor is fairly independent work, and I have enjoyed the ability to map out the activities needed to try and create value—in the form of research and effective teaching. My hope would be to enact similar processes as an entrepreneur, albeit with different outcomes.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I value my students and what they bring to our classroom. As I begin each semester, I am amazed at the incredible breadth and depth of expertise I find in my students. As I observe their capabilities, I seek to draw them out to share their knowledge as we all learn together as a class. As a professor, I seek to orchestrate the sharing and integration of knowledge rather than attempt to serve as the sole provider and arbiter of information. By recognizing and engaging the diversity of expertise and experiences in the classroom, my hope is that I can provide students with a rich and varied experience that expands their knowledge.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Stoked

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: You don’t need to have all of the answers! I think often when we are in a role as a facilitator, consultant or teacher we believe that we need to have all of the answers should any questions come up. That is a lot of pressure! However, this is not the case. In fact, asking good questions and then enabling others to answer and work through them is critical for everyone’s learning. Also, encouraging students to develop answers, learn from one another, and share their experiences can offer a far wider variety of responses than any single person is capable of.

Professor I most admire and why: Dean Shepherd, University of Notre Dame. Dean is a remarkable professor for a host of reasons—he is the most prolific scholar in his field, he is committed to producing high quality research, and he has achieved some of the highest awards to date. While all of these qualities are certainly admirable, I admire Dean for his incredible work ethic and ability to focus on what is most important. There are so many things that could potentially distract in a career in academia. Dean’s ability to identify his priorities and then stay true to those priorities despite any possible distraction is an incredible example of how to be successful and thrive as an individual in any career.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? The diverse experiences they bring to the classroom. My students come from a variety of backgrounds (pre-MBA) and never cease to amaze me with the different types of experience they bring to the table. As such, I am constantly learning new things in the classroom, which I love.

What is most challenging? Getting some students to realize their creative potential.

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

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Consistent. I demand a lot of my students in terms of the work they are asked to do, and I seek to be as consistent as possible in rewarding them when they do what is asked of them (and more!). I believe that it is important to ask students to struggle to generate original ideas and perspectives. While this can be a frustrating process for them, the result is very rewarding for both them and me.


What are your hobbies? Mountain biking, running, spending time with my family, and watching the Premier League—especially Chelsea Football Club

How will you spend your summer? Writing and mountain bike riding. I’m eager to return to my favorite mountain bike trail (Gooseberry Mesa near Zion National Park) and continue advancing my research.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: France (where I once lived), Lake Michigan coastline, Southern Utah, and Gulf Shores, Alabama

Favorite book(s): Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, and Les Misérables (French version) by Victor Hugo

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? Documentaries on extreme athletes or athletic competitions. For example, Barkley Marathons, Running for Good, and Free Solo. I am fascinated by the extremes people push their bodies, the work that goes into preparing for these types of events, and the network of people who surround those pushing themselves so hard.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I love music that provides complexity, regardless of genre. My favorite artists are Brandon Flowers, Maître Gims, Sissel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Twenty One Pilots, and Johnny Cash. I was trained as a classical musician as a child (which I never followed through on) and I appreciate classical music. But I also love alternative music and especially music that incorporates a variety of themes in both the music and lyrics. I also love unique voices and artists who can cut across genres.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Engagement with real business situations. One of the values of teaching in an online program (Kelley Direct) is my students get to apply the content we are learning in real time at their places of business. This is extremely rewarding as they can immediately “practice” the concepts they are learning in class rather than just work through simulations.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Encouraging employees to develop and implement original ideas. As organizations grow, they can tend to focus so much on efficiency and optimization that employees lose the scope of what they are actually trying to do. The more individuals can understand the scope and purpose of an organization, the better equipped they will be in developing solutions that go beyond their narrow domain. My belief is that encouraging creativity, decision-making, and ownership of processes and outcomes would help individuals find more joy at work and organizations achieve more innovative outcomes.

I’m grateful for… All those who have supported and continue to support me in my journey in academia. There are so many individuals that help sustain a business school—administrators, secretaries, students, faculty, and so forth—none of us could do any of what we do without one another. In addition, I’m grateful to be in such a wonderful profession where we can strive to make organizations better and have a more beneficial impact on society at large. I’m also grateful for my family—I have four creative and curious kids who teach me so much every day and a spouse who listens to me and supports me all while accomplishing incredible work in her professional and personal domains.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:

“Professor Williams has a vigor for strategy that is difficult to describe well. He is genuinely passionate about his students and it shows in all his interactions, coursework, and feedback. Students not only learn about strategic business concepts but apply the framework to personalized situations and self-selected organizations. This customized learning creates additional depth in a course that is not initially apparent but is an obvious benefit after completing the rigors of the assignments. Professor Williams has a natural talent to stimulate, energize, and shape the future leaders in business. IU Kelley MBA students and I are grateful for his part in our education.”

“Professor Williams gave students a unique opportunity to apply our real-world experience and solve a problem in our current organizations. He structured the course to guide students through each layer of analysis, culminating in a deliverable that is presentable to executives in our organizations. Moreover, grading 170 weekly submissions on 170 different organizations is no easy task! The dedication and thought Professor Williams puts into his course content and lectures is incredible. I appreciate the freedom he gives students to form their own ideas, discuss as a group and then making suggestions if the group gets off track.”

“Trent offered a very informative semester for MBA our core strategy class. I enjoyed all of the readings and found they were diverse and inclusive. I learned a lot. Trent allowed us space to not only have dialogue but be creative within our assignments as well. His knowledge and leadership provide us with a priceless model for our careers, and I am glad he was part of my education. Trent was also one of my team’s coaches during the Kelley Connect Week (KCW) back in 2019, and his advice and suggestions helped us advanced to the second round of presentation for the live case competition. This made my first KCW experience even more memorable, which has made my MBA experience in Kelley Direct wonderful!”

In relation to the Poet & Quants 40 under 40 MBA professor selection, I want to highlight how Trent masters the skill of smoothly moving between theory and practice. No matter the complexity of a theory, he can make it understandable with real examples. Likewise, in order to analyze challenges and issues that organizations face, he has an exceptional ability to fit theoretical concepts with relevant mechanisms. As a result, academic texts come to life and organizational life comes to be (more) understandable. By connecting the dots, he creates value for our future leaders.

“Trent is an outstanding scholar who has rapidly reached the top of our field despite his relative youth. Importantly, Trent makes sure that his research is relevant and has real world implications. His research on entrepreneurship as a vehicle for catastrophe relief is particularly interesting and important. He has shown that local grassroot initiatives can potentially be more important to deliver useful relief to people than large government projects. This applies across context from Haiti after catastrophic earthquakes to Australia following devastating bush fires. These insights are becoming increasingly important as we see natural and manmade catastrophes mounting.”

“Professor Trent Williams is the epitome of an elite scholar-teacher. His entrepreneurship research is unique, interesting, and impactful. In recognition of his outstanding research, he received the prestigious Emerging Scholar Award from the Academy of Management. Being an outstanding researcher allows Dr. Williams to bring insights and advancements from his research directly to the students. That ability in combination with his dedication to student learning and development makes Dr. Williams a superb teacher in the MBA classroom.”


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