“Professor Contigiani created an exceptional learning environment that fostered an entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged innovation. He made a genuine effort to ensure each student had a positive learning experience and was not afraid to tactfully challenge our concepts to make them better. A tremendous leader not only in the classroom, but in the community as well, and an ambassador for business entrepreneurship.” – Andrew Schaefer
Andrea Contigiani is an Assistant Professor of Management at Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business.
Contigiani conducts quantitative research on early-stage companies using econometrics, machine learning and experimental methods. He also advises startups and social enterprises on data analytics, product development, and fundraising.
He is the winner of several awards and recognitions for research papers including the 2017 Kauffman Dissertation Fellowship. His dissertation was also a finalist in the Academy of Management’s STR Division Wiley Blackwell Award for Outstanding Dissertation Research in 2020. He’s also the winner of the REER Kauffman Best Student Paper Award and has been nominated for the William H. Newman Award, to be assigned this summer at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting.
“But perhaps the award I am most proud of came as a result of my volunteering work. I co-founded Philadelphia Open Soccer, a group of Penn graduate students teaching soccer to Philadelphia’s underprivileged kids,” he says. “My work with Philadelphia Open Soccer was honored with the Eagles-Santander Community Quarterback in 2017. That award is one of the peak moments in my life. I loved my time in Philadelphia, so receiving that award for doing something good for that community meant a lot to me.”
At current institution since what year? 2019
Education: Ph.D. in Managerial Science and Applied Economics, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, 2019
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Entrepreneurship and the Business Plan
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I never had the “grand plan” to be a business school professor. I just ran a lot of experiments over the years, trying out different things, and that led me to this job. But, if I were to do a bit of a retrospective, here’s my best explanation: I have always been fascinated by doing research, in the original sense of searching for answers to interesting, unanswered questions. At the same time, having some concrete impact on the community around me is something I deeply care about. These two things rarely go together. Being a business school professor seemed a good way to try doing both.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I study early-stage companies. I try to understand how entrepreneurs make decisions, which decisions work better, and how their outcomes affect the broader society. So far the main question I have looked at is how entrepreneurs run experiments in building their products.
This work started with my doctoral dissertation and was inspired by the popularity of the Lean Startup. As I was looking for a dissertation topic early in my Ph.D., I interviewed dozens of Philadelphia entrepreneurs to understand what they were most excited (or worried) about. After a summer of fieldwork, a key theme that came up was how to efficiently learn from MVPs, the practice at the heart of the Lean Startup. Most entrepreneurs were excited about using this approach, but it was also clear that many didn’t really know how to use it. So, I decided to look into that.
I wanted to understand when experimentation helps you build a company and when it does not. I reviewed the academic literature, did a number of qualitative interviews, conducted several surveys, analyzed data from a variety of different sources, and finally wrote a mathematical model to make sense of the story that was emerging. My conclusion is that experimentation helps often, but not always. Sometimes the “cost” of running an experiment is more than its “benefit.” In particular, I think there are three key situations when that’s the case: when incorporating feedback from the market is complicated, when your reputation might get hurt, and when other companies can easily copy you. So, the Lean Startup is an excellent framework, arguably one of the key innovations in business throughout the past decade, but, like most business frameworks, it’s not always the best strategy.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I’d be a travel blogger. (I might still do that.)
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? That’s hard to say. But, as I look into my teaching style, there are three things I care a lot about. The first is concreteness. A lot of MBA education ends up being very abstract — I try to differentiate. My class is not really a “class,” it looks a lot more like a lab. In our lab, students start building ideas on Day One and, at the end of the semester, pitch startups to real-world investors. I make the whole process as hands-on as possible.
The second is diversity. Not only is celebrating diversity the right thing to do, but it is also the best thing to do. It is the most efficient way to come up with great ideas. So, in our lab, I do my best to support and encourage the melting-pot of different perspectives. Sometimes that’s tricky at the beginning, but it always works out well at the end. Once students get into that mindset, the discussion is incredibly energizing.
The third, and perhaps most important one, is psychological safety. I believe diversity leads to great ideas only if it happens in a safe space. So, I do my best to transform our lab into, essentially, a group of friends, where everyone feels welcome to share their creativity and their vulnerability at any point in time.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Anxiety. I did not grow up in America. I did not get an MBA, and I did not start a massive company. Why on Earth should I be teaching entrepreneurship in an American MBA? I was very open with students. I made clear what I could bring into the classroom and what I could not. It all worked out.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Having a strong research background isn’t the only requirement. It is not even the key requirement. Understanding the world around us is just as important. These skills demand different investments.
Professor I most admire and why: Nicolaj Siggelkow is the best business professor I have ever seen in action. I had the privilege to be a teaching assistant for his MBA class for several years. If, in the long run, I can make my class somewhat comparable to his class, I’ll call that a success.
TEACHING MBA STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? MBA students tend to be very ambitious. Whatever goal they have, they are aggressive about it. It’s fair to say that sometimes excessive ambition translates into unhealthy competition. However, if channeled in the right direction, that ambition creates some amazing energy in the classroom. I love that energy.
What is most challenging? Lots of MBA students come into the program with substantial work experience. They have lived first-hand a lot of the problems we discuss in class. So, to make your course meaningful, you really need to find the right balance between theory and practice. This can be hard, but it’s a fascinating challenge.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Somebody who (kindly) questions what we say in class.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Somebody who doesn’t question what we say in class.
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair but generous.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies? Photography, CrossFit, and football (aka soccer). And my Ducati Monster.
How will you spend your summer? Traveling around the world (while doing my best to offset my carbon footprint).
Favorite place(s) to vacation: I love skiing in the Alps, so that might be my favorite place. But, as I grow up, I am discovering that I find peace in the desert. The last one I visited was White Sands National Park. It was memorable.
Favorite book(s): The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Zero To One by Peter Thiel.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I am conflicted between Fight Club by David Fincher and Match Point by Woody Allen.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I started with Led Zeppelin, then pivoted to Radiohead, and finally got into Mogwai.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Every course would be co-taught by a researcher and a practitioner. I believe that finding the right synergy between research and experience is essential in business education. Right now, only a few schools can afford that. Hopefully, in the future, we all get to do it.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… I know it’s cliché, but business needs to do a lot more to fight climate change. The sad truth is that we just don’t care enough about it. You see it in everyday life, in how we abuse transportation, heating, waste management, and so on. If a top-down approach doesn’t work, we need to go bottom-up. We really need to act.
I’m grateful for… I am grateful to America for making me feel welcome at any point through this journey. So many people helped me as I started my new life at Penn and then at Ohio State. Moving to a new country and being given so much opportunity is something very special. I am grateful to my mentors for supporting me over the years. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to learn from some truly exceptional folks. Finally, I am grateful to my family. I grew up in a village in the hills of central Italy and ended up being a professor at a great university. I really owe most of this to them.