2022 Best 40-Under-40 MBA Professors: Prasad Vana, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

Prasad Vana

Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

“Prasad’s research is rigorous, as proven by his publications in the most impactful and prestigious journals in the field of quantitative marketing. His research has recently headed in a very exciting direction with topics such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. He collaborates with computer science faculty on these topics and one such publication has led to a patent application being filed. In the classroom, he takes topics such as analytics and statistics that many students consider dry and inaccessible and infuses them with applications that MBA students relate to, and does so with humor and levity. Prasad’s warm, approachable, helpful, and intellectually curious personality is a pleasure for both students and his faculty colleagues.” – Professor Kusum Ailawadi

Prasad Vana, 37,  is an Assistant Professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

His research has focused on how firms adopt new forms of digital promotions and advertising to attract consumers, use online reviews to help consumers through the purchase journey, and utilize algorithms as a lever to affect consumer choice and aid in firms’ objectives. He has been published in premier marketing journals such as Marketing Science, the Journal of Marketing Research, and the International Journal of Research in Marketing. His work has been featured in the Scientific American, BBC, Washington Post and the Marketplace at NPR.

Vana started off his teaching career at Tuck with the core MBA course of Statistics for Managers which he later redesigned along with his colleagues at Tuck into Analytics I and Analytics II stream of courses. Prasad also created the popular Quantitative Digital Marketing elective at Tuck which infuses learning digital marketing concepts with hands-on exercises using real-world digital marketing datasets using Python.

BACKGROUND

At current institution since what year? 2017

Education: Ph.D.: London Business School (2017), MS: the University of Texas at Austin (2007), BTech: Indian Institute of Technology (2006)

List of MBA courses you currently teach: Analytics I, Analytics II, Quantitative Digital Marketing.

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I found out how cool the research in a business school environment can be! For as long as I can remember, I have always had a passion for answering puzzles and have been curious about deeply and intuitively understanding various phenomena. I had just assumed at some point during college that I would go for a Ph.D., it was just a question of the topic. I had the fortune of enrolling in a couple of business school courses at McCombs when I was a graduate student at UT Austin and I was hooked. That experience stayed at the back of my mind after I graduated and started working in engineering consulting. A few years into the job, I found myself young, single, and looking for new experiences. I decided it was time to explore a new continent. A PhD in London was exactly what the doctor ordered, and the rest is history.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I am currently exploring how ranking algorithms that dictate the exact order in which we see hundreds or thousands of alternatives in most digital environments such as online stores affect choice. While these algorithms are supposed to make our digital journeys smooth, they have also received quite a bit of bad press recently about how they help the firm, often at the cost of the consumer. We focus on the case of crowdfunding for public school projects and find that the algorithm used by the platform we study actively and substantially aids to help underprivileged students and that this does not come at the cost of the platform’s goal of maximizing the number of projects that succeed. To the ongoing debate about the role of algorithms in society, we thus add real-world evidence that algorithms indeed can be a force for good without compromising on the platform’s overall goals.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would probably be an astronomer (a professor in astronomy) or perhaps a science fiction writer.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I think there are two things. First, my teaching philosophy is to make the material and myself as accessible as possible. I teach Analytics, which can occasionally be dry as it involves intricate math. From day one, I ensure that the atmosphere in the classroom is informal and infused with humor. I tell my students to think of me as a (slightly) overweight Hasan Minhaj. I extensively use memes and jokes in class. I tell stories about the mathematicians who invented/discovered the concepts we learn in class and show their portraits with funky Snapchat filters overlayed on top. I feel that humanizing these mathematicians takes them off their pedestals and makes the abstruse equations more reachable and eases students’ nerves. Also, I am always available to students. I have had zoom calls with anxious students close to midnight the day before the final exam!

Second, students love stories! I have 3 degrees from 3 continents and have lived in all 3 continents for over 5 years. Given my international experience, globetrotting adventures, and unique family history I have stories to show and tell. For example, I wear a different tie to each class and each tie comes from a different country with some interesting story behind it.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Unboxing!

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: How many suits and dress shirts I would need (I could’ve shopped for some really good ones in Europe while I was a PhD student there)! I am kidding of course; I do love to suit up and it seems to go well with the Ivy League business school ambiance!

On a more serious note, I would say I wish someone would’ve told me that people consider business school professors to be experts on all matters of business! In most cases, we specialize in a very narrow area in our PhD and continue to research on that topic. From taxi drivers to nurses in the ER to tour guides, I’ve had strangers ask me which stocks to invest in or which credit card to get, or how to go about starting a startup based on an idea they have. I have no idea, people!

Professor I most admire and why: Anja Lambrecht at LBS. She was my PhD adviser and has been my north star throughout this journey. Ph.D. supervisors come with different levels of commitment and involvement and Anja is right up there as one of the most committed and involved. She is detail-oriented, an immaculate planner, and very pragmatic and realistic. She keeps me grounded when I begin to fly and she helps me take off when I am too stagnant. We joke that as a German she is a few minutes ahead of schedule and as an Indian I am a few minutes behind and together, our research papers tend to arrive right on time.

TEACHING MBA STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? There are three things. First, what I absolutely love about teaching is that it allows me to witness that “moment of learning”, when we plant a brand new concept in a student’s mind (like in the movie Inception) and you can see that euphoric “aha” moment in the student’s eyes. I live for it.

Second, I feel (fortunately) that my sense of humor and cultural references highly overlap with that of the typical MBA student at Tuck. So when I am in the classroom, it is less like formally educating students and more like having fun with friends.

Third, as professors we spend most of our time in our bunkers doing our esoteric research that, while very rigorous and rewarding, can be a bit removed from practical real-world impact. Teaching is what allows me to experience immediate and tangible practical impact. Given the diverse backgrounds of the MBA students at Tuck, I learn as much from them as I hope they do from me and every day in the classroom is a rewarding experience.

What is most challenging? The biggest challenge in teaching courses that are heavy on quantitative methods is to bridge the gap between the poets and quants in the class. If you push to one end, you end up boring one half (the quants), and if you take it to the other end you lose the other half (the poets). It is thus a fine line to traverse.

Teaching a course like Quantitative Digital Marketing involves preparation that goes beyond just creating the slides and delivering them in a polished manner. The material is as dynamic as sand dunes in the Sahara. Digital marketing technology is evolving year on year at an immense pace in unpredictable manners. What is hot and upcoming this year may be yesterday’s technology next year. It means I need to first stay on top of the details and then get my students there, year after challenging year.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: yes-person

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… the weird one. I tell them early on in the course that life is inherently meaningless, the Universe is random, and is almost surely going to die of a heat death in the future. In this grand scheme of things, your grades don’t matter.

LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? I have about 5 telescopes. I am an avid astrophotographer and take pictures of deep space objects such as galaxies and nebulae. New England has brought out the outdoorsman in me and I have gotten into running, biking (albeit on my Peloton), skiing, and hiking.

How will you spend your summer? In New Hampshire, summer means those two days of the year that you get some Sun. When that happens, you have to make the most of it. This summer we are planning to hike the Acadia in Maine and make good gains on getting to my goal of running #1000milesin2022.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Coming from a country of over a billion, I am fascinated by small countries. My travels have so far taken me to Iceland, Malta, Andorra, and Vatican City. Next on the map: Monaco, Luxembourg, San Marino and Liechtenstein. There are a surprising number of surprisingly small countries in Europe.

Favorite book(s): Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. When (not if) we do find intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe (very likely to happen within this century), it will likely be like what’s found in Solaris and less like little green people with giant googly eyes and noodly appendages. I think most other sci-fi gets aliens wrong. They tend to anthropomorphize everything and when thinking about aliens that’s not only dull and uncreative it’s also likely very wrong.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? My all-time favorite TV shows are the Office (USA) and Community. For the Office, I think the characters and their development, the writing, and the comedic timing are all top-notch. This show is a meme goldmine. I use so many memes, lines, and screenshots from this show in my class. Michael Scott FTW!

Community is on my top list for its sheer creativity and experimentation. There is something unique about each episode, there are tiny details observable only after a dozen viewings. Troy and Abed in the morning!

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I am a big Indie fan, particularly of indie-folk and indie rock (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Of Monsters and Men, Decemberists, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, etc.). The eclectic nature of Indie really speaks to my soul. No big bands, no big names, no stadium tours, no top 40 radio.

When I am working, think downtempo chill, post-rock, add shoegazing. We’re talking All India Radio, Bonobo, Odesza, Four Tet, God is an Astronaut, Mooncake, Beach House, Khruangbin, etc. I also like a lot of music from Mali and Western Africa (Ali Farka Toure, Amadou, and Mariam, Bombino, etc.).

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… A course or some required learning about what’s come to be known as the “overview effect”. It’s the knowledge that we are just apes sitting on a pale-blue watery gravity well that is whizzing by in deep cosmos in the backwaters of an insignificant galaxy. With this big picture in the mind’s eye, I think students’ perspective about what business as a uniquely human activity is will be reshaped, the focus will necessarily move towards impactful ideas on global problems such as global warming which affect the survival of the species as a whole.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Inclusion. There is now an active movement towards increasing diversity and inclusivity in companies and organizations so that is great. More needs to be done. The focus should be on the diversity of experience, opinion, and perspective.

I’m grateful for… All the random coin tosses that fell my way. I understand the role that random events in life play in shaping who you are and who you will be. There were some fortunate happenings that have brought me where I am today, I am really grateful for those.

Among people, I am most grateful to my parents and my sister for all the support they have provided to me throughout my life and to my wife who has been my consistent sounding board and a pillar.

DON’T MISS: THE ENTIRE 2022 ROSTER OF THE WORD’S BEST 40-UNDER-40 MBA PROFESSORS

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