2024 Best 40-Under-40 MBA Professors: Erik Olson, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University

 

Erik Olson
Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University

Erik Olson, 34, is Assistant Professor of Accounting at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

He began his career as a tax associate at KPMG, working in international tax and transfer pricing for a large multinational corporation based out of Atlanta, Georgia. In the summer of 2015, he left the private sector to pursue his PhD at Yale University.

His research primarily focuses on the impact of financial accounting and disclosure on firm capital allocation decisions. Specific topics include the “real effects” of accounting with a particular emphasis on the differential impact of retail and institutional investors on firm disclosure, corporate financial policy, and options markets.

He is winner of the “Thanks Teach” award for Teaching Excellence in 2021, as voted on by the full cohort of Vanderbilt MBA students in the classes of 2021 and 2022, and was a finalist for the award in 2022. He has also been a finalist for the prestigious Webb Award at the Owen Graduate School of Management.

BACKGROUND

At current institution since what year? 2020

Education:
Bachelor of Science in Accounting, University of Florida (2012)
Master of Science in Accounting, University of Florida (2013)
PhD in Management (specialization in Financial Accounting), Yale University (2020)

List of MBA courses you currently teach: Introduction to Financial Accounting (MGT6311)

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… Professor Gary McGill from the University of Florida pulled me aside during a course in the last semester of my Master’s of Accounting program. We were tasked with writing a research memo on a proposed bill for the House Ways and Means Committee, and he praised my work as reflective of a potential academic researcher.

After spending five years studying accounting, the thought of dedicating another five to study more accounting seemed terrifying. However, Professor McGill introduced me to the groundbreaking study by Graham, Harvey, and Rajgopal (2005). Realizing the dynamic and expansive nature of accounting research, which extended way past the standard debits and credits I had previously been exposed to, solidified my decision to pursue this career.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My research primarily explores the “real effects” of accounting, investigating how accounting measurements and reporting influence firms’ substantive decisions on activities and resource allocation in the economy. This approach has advanced the field by shifting the focus from how market participants react to disclosures to how managers adjust their real decisions in response to anticipated responses from market participants. This shift offers a more dynamic model of the interactions between managers and market participants.

A key area of my work examines how investor sophistication influences these real effects. With financial regulators aiming to protect average investors, it is crucial to understand how firms’ actions impact investors of varying sophistication levels and the broader social welfare implications of accounting and disclosure. My findings indicate that the sophistication divide between investors significantly affects firm behaviors, such as repurchase decisions following the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. My research also shows how managers incorporate investor sophistication when balancing different tools to manage earnings and reveals differences in numerical literacy among investor groups, which can influence disclosure decisions and market reactions to information.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would have become a talent agent for professional athletes.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? My students would likely describe what makes me stand out better than I can, but from my perspective, it’s my ability to engage them in a subject often perceived as dry and my genuine interest in their individual learning processes. A highlight for many students is my weekly Friday office hours via Zoom, where I adhere to a strict policy of remaining available to each individual for as long as needed. These sessions can last anywhere from an hour to upwards of six or seven hours. Having started teaching in the middle of the pandemic, I found that conducting office hours online reduces peer pressure, allowing students to ask questions more freely.

This is especially important as they are new to campus and cautious about forming first impressions among their peers. By minimizing the stress associated with peer dynamics, this format ensures students receive the necessary individual support needed to succeed.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Masks (the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic)

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: “You’re going to teach one of the four core classes at Owen right out of the gate, and all three of your colleagues are multiple award-winning teachers who will run circles around you if you don’t bring your absolute best. Good luck.”

Sharing the responsibility of teaching core classes with Professors Bill Christie, Yasin Alan, and Tim Vogus during my first three years at Owen was incredibly motivating. Their excellence in teaching set a high bar, pushing me to develop and refine my own skills to meet the Owen standard of excellence. They were always generous with their time and support, for which I am immensely grateful. Their mentorship was crucial in helping me reach the level I am at today. I truly couldn’t have achieved this without them!

Professor I most admire and why: Oh, this is a trap question… there are too many right answers!

I’m going to take some liberties here and choose my entire dissertation committee at Yale —it truly does take a village to raise a researcher, and I admire each of them immensely. My dissertation chair, Jake Thomas, is a renowned figure in our field and has supported my research interests since day one. He’s an exceptional mentor who genuinely cares for every student he advises in a way that’s rare to see in our field today. Frank Zhang has constantly pushed me to delve deeply into problems, providing rapid feedback that kept my projects on track and pushing me to think of things in new and exciting ways. Shyam Sunder epitomizes what I consider the ideal academic, encouraging me to explore topics of genuine worth and societal interest, beyond the current trends in top journals. Thomas Steffen, despite being a junior faculty member at the time, was instrumental in getting my dissertation started and always made time for me, helping refine my work without ever making me feel like a burden. Lastly, Zeqiong Huang deepened my appreciation for the nuances of theory. As an empiricist, she ensured that my empirical studies were anchored in robust capital markets theory, which was invaluable during my graduate studies.

I am profoundly grateful to these five mentors, among too many others to list here, for their belief in me and for pushing me to become the best version of myself!

TEACHING MBA STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? As cliché as it sounds, it really is the fact that these incredible students allow me to share the halls of Owen with them on a day-to-day basis. Vanderbilt really does a great job of attracting the best students in the world. I genuinely believe that. I’ll often have students come up to me after class and ask me about something they saw in the newspaper or heard on a podcast, and how it fits in with what we’re learning. Their engagement extends to my research as well, showing genuine interest and offering insightful feedback.

I’ve also had the privilege of advising a diverse range of independent studies, from seed funding for startup ventures right here in Nashville to creating fundraisers in conflict zones half-a-world away. These projects reflect our students’ deep desire to apply their knowledge practically, aiming to understand and improve the world in tangible ways. As a researcher devoted to similar goals, I find it incredibly inspiring to share the halls of such motivated and outstanding individuals every day. They are the lifeblood of what makes this place truly great.

What is most challenging? The greatest challenge—and simultaneously the most rewarding aspect—of teaching business school students is ensuring I’m fully deserving of standing before them each day.

The students at Owen consistently bring their A-game, and matching their motivation and energy is both demanding and exhilarating. This dynamic is what makes teaching not just a job, but a passion that keeps me energized and looking forward to each academic year.

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

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Forgiving! Accounting requires a significant mental shift for most students, and adapting to this can take time. I recall my own challenges when being exposed to the subject for the first time during my undergraduate studies.

At Vanderbilt, our students go through a full semester’s worth of content in just seven weeks, taking their midterms as early as week three. Given this accelerated pace, I implemented a “midterm forgiveness” policy. If a student performs better on their final exam than on their midterm, I allow the final exam grade to replace the midterm score in their overall course grade. My goal is for students to master the material by the end of MGT6311, and if they achieve this, I consider it a win for everyone involved.

LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? I enjoy staying active year-round. My regular activities include weightlifting, boxing, and playing ice hockey. My interest in martial arts dates back to my early childhood when I competed in kickboxing on the international level, and I have earned black belts in both Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu.

Music is another of my passions—I play the guitar and have amassed a collection of amps and pedals in my pursuit of the perfect blues guitar tone. Additionally, I enjoy attending stand-up comedy shows, live concerts, and music festivals. Finally, I enjoy playing video games with friends of mine from back home!

How will you spend your summer? This summer, I’m looking forward to a schedule packed with travel. I’ll be returning to Yale for a conference in July, and then I’m off to London to visit my long-time mentor and good friend, Alan Jagolinzer, at Cambridge University for a seminar he’s planning on hosting. Alan is currently engaged in fascinating research addressing the broad societal challenges posed by disinformation. His energy and enthusiasm for the topic is nothing short of astounding.

Additionally, I plan to visit my younger sister, Kiersten, who lives in New York. To round out my travels, I’ll head to Florida to visit my parents and some of my long-time friends.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: St. John’s County in Florida is my top vacation spot at the moment. My best friend moved there after college, and I always look forward to visiting him, his wife, and their newborn baby, Griff. It’s conveniently close to Gainesville, making it perfect for catching college football games during the season.

Additionally, its proximity to Jacksonville Beach is ideal for summer outdoor activities. We’ve also established a tradition of attending the Players Championship at the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra every March. It’s definitely a hidden gem!

Favorite book(s): Plato’s Republic, Capital in the 21st Century, The Wealth of Nations, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and all of the books connected with the Warcraft franchise.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? Despite the fall from grace with its final season, “Game of Thrones” remains my favorite show of all time. I was instantly hooked after the first episode’s dramatic conclusion and ended up binge-watching the entire first season in one sitting! The intricate political maneuvering and the characters’ strategic plots captivated me throughout the series. Recently, I’ve been drawn to “Shogun” for similar reasons. The blend of epic battle scenes and sophisticated CGI only adds to the appeal for me, and both shows hit the mark on this front.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I am an absolute student and lover of the blues. Blues music is what inspired me to pick up a guitar almost half a lifetime ago, and living in the Music City has pushed me to continue to become a better player! What I love most about the blues is how contemporary artists skillfully create their unique styles while honoring the genre’s pioneers. You hear the iconic wailing tones of B.B. King in Joe Bonamassa’s playing and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram’s singing. You can hear the intensity of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Albert King paired with the precision of Eric Clapton’s playing in musicians like Eric Gales and Gary Clark Jr. Additionally, artists like John Mayer have perfected their equipment and tone, achieving sublime blues sounds that seem heaven-sent to be paired with legendary playing skills.

The beauty of blues lies in its respect for its origins while continuously evolving. Each new iteration adds layers to the genre, with subtle tributes woven into every track, creating a rich and profound musical tapestry unmatched by any other genre.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Programming training! If accounting is considered the language of business, then Python could very well be the language of the future. Self-teaching programming was a monumental task during my PhD program. Integrating programming, big data, analytics, and artificial intelligence across the business curriculum would significantly enhance our students’ education. Equipping them with these skills is essential as they prepare for a future where coding is increasingly prevalent in the business world. This approach would not only provide practical skills but also a competitive edge in their careers.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Looking past the measurables when deciding how and when to hire students. Obviously, we use these tools as signals of noisy processes, so this isn’t to say that they’re irrelevant. However, I think it’s in all our best interests to look past the basic measurables of GPA, GMAT score or whatever metric you want to use when making long term decisions.

I’m grateful for… My parents, sister, friends, and academic mentors, especially my first mentor, Professor Gary McGill, who steered me toward an unexpected career in academia. Growing up, if you asked my friends and family about my future career, “accounting professor” would not have been their first guess—they might have said lawyer, financial planner, or sports agent. Yet, it was Dr. McGill who set me on this path, and I often reflect on the perfect alignment of circumstances that led him to do so. His influence, along with the unwavering support from my friends and family, was crucial as I left the workforce in my mid-20s to return to school. This journey was far from easy, but knowing they were behind me made the tough times manageable and the successes even sweeter. At the end of the day, their love and support have been instrumental in all that I have achieved and continue to fuel my optimism for the future—echoing the resilience found in the blues, as I look “further on up the road.”

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