2024 Best 40-Under-40 MBA Professors: Jacquelyn Pless, MIT Sloan School of Management

Jacquelyn Pless
MIT Sloan School of Management

“Jacquelyn is a very caring teacher and mentor who goes out of her way to vouch and support you. She is the first person I have met in my career who truly challenges the incumbent culture of economics, which to date has led the discipline to have one highest attrition rates for women, and who through her actions, demonstrates that one can be both academically rigorous and kind. She is pragmatic, giving advice to women – in business and Econ – on how to succeed within existing structures while not shying away from commenting on what needs to change. Her work is chartering a path that other women can and will follow. Jacquelyn is also a first generation university goer from her family, and it’s interesting to note that this means Jacquelyn is driven to support those who come from different backgrounds rather than those who would have succeeded anyway. I nominate Jacquelyn because I want people like her, who blend mentorship and kindness with unparalleled academic rigor, to be showcased.” Dr. Sugandha Srivastav

Jacquelyn Pless, 36, MIT Sloan School of Management is Assistant Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT Sloan School of Management. She is also the Fred Kayne (1960) Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship.

Pless is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Oxford, an Invited Researcher with J-PAL’s Science for Progress Initiative, and a Research Affiliate of CESifo.

She is an economist with interests in innovation, energy and environmental economics, and public economics. In her research, she studies the causes and consequences of innovation for social progress – innovation that protects people and the planet – focusing primarily on energy and environmental innovation. Her research has been published in top academic journals such as American Economic Journal: Applied Economics and Nature Energy as well as featured in media outlets such as The Washington Post and The Atlantic.

Prior to being in academia, Jacquelyn held various positions in the public and private sectors working on energy policy and public finance issues as well as helping companies design and manage their reorganizations.

BACKGROUND

At current institution since what year? 2019
Education: Ph.D. in Mineral and Energy Economics (2016) from the Colorado School of Mines, B.A. in Economics and Political Science from the University of Vermont, Honors College (2009)
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Innovation Strategy; Climate and Energy Ventures; New Enterprises

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I realized that innovation is at the heart of solving some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and the provision of high-quality and affordable healthcare, energy, and education. Being at a business school provides the opportunity to do research on issues that I find stimulating, challenging, and important without getting lost in an ivory tower.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I’m currently obsessed with understanding how externality interdependencies shape innovation incentives, and in particular, how they steer the direction of innovation.

Innovation for social progress—innovation aiming to address the world’s most pressing problems, like climate change and health care—is characterized by a unique double-externality problem. Knowledge spillovers can affect the incentive to invest in any type of innovation, but additional externalities in certain contexts (e.g., pollution) can bolster or dampen innovative activity as well. My current research explores the ways in which these dual forces interact and how such interactions impact firm strategy, the direction of innovation, and the implications for policy.

Perhaps my most surprising finding in this line of work so far is that technology-neutral R&D tax credits can potentially undermine the effectiveness of carbon pricing in stimulating “clean” innovation. In a recent working paper, my co-author and I study how the interaction of these two policies—which both influence innovation incentives but target different externalities—affects innovation within the UK’s industrial sector. We find a positive relationship between carbon prices and patents related to pollution reduction, but technology-neutral R&D tax credits attenuate the effect. The leading explanation at the moment is that this occurs due to path dependence, as firms may use subsidies that are entirely technology neutral to invest in their usual pursuits, which may not involve efforts to reduce pollution.

What I hope will be one of my most significant contributions to date is still underway. As a means towards developing a better understanding of how to foster innovation for social progress, I’m developing a theoretical framework that explicitly introduces the interdependence of externalities (as opposed to the policies that aim to address them). I will then empirically test the model’s predictions within the energy innovation context.

Stay tuned!

If I weren’t a business school professor… I’d be a novelist. I’m sure I’d be terrible at it, but I’ve always enjoyed writing in various styles, especially creative non-fiction. It’s a fun way to explore complex issues.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I am really not sure, so I’m curious to read comments provided for this nomination! I guess one aspect could be that I am pretty unabashedly myself most of the time. While this often leads to some embarrassing moments, it also allows my students to see a very real side of me, which I think helps create a comfortable atmosphere for open dialogue and debate.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Jumanji!

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: that this was a potential career path! As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what being a professor entailed in the first place. And then it wasn’t until several years after finishing graduate school that I realized a business school could be a good fit for me.

Professor I most admire and why: Too many to list. But a general theme is that they aren’t (or weren’t) afraid to challenge the status quo.

TEACHING MBA STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? The bidirectional learning. Although I’m the one standing in front of the room, I see my role as being more of a moderator. I learn something new every day from the rich and diverse perspectives our students bring to the table. Their passion is also incredibly energizing.

What is most challenging? Finding ways to make content relevant and digestible for students with a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and skill sets. And using fewer caveats than we usually do in research.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: inquisitive.

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… reflective. My focus is primarily on how students think through a problem, rather than just the final answer.

LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? Running, traveling, and spending quality time with my fiancé, friends, and family.

How will you spend your summer? Getting married! That will be the main highlight. And then I’m looking forward to delving into a research idea that has been on my mind for quite some time.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: anywhere near the ocean that allows for a mix of tranquility and adventure.

Favorite book(s): Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is an all-time favorite that continues to resonate today.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I will never get tired of Seinfeld for a solid laugh and its relatability. As for movies, The Shawshank Redemption and Fight Club are two favorites for so many reasons.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? Depends on my mood and what I’m doing. My live concert history would probably suggest alternative rock, which is also what I often throw on when decompressing. But I tend to listen to chill electronic music on long runs. And I listen to metal when I code – it helps me focus.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… I would encourage stronger collaboration with policymakers, government agencies, and public policy organizations. Proactive engagement is crucial for aligning firm strategy with broader policy objectives and societal needs.

I’d also love to see business schools play a more active role in fostering social progress directly, such as helping bridge educational gaps at a young age. This could involve dedicating resources—both financial and non-financial—to educational activities for underserved populations. Initiating connections with students as early as elementary school could evoke interests in areas that they may not otherwise know exist, and organizing networking events and training programs for high school students could provide access to the “hidden curriculum” that is taught implicitly in more advantaged communities.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… focusing on stakeholders beyond just shareholders. This sometimes requires embracing a longer-term perspective on performance rather than only prioritizing short-term profits, but neglecting to do so can lead to significant costs down the line.

I’m grateful for… my fiancé, friends, family, mentors, and colleagues from all stages of life, especially those who took a chance on me when it didn’t really make sense to do so. And I’m grateful for each day that comes.

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