2024 Best 40-Under-40 MBA Professors: Sean Higgins, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Sean Higgins
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

“This has been one of the most interesting and useful classes I’ve taken at Kellogg. One of my favorite parts of the class was when we could have a case due and the next class would be a speaker from either the case itself, or someone who has experience in the area that the case covered. This helped to make the lessons in each case really come to life, and. I honestly think I will remember the lessons so much more because of this combination of applied learning and hearing from experts.”

“I enjoyed and benefited from every aspect of this class. As someone who recently started in VC, the course work was extremely relevant and helpful in the real world. Professor Higgins brought in a variety of real world examples, analytic frameworks, and guest speakers. Every aspect made this class my favorite that I have taken thus far.”

“Prof. Higgins was an incredibly engaging professor who did a great job of covering what can be very dense material into easily understandable content. I also enjoyed his thorough review of the cases in class, particularly the quantitative recap of cap tables and calculations.” – Student evaluation comments

Sean Higgins, 35, is Assistant Professor of Finance at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He is also an Associate Editor at the Review of Finance and an Affiliated Professor at the MIT Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).
His research studies how technology reduces frictions in payments markets and consumer financial markets, and the effects of reducing these frictions on households and small firms in emerging economies.

He has published his research in leading economics and finance journals including the American Economic Review and the Journal of Finance. His research has won several awards, including the Best Paper in Corporate Finance by the Society for Financial Studies and the PBCSF Award for the Best Paper in Fintech by the Western Finance Association.

He has received several grants to fund his research, including grants from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Facebook Research, ING Bank, USAID, UC Berkeley’s Lab for Inclusive FinTech, and the National Science Foundation.

He teaches Entrepreneurial Finance and Venture Capital to MBA students and won the Sidney J. Levy Teaching Award in 2023.


At current institution since what year? 2020
Education: BS and PhD, Economics, Tulane University; Post-Doctoral Fellow, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Entrepreneurial Finance, Venture Capital


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I was living in Mexico City for a year during my PhD and I learned about a government effort to increase financial inclusion for poor households by opening bank accounts for them, paying their antipoverty program payments into those accounts, and later providing them with debit cards to facilitate easier access to their money. This was an example of a policy seeking to reduce a friction that poor households faced in accessing financial markets, and I became eager to study its effects.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? One topic I’m currently interested in is how technology affects how much people search when shopping for a loan, and what implications this has for competition between banks and fintech lenders. In Chile, we worked with the financial regulator to develop an interactive price comparison tool that people searching for loans could use to see what interest rates similar borrowers had received for similar loans in the past six months. Our hypothesis was that one reason people don’t shop much when they want to get a loan is that they underestimate how much variability there is in the interest rates different banks or fintech lenders would offer them. While this hypothesis was confirmed by survey data we collected and an experiment we conducted with loan seekers in Chile, and although people updated their beliefs about the variability of interest rates after seeing our tool, we expected that showing people the interest rate comparison tool would lead them to search more and obtain better rates. Our surprising discovery was that the tool led people to obtain better interest rates without searching more. It turned out that simply knowing the information from the tool increased their ability to negotiate with the lender, and this enabled them to get a lower interest rate on their loan without needing to spend time searching at other lenders.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would probably work for an organization like the World Bank.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I incorporate my research into my teaching by teaching two cases on fintech payments startups, one from an emerging market, that face similar barriers to customer adoption of financial technology as I have studied in my research.

One word that describes my first time teaching: COVID.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: While you are teaching it feels like you have two full-time jobs. On the teaching front you are preparing for class, teaching, meeting with students during office hours, and grading case memos and final exams. At the same time, on the research front you strive to continue making progress on research, present that research at conferences and seminars, and provide service both to the department (such as advising PhD students and serving on the faculty recruiting committee) and to the broader profession (such as peer reviewing papers for journals and discussing papers at conferences).

Professor I most admire and why: Two business school professors I greatly admire for pioneering research on finance in developing countries—at a time in the early 2000s when the research, cases, and teaching done at business schools focused almost exclusively on the US—are Shawn Cole at Harvard Business School and Tavneet Suri at MIT Sloan. They showed that despite the lack of business school research and teaching focused on emerging markets at the time, there was significant demand from both the broader academic community and MBA students for research and teaching on topics such as access to financial services in Indonesia and digital payments in Kenya.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? They bring their work experience into the debates and discussions we have in the classroom, and are generally very eager to learn.

What is most challenging? There is a lot of variation in the venture capital industry in how different VC firms do things, which can make it challenging to succinctly answer student questions about how various things are done in practice.

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

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… fair.


What are your hobbies? Olympic weightlifting (which refers to a specific type of weightlifting where people compete on two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk). I’ve been focusing my workout routine on Olympic weightlifting since 2019, after being exposed to it through Crossfit which I started in 2013. I got into competing this year since I turned 35 which is where the “old folks” age categories start. I qualified for and competed at the Masters’ National Championships in Reno this past March. A goal of mine is to qualify for the Masters’ World Championships at some point but I’m not there yet.

How will you spend your summer? I will be on my honeymoon in Japan for part of June, then working on research at Kellogg and traveling to present research at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Summer Institute in Cambridge, MA in July and the European Finance Association Meetings in Bratislava, Slovakia in August.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: I like to always go somewhere I haven’t been before so I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. The new places I traveled for vacation this past year were Guatemala and Kerala, India.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Direct links not only to global business leaders but also to policymakers around the world, as technological innovation and competition in the financial sector—increasingly between banks and fintech startups—are directly affected by policy.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… For startups in particular, they should do a better job sharing transparent data around impact with investors and the media. Often startup founders/CEOs do not have the incentive to do this, but VC investors could create this incentive, and journalists could push them further on certain data points. For example, many fintech lenders in emerging markets embrace a narrative around increasing financial inclusion and access to credit using alternative data and machine learning models, but use credit bureau scores or tradeline credit bureau data as an important predictor in their models. This means that in practice they only lend to applicants who have already had access to formal credit, leaving those with no formal credit history financially excluded. The fraction of approved borrowers with no prior credit history or no credit bureau score is one example of a data point that impact investors and journalists could push startups to share, and that startups could do a better job of being transparent about.

I’m grateful for… my colleagues at Kellogg for everything I’ve learned from them, as well as my family and friends for all of their support.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.