Having the opportunity to learn from the best and brightest minds in business is one of the top motivators for many applicants considering an MBA degree at an elite business school. The professors and lecturers you’ll encounter have worked in the trenches, and bring an incredible wealth of real-world experiences into the classroom setting.
In our new limited series of professor interviews on the SBC blog, readers will get to know a bit more about these brilliant academics, what fields most excite them, the trends they foresee, what they enjoy most about teaching at their respective universities, and how it all comes together with their students.
Today we’ll introduce you to Greg Fisher, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and recipient of the John and Donna Shoemaker Faculty Fellowship in Entrepreneurship at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and named among the “40 Most Outstanding B-School Profs under 40 in the World” by the Poets and Quants website in 2014.
Education: PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship, University of Washington
MBA, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa
Bachelor of Accounting, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Courses Taught: Strategic Management, Turnaround Management, Venture Strategy
What triggered your interest in your subject matter?
My interest in strategy and entrepreneurship was triggered by my personal experience when launching a venture as an MBA student. I did an MBA back in 2003-2004 in South Africa. In the MBA we learned about entrepreneurs such as Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos and Anita Roddick. This inspired me to want to start my own business.
In the second year of my MBA I launched a venture called Learninglab with one of my MBA classmates. We developed training products and solutions (e.g., games, simulations, online courses, training programs) for the corporate market. Large corporations (mostly financial service firms) would purchase our products and solutions to train their people on issues such as financial statement analysis, credit risk analysis, budgeting, financial management, risk assessment etc.
The process of starting my own business was extremely challenging and very intriguing. It forced me to apply all my newly acquired MBA skills very quickly, and at a deeper level triggered an interest in issues related to new venture strategy and entrepreneurship. This prompted me to read more and more about entrepreneurship; I consumed biographies about entrepreneurs, studied entrepreneurship case studies and began reading some of the academic literature on entrepreneurship and strategy.
When I sold my business a few years later, I decided to formally study entrepreneurship and strategy. I moved from South Africa to Seattle to attend the University of Washington to do a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship.
What’s changed since you entered the field?
When I first started teaching and researching entrepreneurship, the main focus was on business plan development. The logic was that if you planned carefully and deliberately, you could attract capital, and then execute on that plan to create and grow the business.
The problem is that seldom happens in practice. Entrepreneurship is much more of an iterative process, made up of lots of mini experiments, many of which fail. The key is to continue experimenting and to be able to learn from each failure and successes.
Scholars and teachers have caught onto this, and the field has shifted to focus much more on the process of entrepreneurship and on the actions within that process that can enable individuals to succeed. The concept of a business plan is no longer a focus; it has been replaced by concepts such a business models, mini-experiments and rapid iteration.
Within this context, I am interested in (and doing research on) a concept I call “entrepreneurial hustle” – a person’s focus, drive and creative action to succeed through setbacks and failures while working towards a goal or desired outcome in the process of launching a new venture.
I am currently examining what role hustle plays in the entrepreneurship process and delving down into all the different ways that hustle impacts what entrepreneurs are able to do. Hustle is somewhat similar to the concept of “grit” (developed by social psychologist Angela Duckworth) but it is specific to entrepreneurship and is more proactive and goal oriented.
Any surprising or unique applications of your field of study?
Entrepreneurship is everywhere. It is not confined to starting a new business. I have done research on entrepreneurship in the social arena, examining how social activists use entrepreneurial strategies and approaches to solve serious social problems and facilitate large-scale industry change.
For example, in one of my research studies we used an entrepreneurship lens to understand how the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) forced change in lumber sourcing practices in the home improvement retail industry (at firms such as Home Depot, Menards etc.).
Social activists are very similar to entrepreneurs in that they are under-resourced, they need to identify opportunities for impact, they need to mobilize stakeholder support and they need to hustle to get things done. Hence, entrepreneurial principles and practices can make social activists more effective as they push for social change.
Entrepreneurial principles and practices are also relevant to healthcare professionals and medical researchers. I have recently been doing consulting work with medical researchers and physicians at the IU School of Medicine.
These individuals, although they operate in a very risk averse and bureaucratic environment get great benefit from combining entrepreneurship and design thinking principles to consider how they can solve some of their most challenging issues related to patient care, infant mortality and smoking cessation.
What do you like about the school you are teaching at?
The best thing about Kelley MBA is the culture. The culture on the MBA program is amazing – it is one of caring, friendship, camaraderie and respect. Almost all the students know each other and interact with one another like one very large family. With a class size of 200 students per year this is possible. As a professor on the program I get to know all the students.
Because we are in a college town, almost all the students come from out of town to attend the program and they create a community among themselves. As a professor I get to be part of that community. The students arrange tons of events and include us in many of them.
This year I am running a half-marathon with 30 of the MBA students. We are training together and supporting each other. For many of the students this will be the first time that they cover that distance.
Overall, being part of the Kelley MBA community and experiencing its culture is very special.
What can you do in the classroom to best prepare students for the real world?
The concept of a flipped class has become popular where you provide a lecture before class (usually via video) and then discuss key issues and solve problems instead of lecturing during class time.
I take this one step further and create a flipped course. Because strategy and entrepreneurship necessitates integrating many different concepts and ideas simultaneously, I cover all the core concepts, theories, tools and frameworks in the first four or five classes. I provide the students with a book and videos covering these key concepts to support what we do in class.
Then for the remainder of the semester, we integrate and apply those tools and concepts as we work though case studies of actual business challenges in class. This forces students to confront the messiness, ambiguity and uncertainty of real world analysis and strategic decision-making.
Some students feel very uncomfortable initially – they want things to be more clear-cut and more obvious. But over time most students get used to the messiness…and…in the long run, they are grateful to have the opportunity to work with complex, unstructured problems and challenges.
I work though the case studies we do a range of real-world activities in the class. Students are required to make strategy presentations, they negotiate strategic partnership with classmates, and they participate in a board meeting. All these activities expose them to different elements of corporate life.
What are you most excited about that’s happening in your field?
I am most excited by the democratization of entrepreneurship. It is easier and more affordable than ever to launch a meaningful business. The Internet and mobile platforms have created access to markets that were not previously accessible. The cost to start a business is lower than it has ever been and almost everyone has access to the necessary technology and computing power to launch a sophisticated venture.
Crowdfunding platforms have increased access to financial resources and early customers. So entrepreneurship used to be something that was restricted to those with connections, education and elite status. Now, more than ever, it is accessible to anyone with drive and hustle.
What are you most excited about in your classroom?
I am excited by the caliber of students passing through my class. Each year I am convinced that we must have hit the high point, and then the next group is even more energized, engaged and ambitious. The diversity of the students coming through the school is amazing. Each class is made of students with unique backgrounds, skills and experiences.
In the last few years I have had everything from a major league pitcher, to a professional opera singer, to an NFL linebacker, to a helicopter pilot, to an inner city schoolteacher, to a veterinary surgeon, to a high-school football coach from a rural Indiana in the class. This diversity adds richness, perspective and nuance to each class.
I am also excited by the opportunity to keep redesigning what I do to improve the student experience and to maximize student learning. The more I teach, the more I discover novel and interesting ways to engage students and make their experience meaningful. My class design is a constant work-in-progress. I am excited to keep making it better and better.
What’s the impact you want to leave on your students? … On the world?
I want my students to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. I hope that they can make sense of complex and messy scenarios, grapple with paradox, and find a way to hustle out of challenging situations. I want them to realize that strategy is not necessarily easy, but it is very impactful and often the best strategies are ones that are incredibly simple in the face of the complexity around them.
Thank you Professor Fisher for sharing your time and insights with our readers!