By Nadine Kavanaugh, Associate Director, Wharton Entrepreneurship
In this series, Get To Know A Wharton Prof, we do brief interviews with our professors in order to give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse of these amazing scholars, teachers, and entrepreneurs. Today’s interviewee, Laura Huang, is an Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Wharton. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California-Irvine, an MBA for INSEAD, and a B.S. in Engineering from Duke University. Learn more about her here.
Briefly describe your professional background:
My initial training was in engineering, and I think that that is the foundation from which I view my current work. I had worked for a number of years in engineering, including dabbling in some small start-ups in the biomedical engineering space. But then I got pulled into some technical marketing projects and the “people” side of things, and became fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics and why certain decisions were being made. I pursued an MBA, and during that time I started working with a professor on some of her research as well as working with some entrepreneurs in Asia. I found that a lot of things that I had been implicitly thinking, and a lot of the start-up dynamics I had experienced, were being systematically studied by researchers (the systematic way of examining something… that’s where the engineering training came in!). After a two-year stint in investment banking (you can ask my students how and why that happened), I made the leap into academia.
What’s your field of expertise?
I look at the micro-level foundations of entrepreneurship, particularly from the standpoint of how entrepreneurs acquire critical early-stage resources, like financial capital.
How long have you been at Wharton?
This is my third year.
What classes do you teach?
I teach Management 801, Entrepreneurship. [This is an elective course that is required for the entrepreneurial management major at the MBA level.]
Describe a recent exciting teaching moment.
It’s always exciting seeing that students I have taught are making progress with their ventures and achieving success. For example, it was great to see SlideJoy win the Wharton Business Plan Competition this year, after having Jae [Jaeho Chung, Wharton alum] in my class last year and seeing how far his ideas had come.
Same goes for Carlos [Vadilla, Lauder ‘15] and Juan [Abraham Massmann, Lauder ‘15], with Agribots, which won Start-up Chile, and Hagen Lee [WG’14], with WeHub, who is getting enormous traction. But I can’t take any credit for any of my students’ success—as I always say, it’s all about the execution, and they are doing phenomenally well at executing on their ideas.
Why is your research important?
Perceptions become reality. I don’t think enough entrepreneurs realize this. There is extreme uncertainty in entrepreneurship—even something that looks like it has incredible business viability can easily fail and not be accepted in the market. In my research I try and examine how these perceptions and cues work, and how we can inoculate against some of the unequitable biases that exist.
How is your recent research relevant to the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
The early-stage ecosystem is an interesting thing. It encompasses everything from human capital, financing, and start-up services to the market and culture. My research looks at the ecosystem from the perspective of perceptions that important players in the ecosystem—like investors—have and attributions that they are making, which has trickle down effects to everything else that a founder is trying to do within the ecosystem.
How have you seen students or alumni take action based on your research or teaching?
One of the important things that I advocate to students is that as a founder, or member of the founding team, there are things that they should be familiar with—even if it is just having taken a crash course. Too many entrepreneurs fail because they assume they will just “hire someone smarter than themselves”. Yes, you should surround yourself with people smarter than yourself, but if you have no inkling of what it means to be an expert in their area, you’re not going to be a very successful manager or founder.
So it is really gratifying when I see students taking this advice to heart and asking about how they can become more rounded in key areas.
What made you choose an academic career?
It’s something I have always been intrigued by in theory, but I never really knew what academia was about, to be honest. My parents were immigrants and encouraged a different type of career. I often feel like I stumbled into this career, more than self-selecting into it. I had some great advisors when I was in my MBA program—people who I saw that were doing interesting work, and being fulfilled, and who were doing it in a way that I knew I could respect. I started down that road, without a real plan, and now here I am.
What do you like most about your career as an academic?
I get incredible freedom to study interesting questions. I get to study incredible phenomena—entrepreneurship from the perspective of entrepreneurs, investors, and critical decision makers. To have such wonderful support from some really amazing people who have taken chances on me makes this career a wonderful and humbling one.
What do you like least?
There are always going to be the naysayers, and when you are an academic, there are times when you are going to have just as many critics as you are friends. You have to be okay with that. Coming to terms with that has been a big lesson.
Tell me one surprising thing about you.
I’m a huge introvert. When people meet me, they always assume that I’m an extrovert because I Iike to get to know people, ask questions, and have interesting conversations. But I get my energy from sitting down with a good book, or getting a good dose of sports on TV. Again, it goes back to perceptions. When people meet me, they never expect that I know random baseball statistics or know who is pitching tomorrow’s Yankees game. This also makes it difficult on Twitter, where I like to tweet about all my interests—entrepreneurship, sports, funny quotes about raising children, amongst others—and it doesn’t always fit together into a cohesive, straightforward identity.
Got a minute? Want to learn more about Prof. Laura Huang? Watch this terrific 1 minute video produced by Wharton Magazine:
Follow Prof Huang on Twitter @LauraHuangLA