Financial literacy class prepares Cal athletes for the big business of pro sports

man teaching at white board
With the help of a grant from Robinhood, Professional Faculty Member Steve Etter’s Financial & Business Literacy for the Professional Athlete course will be reclassified as a full-fledged class rather than an independent study, which will allow more student-athletes to take it. Photo: Michaela Vatcheva

Shortly before Layshia Clarendon, BA 13 (American studies), was drafted into the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the Cal senior attended a pre-draft orientation. Clarendon raised a hand and inquired about matching 401(k)s. The people fielding questions were floored. They weren’t used to college students knowing what a 401(k) was, let alone being savvy enough to ask about matching contributions. 

“I remember going to that meeting and thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I already know some of this,’” Clarendon recalls. When it came to financial literacy, Clarendon was miles ahead of most of their peers—all thanks to an independent study course they’d taken with Haas professional faculty member Stephen Etter, BS 83, MBA 89, called Financial & Business Literacy for the Professional Athlete.

For more than 20 years, Etter has helped scores of UC Berkeley athletes prepare for the financial realities of turning pro. Everyone from football great Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Jared Goff to Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin and golf phenom Collin Morikawa, BS 19, have learned about navigating contracts, choosing advisors, budgeting, investing, and more for their lives post-graduation.

Collin Morikawa holding trophy
Collin Morikawa, BS 19, after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament in 2020 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Now, all of these issues are relevant for students too. In 2019, legislation was passed—first in California, then later throughout the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)—allowing college athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) via sponsorships. No longer are questions about agents, contracts, and taxes part of a hypothetical future; student-athletes are facing them today, intensifying the need for Etter’s class. 

“I’m working with students who are putting a half to three-quarters of a million dollars in their pocket today,” Etter says. The trouble was that his independent study only reached a small number of students. This coming fall, with the help of a grant from Robinhood Money Drills, Etter is expanding his course and bringing it to many more UC Berkeley student-athletes. 

Mary Elizabeth Taylor, vice president of international government and external affairs for Robinhood Markets, Inc., says one of the company’s top priorities is providing the next generation with access to financial education. “Through the Robinhood Money Drills program, we are proud to give college students and student-athletes a strong foundation to responsibly manage their finances for the future,” she says. UC Berkeley is one of eight schools nationwide benefitting from the initiative. 

It’s how much you keep

The idea for an independent study for athletes first occurred to Etter when one of his students, Nnamdi Asomugha, BA 06 (interdisciplinary studies), approached him for some advice. Asomugha was preparing for the draft (ultimately a first-round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders) and was suddenly facing major decisions that would affect his economic future. Etter, one of the founding partners of Greyrock Capital Group, had been teaching corporate finance at Haas for nearly a decade by then. He favored experiential learning with real-world application, and helping athletes navigate the complex waters of a professional career more than fit the bill. 

Athletes turning pro find themselves in an unusual position, entering highly lucrative careers while having no financial training. The eye-popping mega-salaries that generate headlines are not the norm in pro sports, but starting salaries for many athletes are nevertheless substantial. Still, as former National Football League (NFL) player Justin Forsett, BA 14 (interdisciplinary studies), put it, “It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep.”

Forsett, who played pro football for nine years and is now an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, says taking Etter’s course gave him a real advantage. “There weren’t a lot of courses on financial literacy when I was a kid, in high school, or even in college,” he says. After gaining a solid foundation with Etter, he entered the NFL with what he calls “a conservative approach.” He explains, “I wasn’t going out getting fancy new cars. I knew it was about how much I could actually keep and save and invest in the right things.”

Keeping your future self in mind

Each year, Etter begins the class by sharing a series of sobering statistics: 78% of retired NFL players suffer financial hardship. Nearly 16% of NFL players have filed for bankruptcy. And 60% of former National Basketball Association (NBA) players are broke. These brief, cautionary tales drive home a crucial point that’s easily overlooked by young student-athletes: While the pros earn big salaries during their careers, those careers are often short and can be wildly unpredictable. 

“Steve tells us the reality,” says Cam Bynum, BA 20 (American studies), who studied with Etter and just finished his third season as a safety with the Minnesota Vikings. “The average lifespan in the NFL is three years,” he says. “If you’re blessed, you’ll make it to 10 years, maybe 12. So that means you’re retiring at 32 years old, maybe 35. That’s just half your life. So then, what are you going to do?” Without Etter to prompt them, many student-athletes might never give that question much thought.

Elijah Hicks, BA 20 (American studies), a safety for the Chicago Bears, says that one of the most valuable aspects of the course was that it forced him to think ahead. “I got to put myself in my future self’s shoes,” he says. “The class puts you in scenarios before you’re actually there, so now, I’m more prepared and I’m not surprised by anything that pops up, like taxes.” High-earning athletes, for instance, not only have to pay taxes in their home state but in nearly every state they play in, a fact that shocked many of Hicks’ first-year teammates—but not him. Etter also helped Hicks start a nonprofit, Intercept Poverty Foundation, to provide emergency grants to low-income UC Berkeley students during the pandemic.

Learning to ask the right questions

Since the course’s inception, athletes from a range of sports have studied with Etter, players heading to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, and Major League Baseball (MLB), along with swimmers, golfers, and water polo players. News of the class has tended to spread by word of mouth among teammates and friends, but Etter says coaches, too, have been instrumental in steering students to his door. “The Cal coaches have had the insight and caring attitude to make sure they prepared their athletes for the financial aspects of their careers,” he says. 

three students sitting with laptops in a classroom
(L-R) Destin Lasco and Tyler Kopp of Cal Men’s Swimming & Diving and Katja Wiersholm of Cal Women’s Tennis attending Steve Etter’s Financial & Business Literacy for the Professional Athlete independent study. Photo: Michaela Vatcheva

Not all professional careers are the same, however. Swimmer and six-time Olympic medalist Ryan Murphy, BS 17, knew he wanted to swim professionally after his success at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but he didn’t know what that entailed. In Etter’s class, Murphy’s fellow students that semester were heading for the NFL, but as a swimmer, Murphy’s professional path was less straightforward. “Our earning power is completely based on marketing,” he says. So Etter tailored the learning, helping him focus on finding a marketing agent.

“He connected me with people on campus and had me sit down for meetings with them,” Murphy recalls. Etter also encouraged him to talk to older swimmers who’d turned professional. “He was kind of a master connector for me.”

Getting out and talking to people is a big part of what Etter teaches. Whether it’s picking an agent, a financial advisor, or an insurance broker, knowing the kinds of questions to ask to make decisions that are in their own best interest is a fundamental skill he wants these athletes to learn. Sometimes, those questions come back to Etter himself. He continues to serve as a mentor to his student-athletes—they all have his number and aren’t shy about texting or calling for advice.

Changing the playing field for college athletes

Similar to professionals, NIL allows college athletes to engage in sponsorships and receive cash payments and gifts. For example, student-athletes may enter contracts to appear for autograph signings, endorse products via social media, conduct camps and clinics, post personalized video greetings, and more. However, the policy precludes students from entering pay-for-play contracts with colleges and universities. 

two men
Professional Faculty Member Steve Etter with UC Berkeley Junior Jaydn Ott, a California Golden Bears running back with a likely future in the NFL. Photo: Michaela Vatcheva.

Some Cal athletes secure deals on their own or through agents, while others are paid through the California Legends Collective, a newly formed organization (not affiliated with UC Berkeley) funded by donors who, together, create income opportunities like those mentioned above for Cal student-athletes. Advisory Board members include Lynch, Clarendon, and Murphy. 

Christian Trigg, MBA 23, director of brand development for the Cal women’s basketball program, says the new NIL rules benefit players and the team as a whole. “This is a huge opportunity for students to start building wealth at an earlier age,” he says. “Especially athletes who might be first-generation college students.” In his newly created position, Trigg will help members of the team build their brands and secure NIL sponsorships, which in turn will help attract talented recruits to Cal. As women’s basketball coach Charmin Smith notes, “Having a strong NIL presence is critical in today’s college athletics environment.” 

Cal football player Jaydn Ott is one of the students who’s benefited from Etter’s class while still at Cal. Ott, a running back with a likely future in the NFL, has begun earning money through NIL contracts, and he’s clear-eyed about the importance of financial literacy. “I want to understand what’s going on with my money when I speak to my financial advisors, so I’m not just giving somebody my money and saying, ‘Here, do whatever,’” he says. “I’m able to sit down and talk with them and understand what’s actually going on.” 

“I want to understand what’s going on with my money when I speak to my financial advisors, so I’m not just giving somebody my money and saying, ‘Here, do whatever.’ ” – Jaydn Ott, Cal running back.

Just like pros, college athletes need to understand the taxes they owe, and Etter makes sure his students do. “A lot of NCAA athletes don’t understand the difference in income and taxes between being a W-2 employee and a 1099 contractor,” he says. NIL compensation is entirely 1099, which means there is no tax withholding; players must pay estimated taxes. Etter suspects that more than a few student-athletes across the country will inadvertently fail to pay sufficient taxes. But Ott won’t be one of them. “After Jaydn got his first paycheck,” Etter says, “he put half away for taxes. And then he was worried, so he put half of the other half away for taxes, too.”

Spreading the wealth

Etter, who has three times won the school’s prestigious Earl F. Cheit Award for Teaching Excellence from his undergraduate students (once as a graduate student instructor), has long wanted to empower more students with the skills he teaches. Now, thanks to the grant from Robinhood, he’s going to. Starting this fall, the course will be reclassified as a full-fledged class rather than an independent study, which will allow more student-athletes to take it. The structure of the course is being retrofitted to accommodate up to 250 students while maintaining the active learning style that’s a hallmark of the class. Etter will be assisted by MBA graduate student instructors who are reflective of the diverse student-athlete population. 

The money is helping Etter fulfill a long-held goal. “My dream,” he says, “was to get this grant and to educate all 1,000 student-athletes at Cal.” From there, he says he’d like to bring the class to all NCAA athletes and ultimately to all 55,000 students on the Berkeley campus. 

What’s your personal brand? New class helps students craft one

A man and woman bump fists to show solidarity.
Berkeley Haas Lecturer Kellie McElhaney co-teaches the class with Graduate Student Instructor André Chapman, Jr. Photo: Jim Block

“Classified” is an occasional series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

On a recent Monday evening Berkeley Haas Lecturer Kellie McElhaney opened her class with a challenge, asking her students how others have defined them. “Too bossy” and “too sensitive” were among the responses that McElhaney quickly urged them to dismiss or proudly own as they began a journey of how to describe themselves.

“What do you want your brand to be?” she asked the class of 48 students, most of them Cal athletes—a group that’s at the heart of her new class, Equity Fluent Leadership & Personal Brand. It’s designed to teach primarily Cal student athletes and undergraduates how to create personal brands. 

This class comes after California and eight other states passed laws in 2019 that allowed college athletes to benefit from their names, images, or likenesses (NIL). In July 2021, the NCAA followed suit and adopted its own NIL policy for all college athletes. Similar to professional athletes, college athletes can now engage in sponsorships and receive cash payments and gifts. However, the policy continues to preclude students from entering pay-for-play contracts with colleges and universities.

“The NIL policy is in its infancy right now and many college athletes haven’t fully grasped the policy in its entirety,” said McElhaney, who’s also the founding executive director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership. “My hope is that I can give students the tools to discover who they are and what they stand for, regardless of whether or not they enter contracts.”

Focused on core values

The Equity Fluent Leadership & Personal Brand class has drawn the interest of many athletes, including Cal football players, swimmers, and gymnasts, five of whom are Haas students. Non-Haas students are also enrolled in the course.

college students sitting at desks in Chou Hall classroom
The Equity Fluent Leadership & Personal Brand class has drawn the interest of many athletes, including football players, swimmers, gymnasts, and non-Haas students. Photo: Jim Block

“This class has really re-energized me,” McElhaney said. “It’s bringing my three passions together: Equity Fluent Leadership, Cal athletics, and the love for my dad, my role model.” (McElhaney’s father, Harold “Hal” McElhaney, played football for the Philadelphia Eagles, coached at Duke, and went on to become the athletic director for Allegheny College and Ohio University.)

Black undergraduate student wearing blue hoodie smiles.
Cal women’s basketball player Jazlen Green, BA 22, a brand ambassador for Stoko, is working to better define “the best version of herself” in the class. Photo: Jim Block

In addition to crafting their personal brands, students explore their core values based on their social identities, learn about the power of allyship, and discover their own brand of leadership. Throughout the semester, students have been tasked with giving presentations about leaders whom they admire, finding songs to represent the soundtrack of their lives, and designing social media accounts that reflect their brands. 

Cal women’s basketball player Jazlen Green, BA 22, (sociology) has already benefited from the NIL policy, serving as a brand ambassador for compression legging company Stoko. In exchange for using Green’s name and image, Stoko gives the Cal basketball player free products. But her primary motivation for taking McElhaney’s class was to be the best version of herself.

The personal brand hero assignment, which required students to write about a leader who reflects their brand, has been the most impactful exercise, she said. 

“I had a hard time narrowing my decision to one person, which highlighted the fact that I’m multifaceted,” Green said. “I am an athlete, a student, a Black female, and a creator.” 

Cal baseball player Garret Nielsen, BS 22, said he took the class to learn more about himself and to become more empathetic. 

Male undergraduate student with cap turned backwards. He's smiling.
Cal baseball player Garret Nielsen, BS 22, enrolled in the class to become a more well-rounded and empathetic person. Photo: Jim Block

“This class asks the hard questions,” Nielsen said. “The most important lesson that this class has taught me is you have to establish a foundation of who you are before success comes.” 

Conversely, Nielsen said he’s not interested in benefiting from the NIL policy. He’d rather use his status and expertise to help children become great baseball players.

“I would have been ecstatic if a college player had helped me with my game when I was a kid,” Nielsen said. “I now have the opportunity to do just that. I think that’s the true gift of being a Cal athlete.”

Looking ahead

Over time, McElhaney hopes to expand the class to include topics such as how to read contracts, money management, and investing. She wants to bring in lawyers and more professional athletes as guest speakers. Earlier in the semester, she invited former NFL player Lorenzo Alexander to talk about the value of having a board of directors. She’s also tapped the wisdom of her graduate student instructor André Chapman, Jr., a former UCLA 400-meter hurdler who was bound for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

“At its heart, this is a leadership class,” McElhaney said. “Whether or not students, specifically my student athletes, enter sponsorships, this course sets them up for life.”

Classified: A simulated electricity market auction lights up Energy Markets course

Four students in Energy Markets class working on a simulated auction project.
Grace Brittan, (middle) MBA 22, works with classmates Rosa Huang, Jamie Daudon, and Lily Peng during a recent simulated auction in the Energy and Environmental Markets class. Photo: Jim Block.

“Classified” is an occasional series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

On a recent Thursday morning in Chou Hall, Grace Brittan, MBA 22, paired off with three other graduate students in the Energy and Environmental Markets course to prepare for a simulated electricity market auction.

“We all worked together in advance of the auction to model how much we valued each of the portfolios and what our bidding strategy would be,” said Brittan, one of 71 students in the class.”Bidding went great for us.”

A student in Lucas Davis' class bids during an simulated energy auction.
Team Krugman bids during the electricity market auction. Each year, the student teams are named for prize-winning economists. Photo: Jim Block

The Electricity Strategy Game (ESG) and auction are highlights of the Energy Markets course that Berkeley Haas Professor Lucas Davis teaches each spring. He names the student auction teams in honor of prize-winning economists. “The ESG is a fun opportunity to put into practice the work we do in the class,” Davis said. “We start with a simple cost structure, and then later introduce transmission constraints, different auction formats, and even a carbon tax.”

Combining economics and energy markets

At its heart, the course teaches microeconomic analysis tools that are useful across multiple energy industries. Throughout the semester, Davis covers topics including what drives supply and demand in competitive energy markets, alternative regulatory structures for energy utilities, environmental policy, emerging markets for green energy, market power and antitrust, and the transportation and storage of energy commodities.

“Teaching this class is important to me because I’m passionate about economics, and about energy markets, and this class combines both,” said Davis, The Jeffrey A. Jacobs Distinguished Professor.  “I want class participants to walk away understanding how to think about energy and environmental challenges from an economic perspective.”

The class moves quickly. It’s lively and interactive, switching from student presentations to group sessions and analysis, all the while pushing students to apply what they learn in class to real-world energy and environmental questions.

Professor Lucas Davis teaching his Energy Markets class.
Professor Lucas Davis teaches the Energy and Environmental Markets class to 71 graduate students in Chou Hall. Photo: Jim Block

Most days, class kicks off with a so-called daily indicator, which calls on students to present a piece of data or data visualization related to energy and environmental markets. Sam Moskal, MBA 23, recently used data points to explain why the cost of converting algae to fuel might not make environmental or economic sense.

“It takes 1,500 liters of water to make one liter of product,” Moskal said, noting that Exxon, Shell, and Chevron have largely scuttled the idea.

“Should we cut our losses?” Davis asked. Moskal agreed.

After the daily indicator, students broke into teams to analyze the details of a typical residential electricity bill. Afterwards, they discuss how the utility charges for electricity. The group also considered Davis’ recent Energy Institute blog post, Why am I paying $65 a year for your solar panels?, which examined why solar panels benefit the wealthy at the expense of those who cannot afford to install them. One student shared that his parents’ electricity bill dropped to $2 after installing solar panels.Davis has taught the class for the past three years to full-time MBA students and, starting this year, to evening & weekend MBA students.

The big picture

The class is also open to graduate students in the College of Engineering, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the College of Natural Resources, and other departments. The course was previously taught by Severin Borenstein, professor of the graduate school, for two decades. “I’ve benefited enormously from the course he built,” said Davis, an affiliate with the Energy Institute at Haas who, like Borenstein, is among its well-known and respected industry bloggers.“When I first arrived at Haas, I sat in on Severin’s class and I learned a ton.”

For Brittan, who plans to work in the renewable energy industry after graduating, the class helped her to understand the markets.

“I never took a step back to think about the broader picture of global energy markets,” she said. “This class will allow me to think bigger picture and be more successful in my career moving forward.”

Photo of students in the Energy Markets course participating in an auction.
Students high five each other during the energy markets auction. Photo: Jim Block


Classified: Using data and art to inspire conversations about climate change

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

George Milanovic,
George Milanović and Laila Samimi, both MBA 22, in the beginning stages of creating a hopscotch game that will reflect global warming. Photo: Jim Block

High above campus in Memorial Stadium last Wednesday, George Milanović, MBA 22, is lying on the pavement drawing hopscotch squares. It’s the first sign that this is not the usual business school class.

His project partner, Laila Samimi, MBA 22, stands nearby. She translates what Milanović is doing.

“The shorter path is the point of no return if the earth’s temperature rises two degrees Celsius—the path of corporate greed and individualistic behavior,” Samimi says. “The other is a path of sustainability. It’s a longer path and it’s harder.”

Heavy stuff for a child’s game, but the hopscotch project makes perfect sense as art created in a new course called Sustainability, Art & Business. 

Clark Kellogg speaks to student in class.
Continuing Lecturer and Haas artist-in-residence Clark Kellogg (right) chats with undergraduate Alexis Mullard about her project, which explores the idea that earth is melting like an ice cream cone. Photo: Jim Block

The course calls on 25 undergraduate and MBA students to explore the meaning of sustainability—and the human response to global warming—through art. 

My hope is that this art will help people to see things differently–to reframe problems and challenge our comfortable assumptions,” says Clark Kellogg, a continuing lecturer with the Haas Professional Faculty and the Haas artist-in-residence. “We’re using art to invite people into a new relationship with sustainability, to inspire a different conversation that’s not about guilt or shame.”

“We’re using art to invite people into a new relationship with sustainability, to inspire a different conversation that’s not about guilt or shame.” — Clark Kellogg

The course, taught in the Berkeley Haas Innovation Lab, builds upon a series of classes Kellogg has taught at Haas over the past decade—from Creativity Lab to Art from Business to the pioneering Design Thinking class. 

Kellogg’s classroom method combines experiential learning-by-doing coupled with deep collaboration and peer-to-peer-critique, all on display in the new course. This morning, the class is focused on design, which is the second step of the three-step process for making public art that includes research, design, and execution.

Kellogg grabs a large roll of paper and starts cutting. 

“Let’s just start to play,” he says, as the class splits into small groups, clutching chalk, recyclable materials, and other supplies. 

Students in Memorial Stadium making art
(Left to right) MBA students Casey Dunajick-DeKnight, Rosa Huang, and Jesse Ruiz cutting recycled cans into flat aluminum that will be used to craft sea creatures. Photo: Jim Block

Preparing for the pop up

The idea is to finish something today that can be transferred to the Haas Courtyard next Wednesday to share during a pop up show.

Casey Dunajick-DeKnight and her team sit outside cutting recycled seltzer cans into shiny, flat metal pieces that will be used to craft sea creatures that are disappearing from oceans. Dunajick-DeKnight says she’s inspired by origami and found that aluminum is a flexible material “that cuts like paper.” Kellogg says he’s pleased that the cans are finding a second life as aluminum squid and crabs. “If it’s single use, and we use it twice, we cut the problem in half.”

Meanwhile, Zarine Kakalia, BS 22, is using chalk to draw a river that’s been diverted so many times that there’s no water left for the salmon. “I thought this was an interesting way to address resource constraints,” says Kakalia.

Samiya Mehreen, BS 23, presents her drawing, which explores how women artisans in developing countries are balancing business and sustainability. Photo: Jim Block

The class spends an hour working on projects before gathering for storytelling, where one group member describes the project to the class. Rachel Stinebaugh, MBA 22, shares an idea for a game of courtyard twister, with the dots representing vanishing coral reefs. Samiya Mehreen, BS 23, explains a drawing that explores the role of women artisans in developing countries, who are balancing sustainability and business. And Vincent Chang, MBA 22, says his drawing should provoke people to think about the future of a sky obscured by greenhouse gases. “It’s rainbow versus anti-rainbow,” he says.

Vincent Chang shows his artwork.
Vincent Chang, MBA 22, says his drawing—rainbow versus anti-rainbow—addresses the impact of greenhouse gases on the sky.

Kellogg offers praise and gentle prompts for students to take their ideas to the next level.

Before class breaks up, the students head outside to check out the hopscotch game. One student asks Kellogg if he remembers how to play hopscotch. Kellogg pauses, but then obliges, skipping through the squares as the group cheers him on.

Making a plan

Afterwards, the students must decide whether to transfer their projects in some form to the Haas courtyard or recreate their projects on site. The group votes to create their art on site. “Drawing time will be critical,” Kellogg warns, and the group agrees to plan more during the week on Slack, and meet at the courtyard by 10 a.m. on Wednesday. 

“It will be so great to look at the chalk drawings on the ground and think: ‘We did this,’ ” Rosa Huang, MBA 22, says.

Clark Kellogg's art
A work from Clark Kellogg’s 365 Art project—of making art daily for a year.

After next Wednesday’s event, a second courtyard pop-up show is planned for December, followed by a final gallery reception of student art.

Throughout the course, the class will read books like “Think Like an Artist” and “In Pursuit of Inspiration” and news articles that detail the links between taking walks and creativity and the importance of taking time to be alone to just think. (One of Kellogg’s personal projects was to document his commitment to making art daily.) 

Among the students, many of whom are involved in sustainability-focused student groups and working at environmentally-related internships, the consensus is that the class is fresh and fun, tapping a different part of their brains.

“As business school students we are often comfortable with data and frameworks and this class helps us break away from that and be creative and think of things on the spot,” says Alejandra Arrué, MBA 22. “That’s why we enjoy the class.”

Classified: “Becoming Superhuman” teaches the science of productivity, performance, and wellness

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Sahar Yousef
Sahar Yousef

Sahar Yousef stood before a packed room in Connie & Kevin Chou Hall in early March and recited some grim statistics. Productivity growth in the U.S. has been stagnant for nearly 15 years. The average knowledge worker gets interrupted every 90 seconds. Seventy-six percent of workers say they feel chronically drained by day’s end, and 96% percent of senior business leaders are on the verge of burnout.

The fact is that despite an abundance of technology to make us more productive, we’re still up against the limitations of human biology, Yousef said.

“We have at our disposal all of this amazing modern technology—Slack and Gmail and smartphones—and yet we’re trying to use these new tools with ancient technology: the human brain and the human body,” said Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist and member of the Berkeley-Haas professional faculty. “There are fundamental biological laws that we are bound to, but we fight them instead of pausing to understand how to make these old and new technologies work together.”

There are fundamental biological laws that we are bound to, but we fight them instead of pausing to understand how to make these old and new technologies work together.  —Sahar Yousef

The evening & weekend MBA students who had signed up for her class, “Becoming Superhuman: The Science of Productivity and Performance,” were more than ready to take that pause. It was the second time the elective had been offered, and it was once again oversubscribed. On the first day of class, each of the 50 students received a binder with findings from a pre-assessment that measured—among many other things—their ability to focus, how well they prioritize, and their risk of burnout. They learned, too, about their genetically determined sleep-wake cycles, and how their results compared to their peers.

Then, over the course of four Sunday afternoons, Yousef and co-lecturer Lucas Miller helped students learn about and implement research-based strategies for working more efficiently and effectively. (The course moved online after the first session, when the spreading coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person classes.)

Lucas Miller & Sahar Yousef
Lucas Miller and Sahar Yousef teaching over Zoom.

Focus sprints and the science of habit formation

Students discovered how to structure their workdays to take advantage of times when their minds are most alert. They practiced “focus sprints”—50-minute stretches of defined work free from distractions (both visual and auditory). They each completed a deathbed exercise to identify life goals and how to stay on track to achieve them. They learned about research finding that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, increasing cortical thickness and  potentially slowing cognitive decline over time. They discovered, too, the science behind new habit formation.

The insights were at times surprising. A 2017 study, for example, found that if someone can see a smartphone nearby—even if it’s not her own and even if it’s turned off—their cognitive performance will suffer. People intuitively know from looking at someone whether they are sleep deprived, and are more likely to think they are not trustworthy or smart. Bedrooms should be kept at about 65 degrees for optimal sleep (especially for men).

When the students completed an assessment at the end of the class, the results showed that as a group, they improved across key measures of performance and productivity, including a greater ability to focus and manage priorities. While 86% of students reported that they used to check their phones throughout the day “just to check it”, only 30% of them reported doing so by the time the course ended. They reported their uninterrupted focus time increased more than 50%, from 85 minutes to 135 minutes. Nearly every student said they now accomplish their top priorities for the day, compared to only a third of students at the beginning of the course.

Mailynh Phan, EWMBA 21 and the CEO of Napa-based RD winery, signed up for the course after feeling overwhelmed by distractions and not finishing what she set out to do each day. Now, she said, “I understand how my biology works and how I can harness it to my advantage.”

Defining peak performance

One of the challenges that Yousef and Miller faced in designing the course was definitional. The course is fundamentally about a concept they call “sustainable peak performance,” but they understood that, in practice, it would mean different things to different people.

“Productivity and performance are intrinsically vague concepts,” said Miller. “For a sales person, greater productivity could mean they’re having more or better customer conversations. To an engineer, it could mean ‘Don’t interrupt me, no meetings.’ To a parent it could mean ‘I just want my kids to leave me alone for an hour.’”

A "Sustainable Peak Performance" slide from the Becoming Superhuman class
A Zoom screenshot of a slide from the Becoming Superhuman course.

For this reason, sessions were broken up into specific themes, with differing time scales. This meant the first class was devoted to the 24-hour cycle and how students, through focus sprints and other methods, could better use their brains and bodies to get more done in fewer hours. The second class session was about performing at peak levels, and the idea that working faster and with more focus doesn’t mean much if the effort is not directed toward top priorities or goals that are personally meaningful. The third meeting centered on the science of aging and lasting habit formation. The final session was about integrating course concepts into work teams and managing and developing other people.

Everything Yousef and Miller taught was grounded in applied science. “I can’t imagine a course about how to work and live more efficiently and effectively without data to back it up,” said Yousef. “Otherwise it’s just a Tony Robbins event.”

I can’t imagine a course about how to work and live more efficiently and effectively without data to back it up—otherwise it’s just a Tony Robbins event.  —Sahar Yousef

“Life-changing” strategies & insights

When asked about the course, students used words like “life-changing” and “gamechanger.” Learning about the science behind performance and productivity was crucial to their understanding, they said, along with the course’s focus on practical strategies that were instantly adaptable to their lives.

A slide on avoiding burnout from the Becoming Superhuman course.
Zoom screenshot of a lesson on avoiding burnout from the Becoming Superhuman course.

For Beverly Correa, the sudden shift in March to working from home because of the pandemic proved to be extremely challenging. “By the time the first Friday rolled around, I thought to myself ‘There is no way I’m going to last if I have to do this for two or three months,’” said the J.P. Morgan vice president.

In response, she devised a work schedule that better aligned with her sleep-wake cycle, or chronotype. She had always thought of herself as a morning person, but getting confirmation that she is genetically “AM-shifted” has inspired her to tackle her demanding work earlier in the day. She saves afternoons, when she knows her productivity is likely to ebb, for focus sprints or more routine tasks. Now, she’s meditating and making sure she’s staying hydrated. When it comes to forming new habits, she cuts herself a break: she knows that trying to develop too many at once won’t work.

Correa credits the course with not only keeping her on track during the crisis, but also giving her tools for the long run.

“I don’t know if I’d call myself ‘superhuman’—that seems like a really high bar—but I’m definitely more productive and more intentional about my work and my life,” said Correa, who graduated from the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program in 2013 and was one of 15 alumni who audited the course (out of a record 75 who applied for spots).

I don’t know if I’d call myself ‘superhuman’—that seems like a really high bar—but I’m definitely more productive and more intentional about my work and my life.  —Beverly Correa, BCEMBA 13

Prabhat Dhar, EWMBA 20, re-evaluated his career after taking the class and realizing he wanted to do more to help people in their everyday lives. He recently left his job at a healthcare marketing startup to lead business development at Headspace Health, a unit of the mindfulness and meditation platform provider.

Dhar said the class not only exemplifies the Haas Defining Leadership Principle of Students Always, but also reminds him of why he chose Haas in the first place.

“Haas isn’t just about creating great business leaders and great managers,” he said. “Haas also recognizes the human element and reminds us that we are all on this path as unique individuals, but also together. This class really embodies that spirit.”

Classified: Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs and investors

Justin Jeffers, an MBA student in the “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course
Justin Jeffers, EWMBA 21, pitched the class on a mobile robot that could assist in emergencies. Photo: Jim Block

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.


Just seconds into his funding pitch for a mobile robot that could assist in emergencies, Justin Jeffers realized that his carefully timed audio of a detonation had failed. Jeffers quickly pivoted.

“Boom! Big explosion!” yelled Jeffers, EWMBA 21, as the students gathered in Chou Hall last month for the “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course erupted in laughter.

Jeffers, an entrepreneur who is contemplating a career in venture capital, went on to successfully deliver his final five-minute presentation, which was required to cap off the week-long immersive course.

Taught by a trio of Haas faculty members—David Charron, Sara Beckman, and Vivek Rao— the course aims to teach students how to think and act like both entrepreneurs and investors. A total of 50 students from 16 countries enrolled, a quarter of them Haas MBA students.

The course is one of many network weeks offered through The Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM), an international consortium of graduate business schools. The international makeup of the course is intentional; GNAM, formed by the Yale School of Management in 2012 with Haas as the only other U.S. member, has a mission to broaden MBA students’ exposure to ideas and each other. Through GNAM, a diverse range of courses are offered around the world, from “Economic Analysis of High Tech Industries,” taught at Yale SOM, to “Brand Cultures and Emerging City Markets,” held at EGADE Business School, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico.

Working in teams, meeting with founders       

The curriculum for “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” combines core concepts of entrepreneurship, investing, and innovation that are often taught separately in business school. “We wanted students to learn to see what entrepreneurs look like from the investor’s side and what investors look like from the entrepreneur’s side,” said Beckman, a veteran innovation and design expert and the Earl F. Cheit Faculty Fellow.

Beckman recruited 10 entrepreneurs, most of whom are Haas or UC Berkeley graduates running startups that are facing very different challenges. Students were assigned to one of the companies and, working in teams, spoke with the founders. On the second day, they headed to San Francisco to meet with leaders at four companies, including the corporate innovation arms of Salesforce and the French telecom giant Orange.

Sarah Beckman, David Charron and Vivek Rao.
(left to right) Sara Beckman, David Charron, and Vivek Rao teach Bay Area Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo: Jim Block

Their assignment for the week was to identify and make the case for a pivot in the direction of the business. Among other things, they learned from Beckman how to “diverge and converge” as they brainstormed ideas and about the power of compelling storytelling in attracting customers and investors. From Rao, they learned how to measure risk and about the need to “re-risk” throughout the capital raising process.

Throughout, the faculty kept returning to one critical question: does an innovation solve a real customer problem and, if so, is the problem big enough to build a business around?

On the investing side, Charron led students through the fundamentals of evaluating ideas and the people behind them. Three venture capitalists came to class to describe the divergent paths they each took into the profession.

Each team was also tasked with setting up a fictitious fund, ranging from angel to mega, with a partnership structure and dollar size that they determined. “One of the goals was to get them thinking about how this all works, including the decision-making process when you have partners who have put more money in than others,” said Charron, MBA 95, the former executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at Haas.

“Why does this matter to you?”

In the week’s closing exercise, “Designing Your Life,” students were asked to reflect openly on how their new perspectives on entrepreneurship and investing might apply to their own career aspirations.

MBA students huddle with Entrepreneurship Lecturer Dave Charron. Photo: Jim Block

Sean Li, EWMBA 20, who has launched a half dozen companies in the last 10 years, said the course got him thinking deeply about the core elements of entrepreneurial success.

“I was chatting with Dave (Charron) about an idea for the problem my team was trying to solve and he asked me, ‘Why do you care? Why does this matter to you?’” said Li. “He was telling me that if you don’t care deeply about a problem, then you’re not going to have the endurance or persistence to follow through when you hit a roadblock. The question has stuck with me.”

The role of passion has been on Siún Tobin’s mind, too. An MBA student at Ireland’s UCD Smurfit School of Business, Tobin left her career as a pharmacist out of frustration with the country’s antiquated healthcare system. “It felt like the only alternative was a drastic career change,” said Tobin.

Now, she’s thinking about starting her own digital health business and using the framework she learned in class to do it. “I realized that I needn’t walk away from health care,” said Tobin. “Now I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

Vrinda Gupta
Vrinda Gupta, MBA 20, was also inspired by the connections she made during the week. Photo: Jim Block

Vrinda Gupta, MBA 20, was also inspired by the connections she made and the encouragement she got as she prepared to launch her own women-focused credit card company, Sequin. A classmate who is studying in Spain got her thinking about potential new markets abroad.

“Feeling everyone’s excitement and hearing ideas from members of the MBA community from around the world was so energizing,” she said.


Classified: Training PhD students to advance the open science revolution

Note: The “Classified” series spotlights some of the powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Prof. Don Moore passes around a jar filled with the titles of research papers on the psychology of scarcity. Psychology PhD student Ryan Lundell-Creagh selects the paper that he’ll have to replicate.

As a young researcher, Kristin Donnelly was captivated by the work of social psychologists who published striking insights on human behavior, such as a finding that people walked more slowly after being exposed to the words gray, Florida, and Bingo. That was one of many surprising studies that had crossed into mainstream pop culture—thanks to books like Malcom Gladwell’s Blink—but there was a problem: No one could reproduce them.

“It was a sad, dark time to enter the field,” says Donnelly, who is now a Berkeley Haas PhD student in behavioral marketing. “I was pursuing similar ideas to people who had these incredible studies, but I couldn’t get any significant results. I became very disillusioned with myself as a researcher.”

Psychology has been rocked by a full-blown replication crisis over the past few years, set off in part by a 2011 paper co-written by Haas Prof. Leif Nelson. It revealed how the publish-or-perish culture—which rewards novel findings and did not reward attempts to replicate others’ work—led researchers to exploit gray areas of data analysis procedures to make their findings appear more significant.

Professors Leif Nelson and Don Moore are leaders in the open science movement.

Now Nelson, along with Prof. Don Moore, is working to train a new generation of up-and-comers in methodologies that many see as key to a rebirth of the field. This semester, they’re leading Donnelly and 22 other doctoral students from various branches of psychology in what may be a first for a PhD seminar: a mass replication of studies around one psychological theory: to see how well they hold up.

“We aren’t doing this because we want to take down the literature or attack the original authors. We want to understand the truth,” says Prof. Don Moore, an expert on judgement and decision-making who holds the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication. “There are many forces at work in the scientific publication process that don’t necessarily ensure that what gets published is also true. And for scientists, truth is at the top of the things we ought to care about.”

Examining the psychology of scarcity

The theory they’re examining is the “psychology of scarcity,” or the idea that being poor or having fewer resources actually impairs thinking. Moore and Nelson chose it not because of an inherent flaw, but because it’s relatively new (defined by a 2012 paper), high profile, and relevant to the students’ interests. Each student was randomly assigned a published study, and, after reaching out to the original researchers for background details, is attempting to replicate it. Results will be combined in a group paper.

“At Berkeley, we’re at the epicenter of this new methodological and statistical scrutiny, and as a young researcher I want to do good work that will replicate,” says Stephen Baum, also a PhD student in behavioral marketing at Haas. “Most people were willing to take things at face value before 2011. Things have changed, and we all have to do better.”

Berkeley Haas PhD student Derek Schatz chats with Graduate Student Instructor Michael O’Donnell and professors Leif Nelson and Don Moore during a class break.

Moore and Nelson are leaders in the growing open science movement, which advocates for protocols to make research more transparent. Nelson, along with Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn of Wharton, coined the term “P-hacking” in 2011 to describe widespread practices that had been within researchers’ discretion: removing data outliers, selectively reporting data while “file drawering” other results, or stopping data collection when a threshold was reached. These practices, they argued, made it all too tempting to manipulate data in pursuit of a P-value less than 0.05. That translates to a less than 5% chance that the results were due to pure chance, and it’s the standard for demonstrating statistical significance and the threshold for getting published.

Building confidence through pre-registration

At a recent session of their PhD seminar, Moore and Nelson led a discussion of one of the key ways to combat P-hacking: pre-registering research studies. It sounds arcane, but it’s simply the grown-up equivalent of what grade-school teachers require students to do before starting on their science fair project: Write out a detailed plan, including the questions to be answered, hypothesis, and study design, with key variables to be observed.

“How many of you are working with faculty who pre-register all their studies?” asks Nelson, a consumer psychologist in the Haas Marketing Group and the Ewald T. Grether Professor in Business Administration and Marketing. Less than half the class raises their hands.

Nelson and Moore estimate that only about 20% of psychology studies are now pre-registered, but they believe it will soon become a baseline requirement for getting published—as it has become in medical research. Although there’s no real enforcement body, the largest pre-registration portal, run by Brian Nosek of the Center for Open Science, creates permanent timestamps on all submissions so they can’t be changed later. Nelson co-founded his own site, AsPredicted, which now gets about 40 pre-registration submissions per day. It’s patrolled by a fraud-detecting robot named Larry that dings researchers for potential cheats like submitting multiple variations of the same study.

“Without pre-registration, statistics are usually, if not always, misleading,” Moore tells students. “They aren’t entirely worthless, but they’re worth less.”

The class is the largest PhD seminar that Moore has ever taught.

Gold Okafor, a first-year PhD student studying social and personality psychology, says she plans to pre-register all her future studies. Though it requires a bit more work up front, it may save time in the end. “I think if you don’t use some of these methods, you could be called out and have your work questioned,” she says.

Students are also learning techniques such as P-curving, which is a way to determine the strength of a study’s results and whether data manipulation may have occurred. They’re also learning from guest lectures from other open science leaders, including Economics Prof. Ted Miguel and UC Davis Psychology Prof. Simine Vazire, who edits several journals.

The bedrock of the scientific method

Then there’s reproducibility, one of the bedrocks of the scientific method and the heart of the course. The American Psychological Association now promotes systematic replications, where multiple researchers around the world all re-create the same study. (PhD student Michael O’Donnell, who is assisting Nelson and Moore in teaching the course, recently led one such effort that cast doubt on a study finding that people who were asked to imagine themselves as a “professor” scored higher on a trivia quiz than those who imagined themselves as a “soccer hooligan.”)

Baum, the marketing student, will be replicating a psychology of scarcity study that was published in the flagship journal Psychological Science. The researchers asked people to recall a time when they felt uncertain about their economic prospects, and then write about how much pain they were experiencing in their body at that moment. The finding was that those people reported feeling more pain than those in a control group prompted to recall a time when they felt certain about their economic prospects.

“If it replicates, I will be surprised, but I’ve been wrong before,” Baum says.

No matter what the results, the replications will offer important new insights into the psychology of scarcity—important to understand in a society plagued by growing inequality, Moore says. Beyond the one theory, the fact that the course has the highest enrollment of any PhD seminar he’s ever taught gives Moore great hope for the future.

“The stakes are high,” he says. “The most courageous leaders in the open science revolution have been young people—it’s the doctoral students and junior faculty members who have led the way. The next generation will be holding themselves, and each other, to higher standards.”

Donnelly is a case in point. “This whole movement has made me a better researcher. I’ve changed what questions I ask, I changed how I ask them, and I changed how I work,” she says. “It’s a brave new world, and we may be able to lay the foundation of a new science that will build on itself.”

Classified: Empowering undergrads to be changemakers

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Alex Budak teaches a new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker
Alex Budak teaches a new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker.

Nearly 40 students poured out of the Chou Hall elevators on a recent morning on a strange mission: to find ways to get rejected in less than 15 minutes.

One student told a passerby it was her birthday. “Could you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me?” she asked.  Another offered to swap his jacket for a person’s laptop. Yet another went from table to table at Café Think, asking for bites of food.

The exercise may sound like improv, but it’s just part of Haas Lecturer Alex Budak’s new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker. The course aims to inspire and empower future leaders with the mindset and tools to make a positive impact on the world—a mission that includes learning to overcome fear of failure by confronting it head-on.

“If you seek to do anything innovative or meaningful in your life, you’re inevitably going to fail along the way,” Budak said. “It’s one thing to intellectualize failure, but it’s another to feel it personally. How often do we hold back asking for something because we’re sure we’ll fail when in reality we may not? We’re failing even before we try.”

Turning panic into confidence

The rejection exercise is just one example of how Becoming a Changemaker tries to upend traditional notions of leadership. In follow-up interviews, students described how a near sense of panic turned to newfound confidence as they practiced asking for something and not getting it.

“It was one of the most powerful educational experiences I’ve ever had,” said Nye Avilla, BS 20, who overcame her fear of asking people if she could borrow their umbrellas. Despite getting rebuffed time and again, she basically realized it was no big deal to ask. “By being more open to failure, I know now that I can be a better leader and a better individual.”

The course includes a little improv, with a goal of creating leaders.
The course uses many tools (including this “act it out” exercise) to create a new kind of leader.

The students were also struck by how many strangers agreed to their outlandish requests, because it reminded them that people do want to help and that their own reticence can be inhibiting.

“Outdated notions of leadership tell young people to wait their turn; to wait for permission to lead,” Budak said. “But while leaders might be scarce, leadership is abundant. We can all lead positive change from wherever we are, whether we’re an intern or a CEO. Leadership is not a title; it’s an act. This course reflects the Haas commitment to building a different kind of leader.”

That’s why the Haas Defining Leadership Principles—Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Student Always, and Beyond Yourself—are woven throughout the course curriculum, he said.

The sum of “small, daily acts”

Students say the course has fundamentally changed how they think about leadership and has transformed how they see themselves in the world.

Sarika Saksena, for example, was 14 years old when she launched a nonprofit, Ujala, that has taught more than 1,000 women in India how to make and sell candles to gain financial independence. Despite her success and experience, the self-described introvert says she never thought she had what it takes to succeed as a leader.

“Before this class, I believed, like many others, that successful leaders are always extroverts, outspoken, bold, and dominating,” said Saksena, a freshman who plans to apply to Haas. She said Budak has taught her that leadership instead requires, among other things, humility, trust in yourself and others, a collaborative team spirit, and the resilience to “fail forward” after taking calculated risks. She sees leadership now as the sum of these small, daily acts that are within anyone’s reach.

Adeel Cheema, a senior computer science major who will work as a software engineer at Facebook after he graduates in May, said he didn’t know what leadership in a culture meant before taking the course. “Now I know how to lead culture,” he says.

Budak gives students many opportunities to put what they learn into practice. Throughout weekly two-hour sessions, students break into groups to discuss the topic at hand—including, for example, the role of corporate cultures on change—and their own experiences with it.

Budak’s teaching approach is to help all students recognize their capabilities as changemakers, which involves many techniques. When students arrive in class, they’re greeted with classic songs about change by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, and Sam Cooke, and written quotes from some of history’s greatest changemakers. His “Changemaker of the Week” exercise gets students to select a favorite change agent and present on how course frameworks and theories apply to their impact.  For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make on campus, in the community, or even globally, and develop a strategy for achieving it.

“A dream come true”

Budak says his commitment to fostering changemakers is deeply personal. In 2010, he co-founded the social enterprise StartSomeGood, which has helped over 1,000 people in 50 countries raise over $10 million to launch and scale new social ventures. He joined Haas in 2016, first as the founding executive director of the former UC Berkeley Center for Reinventing Leadership, and then as the director of the Berkeley Haas Global Access Program. Becoming a Changemaker is Budak’s first foray into teaching and, he says, a decade-long dream come true.

For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make.
For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make.

“In a world where the only constant is change, our companies, our communities, and our world are yearning for changemakers who can not just survive change but can leverage it to improve lives. These students give me so much hope for the future.” he said.

Ibrahim Balde, BS 20, said the course has opened his eyes to the leader he wants to be and has helped him gain confidence. Balde, who is active in student organizations such as Faces of African Muslims and Black Collectivism for California Students, came to Haas with visions of one day helping disadvantaged groups find economic empowerment.

Balde said the class, with its focus on putting lessons into practice, has been a welcome balance to courses in microeconomics and other technical business subjects.

“This class allows me to think about my mission and purpose and to understand that leadership isn’t a defined trait,” Balde said. “It’s a series of actions, a conscious effort every day to do the right thing.”

In big data course, MBA students learn how to second-guess an AI

Berkeley MBA students listen intently in the "Big Data, Better Decisions" course.
MBA students listen intently during a session of the new “Big Data, Better Decisions” course. | Copyright Noah Berger 2018

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

On a recent spring morning, the future of business education was on full display in Connie & Kevin Chou Hall on the Haas School of Business campus. Standing before a 5th-floor classroom packed with aspiring MBAs, Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Kolstad was talking advanced data science as part of his new course, “Big Data and Better Decisions.”

Kolstad asked students to pick between two common models for designing a predictive algorithm. “Tell me a situation where you would want to use a regression tree over a linear regression,” said Kolstad. A student spoke up: “When you’re using Facebook likes to analyze Metallica fans versus people who like to eat hamburgers.”

“Nice,” said Kolstad. “You can reach a subtler conclusion by using a tree that puts hamburger ‘likes’ and Metallica ‘likes’ together—you can see when a combination of these factors matters, rather than looking at each one alone.”  

Assoc. Prof Jonathan Kolstad immerses himself in his teaching. | Copyright Noah Berger, 2018

If ever there was a moment that captured how far business education has come from its 19th century roots, this was it. With data now pervasive across company operations—from marketing and sales to human resources and finance—there’s a demand for business managers and leaders who know a lot more than the basics. Companies are embracing data-driven machine learning to forecast everything from consumer behavior to worker productivity. They’re also relying more on randomized trials, a process long associated with medicine, to test sales promotions or advertising campaigns before they launch.

“There’s a growing need within companies for MBAs trained in data analytics,” says Prof. Paul Gertler, an economist who is co-teaching the course. “This class is designed to prepare students to be part of the modern labor force and leaders of industry.”

New breed of data-driven MBAs

Kolstad and Gertler aren’t looking to train data scientists. Their goal is to enable MBAs to bring a question-the-status-quo mindset to data-driven initiatives within their organizations—whether they are themselves part of a data team, managing one, or tasked as a C-suite leader with setting strategy based on what the numbers suggest. Students learn to blend business strategy with new tools from machine learning.

Yet equipping students with the right data skills means one thing: delving into the nitty-gritty of data analytics—even if, as Gertler says “they never touch another piece of data in their lives.”

“This isn’t a theory course,” said Gertler, who is the Li Ka Shing Professor at Haas with a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “This is a get-your-hands-dirty-up-to-your-elbows-in-data course.”

This meant, among other things, requiring students to learn a programming language called R, which is popular for data mining. They also had to complete a prerequisite, “Data and Decisions,” and a core statistics course.

“This isn’t a theory course. This is a get-your-hands-dirty-up-to-your-elbows-in-data course.” —Prof. Paul Gertler

To be sure, this hands-on approach made the class a stretch for students without experience in big data analytics—but also made it particularly rewarding for those who pushed through the technical challenges.

Laura Andersen, MBA 19, appreciated that the course was the real deal. She says data is changing the game in her chosen field of social services, but non-profits and government agencies often lack the resources to take full advantage of it.

“I need to know the vocabulary and to be able to pull some of the best practices around data from the private sector,” says Anderson, who plans to learn more by tapping into university-wide resources like UC Berkeley’s D-Lab, which offers classes and other services that support data-intensive research in social sciences. “This class has been a great investment, and experiencing it on a campus with some of the best academic resources in the world on these topics has been a great way to get started.”

Causation + prediction

Prof. Paul Gertler, center, joins students in listening to a course session. | Copyright Noah Berger, 2018

Led by Gertler, the first months of the class were devoted to the growing use of randomized trials in business and different tests for finding causation—a critical step in data analysis. “Businesses are no longer saying, ‘Let’s try this and see whether we feel like it worked or not,'” says Gertler, who is also the scientific director at the UC Berkeley Center for Effective Global Action. “They want hard evidence, not only that a strategy worked but also by how much.”

To that end, students learned how one randomized trial showed that buyer discounts drove car sales faster than boosting incentives for sales teams. They studied how eBay ran a series of random experiments to test its Google advertising and found zero upside to running ads alongside brand-specific searches. In a third case study, generic drug makers called off a planned $5 million marketing campaign after a randomized trial showed it would have no effect on its target audience: physicians prescribing brand-name drugs.

“Randomized trials are as much about finding what doesn’t work—the counterfactual—as it is about finding what does,” Gertler told the class. “That’s the dirty little secret about data analysis.”

How to 2nd-guess an AI

For Kolstad, who taught the machine learning portion of the class, a key theme was the “black box.” As artificial intelligence has grown, so, too, have instances where an algorithm makes accurate predictions yet nobody really understands why. For example, a program could know that a certain consumer will click on an ad, but the “black box” means it can’t tell whether that’s because the online user was young and female or liked Metallica and hamburgers.

“Analytics consultants often come to the C-suite and say, ‘We have these fancy models that predict really well,'” said Kolstad, who also co-directs the health initiative at the UC Berkeley Opportunity Lab and is co-founder of Philadelphia startup Picwell, which provides personalized insurance recommendations.

“Now that you understand what’s really behind these models, you know the right questions to ask,” Kolstad tells students. “You can say, ‘I don’t care just about predictive performance. I want to know my customers better.’ And you can ask, ‘How did you avoid ‘overfitting’ the data? Did you leave data out? Can I provide data of my own for you to test?’”

Students like KC Loder, MBA/MPH 18, signed up for the class because they, too, recognize that advanced data analytics is a must-have skill for today’s business leaders. Before coming to Haas, he worked in health care and saw firsthand how hospitals and other providers leverage data to keep costs down and improve patient care.

“Whether you’re working in health care or education or big tech, if you are the strategic thinker and you can’t understand what good data science is and what the data scientists on your team are doing, then you’re going to be obsolete,” says Loder.

Prof. Paul Gertler speaks with a student after class. | Noah Berger, 2018

Classified: Organizational Moonshots course challenges students to think big and bold

Students in Henry Chesbrough's Organizational Moonshots course.
Students in Henry Chesbrough’s Organizational Moonshots course.

Classified articles spotlight some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

When Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon in 1969, it was the culmination of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs that President Kennedy had laid out in a speech eight years earlier.

“NASA ultimately achieved the mission,” said Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough, who directs the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation and is known as the father of “Open Innovation.” “This became the first instance of a real moonshot.”

Chesbrough used the example to kick of his new spring course called “Organizational Moonshots”— named in honor of the projects that address huge problems, propose radical solutions, and use breakthrough technologies. (Examples of moonshots at Google include Google Glass and the driverless car.)

Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough teaches the Organizational Moonshots course to MBA students (and a few law school students as well).
Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough teaches the Organizational Moonshots course to MBA students (and a few law school students as well). (Photos: Jim Block)

Betting on big, bold ideas

The course evolved out of a conversation between Chesbrough and Thomas Kalil, former deputy director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the former special assistant to UC Berkeley’s Chancellor on Science & Technology. The two agreed that the U.S., overall, isn’t betting big on bold ideas any more.

 Selena Robinson, MBA 18, at a recent Organizational Moonshots class.
Selena Robinson, MBA 18, at a recent Organizational Moonshots class.

“I wanted students to be aware that there are alternatives to the highly-incremental, very short-term approach to innovation that I’ve observed in corporate America,” says Chesbrough. “Moonshots can be done in many different ways and they don’t always require a huge bureaucratic organization behind you”

Signing up for the class was a no-brainer for Billy Phillips, MBA 19. “If you’re interested in innovation, (Chesbrough) is probably the guy you want to be learning from,” he says.

To bring these ideas to life, Chesbrough invited innovation leaders who inspire him, including Kalil, who lectured students on the National Institute of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, which relies on public and private resources to advance understanding of the human brain; Arati Prabhakar, a former head of DARPA—an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that used an agile, rotating workforce to develop breakthroughs such as the Internet; and Sylvia Smullin, a physicist who works on early pipeline projects, and Hans Peter Brondmo, general manager of robots, both of GoogleX: The Moonshot Factory.

A polio moonshot

At one recent class the guest was Sara Boettiger, who oversaw investments in polio eradication as former deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She outlined the stages of battling polio from around 1921, when her grandfather Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted it, until 1979, when the disease was officially declared eradicated in the U.S.

Today, she said, there remain areas of Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan that have resisted vaccinations for cultural, religious and political reasons. “Behavioral change is really hard. It’s really hard to get people to change their belief systems, how they react to new technology, and to trust. There are all these fuzzy pieces.”

Boettiger described various ways the Gates Foundation tried to overcome these challenges and dispel fears of Western interference, by using a novel financing incentive called a loan conversion program. The program loaned money to Japan, which in turn loaned money to Pakistan and Nigeria as formal development assistance.

One of Boettiger’s core messages was that technology alone can’t sustain a moonshot. Sometimes, she added, the hardest part is the tail end, when the momentum that galvanized key players at the start begins to wane yet before the problem is not completely solved.

“There were 22 reported cases of wild polio in the entire world last year,” said Boettiger, who holds a PhD in agricultural and resources economics from Berkeley. “That’s not a high public priority.”

Chandana Haque, EWMBA 18, said Boettiger’s talk about the tail end of the moonshot really brought the message home for her.

“No one talks about that part,” she said. “You always talk about what it takes to do something big, but finishing something big is just as hard. I’ve definitely experienced that in my own work life. You take on a product initiative or the company wants to do something big and change, but completing the last steps is hard, and it takes a lot of conviction.”

Approaching ideas more boldly

Students say they’ve been impressed by Chesbrough’s ability to link the common themes presented by each of the guest speakers.

“He starts with this very ethereal idea and then brings in speakers that make these ideas seem very possible,” Haque said. “You come out of the lecture thinking, ‘Wow, this is totally feasible. Why isn’t everyone thinking this way?'”

Abhi Ramaswamy, MBA 18
Abhi Ramaswamy, MBA 18

As a final project, small teams of students are working with representatives from IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Renault, and Walmart, among others, to design moonshot strategies tailored to their companies.

One project with JLabs (part of Johnson & Johnson) aims to help communities that have endured natural disasters get reconnected to the global economy. Another project would help with Amazon, now the country’s second largest employer, recruit and scale programs that provide work opportunities for the differently abled. A third project, with Gap Inc., would establish a recruiting program to provide more employment opportunities to more low-income people.

Chesbrough said that the course isn’t intended to provide students with a magic ‘toolbox,’ but he hopes that there are aspects of what they learn that will inspire them to approach ideas more boldly throughout their careers.

MBA seminar builds skills to talk about race and racism

When Anne Kramer, MBA 18, attended the first session of a new seminar called “Dialogues on Race,” she was surprised to learn she’d spend the initial two weeks in a group with other white students. They were asked to discuss the first time they realized they were white, past experiences talking about race, and hopes and concerns for the class—before coming back together with the diverse class group.

“It felt weird and uncomfortable (for students to be divided up by race), but it made it very real,” Kramer said. “We were there not to ignore differences, but to understand differences and then have a dialogue about them.”

The Dialogues on Race Course teaches students how to talk about race
Kenny D’Evelyn, left, listens and Erin Gums (center) shares her perspective in a Dialogues on Race session. (Photo by Caron Creighton)

Reflecting on identity and power

Bringing that discomfort into the open was exactly the point of the student-led independent study seminar, launched this fall in the Full-time MBA Program. A survey led by MBA students in the Race Inclusion Initiative last year found that while 90 percent of their classmates believe that understanding racial dynamics is a key component of effective leadership, less than half say they are comfortable talking about race.

Inspired by a class called “Diversity in the Workplace,” Liz Koenig, MBA 18, drafted a plan to push classroom discussions on race even further. That became “Dialogues on Race,” a ten-week seminar aimed at creating a safe space for students to develop better skills for engaging in these conversations in their careers and lives.

“The ability to reflect on identity and power is a core competency, certainly for being a leader of any kind, or a manager of human beings,” said Koenig.

Pete Johnson, Assistant Dean for the Full-time MBA Program & Admissions, said the seminar builds on elective MBA courses such as “Diversity in the Workplace,” “Groups and Teams,” and “Business Case for Investing in Women,” which all explore ways to understand diversity and help students to develop management skills. Berkeley MBA students can develop student-initiated or independent study courses under the guidance of a faculty advisor.

“I’m thrilled that our students are using the independent study option to further enhance their ability to lead diverse teams and organizations,” Johnson said.

Gabriela Belo Soares (center) shares her perspective as Ejede Okogbo and other MBA classmates listen. (Photo by Caron Creighton)

Balancing the class

Koenig and co-facilitator Om Chitale, also MBA 18, actively recruited a broad cross-section of students, and chose the class times based on when the most representative groups were able to enroll. There was so much interest that they added a second section, facilitated by Atim Okorn, MBA 18, and alum Patrick Ford, MBA 17, who had co-led the Manbassadors male ally program as a student. Asst. Prof. Drew Jacoby-Senghor acted as faculty sponsor.

In the end, the classes included about 60 percent white students and 40 percent students of color—a ratio similar to the racial and ethnic breakdown of the US population. Aside from two students with scheduling conflicts, all 28 students who applied were able to enroll.

“We didn’t want to end up in a situation where there was anyone who felt like they had to speak for a group,” said Koenig.

Erin Gums, MBA 18, said she enrolled because she realized she had a part to play in the conversation. Growing up identifying as both black and Pacific Islander, and working for years in education, she had thought about and talked about race her entire life—but was not having those conversations with her white peers, she said. This was a group she trusted enough to open the conversation.

“This experience was something I will always remember as a very important part of my time here at Haas,” said Gums, who also serves as VP of Diversity for the MBA Association. “I have chosen to be in the business world and be a business leader, and I have chosen to play a role in pushing for a less racist society. This course helped me put words to some ideas that I’d never articulated clearly, and to practice skills to have these sensitive conversations with people in less comfortable environments in the future.”

Burning questions

According to Chitale, the class took on a life of its own. As students provided feedback from week to week, the facilitators adjusted the course content and structure—for instance, by replacing one of the final sessions with an open two-hour discussion of “burning questions.”

“One thing that was interesting was how the goals of the class evolved,” said Adrian Williams, MBA 18. “At first it was giving people practical, tactical tools on how to attack issues of diversity and inclusion outside of the classroom. Over time, we realized some of the issues were a lot more nuanced than we thought. It also became apparent that I had some blind spots that required me to think through some of my arguments.”

Talking about race
Facilitator Liz Koenig leads students in a reflection. (Photo by Caron Creighton)

For Kramer, this class was the first opportunity she’d had to engage in deliberate conversations on race. “The concept of race in the US was something that I didn’t see in my everyday life growing up,” said Kramer, who spent much of her childhood in London and Hong Kong. “Conversations that I might have shied away from before, or uncomfortable things that people might have said before, now I’m willing to actually ask: ‘What makes you think that?’”

Kim Ayers, MBA 18, said it was eye-opening to learn that her classmates of color were dealing with hurtful interactions related to their race on a regular basis. “The fact that I was largely blind to that until we directly engaged in this conversation was really powerful to me,” said Ayers.

Awkward and intense moments

Gums said there were some awkward and intense moments—which she believes are inevitable for change to occur. “My fluency with these topics is going to be greater than that of people who have just started thinking about these issues for the first time in their lives, and that’s okay,” she said. “We need to recognize that people will mess up and say the wrong thing, but that shouldn’t prevent you from continuing to have these difficult conversations.”

Ultimately, “issues of race and racism are so complex and messy—there’s no one approach or one good way to solve it. If it were that simple we would have figured it out by now,” Gums said. “There are many roles we need people to play to address systemic issues.”

The course is one of several student-led initiatives aimed at helping students develop more fluency in addressing racial dynamics. Students in the Race Inclusion Initiative—a research-based MBA student effort to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the program and make the climate welcoming for all—organized “Dialogues over Dinner” this month, where students were asked to read an article or watch a short video on a race-related topic and then discuss it over small group dinners. All ten of the dinners were facilitated by students from “Dialogues on Race” eager to put their learning into practice.

Koenig and her co-facilitators are planning to lead “Dialogues on Race” again in the spring. It garnered rave reviews, and they’ve received over 47 applications for the spring section. “My hope is that we get to a place where this is considered core to the fabric of any MBA program,” she said.

“Businesses have power and influence in society,” said Chitale, the co-facilitator. “If we can get business leaders to be open and vulnerable on ideas of identity and power and privilege, I truly believe that’s going to have an impact on society.”

Classified: The slam-dunk case for investing in women in business

“Classified” is an occasional series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

Kellie McElhaney teaches her course, "The Business Case of Investing in Women.
Assoc. Adj. Prof. Kellie McElhaney teaching a session of her course, “The Business Case for Investing in Women”

Class discussions about sex trafficking, crash test dummies designed to match male—but not female—physiology, and the challenges a breast pump company faced in attracting venture capital were unsettling.

But it wasn’t until the conversation turned to the relatively mundane acts of sexism women encounter daily—such as unwanted advances at business dinners—that Federico Locatelli, MBA 18, spoke up.

“I didn’t really understand before what women have to deal with,” said Locatelli, one of the ten men in Kellie McElhaney’s class “The Business Case for Investing in Women.” “It’s been completely mind-blowing.”

For McElhaney, an associate adjunct professor who created the course four years ago, Locatelli’s discomfort isn’t a reason to stop the conversation, but rather a justification to blow it wide open.

“This is about pushing people out of their comfort zones so that they can then become leaders who can handle uncomfortable discussions later on,” McElhaney said.

The business case for investing in women
A student makes a point during a class session.

Building a case

The idea for an MBA course focused on gender equity first came to McElhaney about a decade ago while she was serving as director of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas. McElhaney had uncovered a correlation between Fortune 500 companies’ performance on a closely-watched sustainability index and the presence of women directors on its board. That data point alone suggested there was a business case—not just an ethical one—for gender diversity in the workplace.

Kellie McElhaney teaching her course, "The Business Case for Investing in Women"Over the next few years, as the cultural conversation around women at work gathered momentum, companies started asking McElhaney for more proof of a bottom-line payoff to hiring women.

Students, too, wanted to see data. “In a very constructive way, students would say, ‘Show me the proof that gender equity really matters to a company’s overall success.’”

So, McElhaney gathered statistics which suggested companies with greater numbers of women in leadership have higher share prices and better returns on equity and investment than companies with fewer women. She cites companies like Patagonia, which has publicly detailed how its on-site childcare nearly pays for itself.

When McElhaney started the course in 2013, she structured it almost entirely around the data. The class proved so popular that students awarded her an Earl F. Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching. Next month, McElhaney is also launching the Center on Gender, Equity & Leadership to take her work to the next level.

“Kellie is a firecracker—passionate, smart, challenging, and funny,” says Jennifer Hoss, MBA 18. “She takes a very pragmatic approach of ‘nobody is asking for any favors.’ At the same time, this class is a great exercise in empathy.”

Hoss said she enjoyed seeing the diversity of opinions, even among women. “You realize that each person experiences gender issues in a different way. We have 30 different women and 30 different viewpoints on how wrong or not-wrong a situation is,” she said.

A student in Kellie McElhaney's course, "The Business Case for Investing in Women"

Exploring intersectionality

The course also delves into the added challenges that minority women encounter. McElhaney shared a breakdown of data showing that white women are making most of the workplace gains while minority groups either are flat-lining or losing ground.

Victoria Whittaker, MBA 18, who is African-American and Latina, said that when it comes to gender, race, and sexuality, “we tend to separate the issues.”

Shedding light on the intersectionality of an issue like gender helps raise awareness that there can many different experiences and perceptions that influence people’s world views, she said. “As business leaders and managers, it’s imperative that we start to recognize, think about, and appreciate all the different facets people bring when they walk into the workplace,” she said.

Are diversity and inclusion valued?

Many of McElhaney’s students, including Locatelli, are intent on using their newfound awareness to advocate for women. “Students—and this is also true for the companies I talk to—understand the data,” McElhaney said. “Now they want tools to create change.”

One assignment McElhaney gives students is to write formal assessments of a company’s track record on the hiring, retention, and promotion of women. The head of global HR at Airbnb was so impressed with a student presentation—which McElhaney sent unsolicited—that she asked the students to speak to company executives about it.

Students also discuss real-life workplace issues with guest speakers.

In October, a speaker admitted how shocked he was when a valued female executive at his company disclosed in her exit interview that she didn’t feel as though diversity and inclusion were valued. Looking to uncover insights like these sooner, he instituted “stay” interviews for current employees.

A student in Kellie McElhaney's course "The Business Case for Investing in Women"

Designing a personal leadership strategy

McElhaney also challenges students to consider their own experiences with gender discrimination or harassment, including how they’ve responded to past incidents and how they could have reacted differently. For a session that delved into how men impact gender issues, students were required to bring a male friend to observe the class.

Finally, students create a detailed personal leadership strategy.

“You’re at Haas to learn about business strategy,” McElhaney tells students. “You’re also here to learn leadership skills. So, how are you going to build gender awareness into your leadership style?”

Lydia Cole, EWMBA 18, came to the class looking for facts and figures to help her self-advocate in her career. She’s learned instead that proof of women’s value in the workplace won’t be as important as her ability to lead by example.

“My attitude before was cynical,” said Cole. “Kellie’s class has taught me how to be a better employee, a better manager, a better leader, and a better person.”

Classified: Preparing Undergrads for Marketing’s New Challenges

“Classified” is part of a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

It’s an October afternoon in Lecturer Krystal Thomas’s Product Branding & Entertainment class, and the pitch sessions are heating up. The undergraduate students have just three minutes to sell their marketing campaigns.

In the first go-round, groups are making cases for a movie remake to an imaginary audience of Hollywood producers; a second round of pitches includes campaigns tied to a skin-lightening cream sold in India and a discussion of the emotive power of symbols like purple fingernails.

Thomas—who has been at the forefront of modern marketing as a consultant/producer for Disney and Showtime Networks—offers feedback that is both candid and exacting. “Your body language came across as ‘I couldn’t care less about this,’” she told one group. “The foundation of your campaign has to be emotional.”

Berkeley-Haas students come to the course seeking something different from the typical undergraduate business curriculum.

“We often have to make our case in business school through numbers rather than ideas,” says Ariana Diaz-Saavedre, BS 17. “Here, there’s a lot of opportunity to include our own voices.”

Thomas created the cross-disciplinary course six years ago to address all the ways that digital marketing, social media, video gaming, mobile devices, and other technologies have pushed marketing far beyond the 30-second TV spot.

Her course is capped at 32 slots but has a waitlist almost three times as long, and Thomas—currently an executive producer at  Irvine, Calif.-based branded entertainment, content development, and marketing consultancy Pooka Ventures—is a regular on the “Club 6” list of students’ favorite instructors.

“This is, without question, an amazing opportunity for me,” says Diaz-Saavedra, who will also earn a BA in media studies in May.

In class, students work with companies such as LinkedIn, Safeway, Glacier Water, The Cooking Channel, and Western Digital to design real-world marketing campaigns.

Thomas says her goal is to challenge students to question the status quo. “You have to ask the right questions — ones the executives haven’t thought about or can’t ask due to company politics,” Thomas tells them. She reminds them, too, that they can never know enough about what consumers want or need.

Kylan Nieh, BS 14, now a senior product manager at LinkedIn, recently shared with the class a LinkedIn app designed to help college students land their first jobs. Students will present marketing proposals on the app before the end of the class next month.

“We might hear something we haven’t thought of before,” he says.

Students praise Thomas for being a straight shooter. “There are a lot of intricacies of the entertainment business that she knows that you would never learn about unless you were in the business, or in this class,” says Michelle Rubinstein, BS 17.

Adds Diaz-Saavedra: “She’s very intimidating at first, and a little bit sassy. Everybody loves that about her.”

Students also appreciate that, despite Thomas’s hectic schedule, she also takes the time to mentor them.

Jess Mersten, BS 16, said the class paid off for her immediately. After her team pitched a campaign to Western Digital, the judges offered her an internship at the company.

After graduation, she took a position as a trainee in the retail management program at The Gap.

“I’ve been able to apply a lot of the customer-centric learning from that class to my current job,” she says.

Classified: When the Guy in the Back Row Turns Out to Be the Man of the Moment

Photos by Jim Block

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Probal Banerjee had a hunch. It was Day 3 of “The Innovative Organization,” a semiannual course for executives at Berkeley-Haas, and the participants had dived deeply into one of the most cutting-edge companies in Silicon Valley: mobile game maker Niantic, which spun out of Google last year. On that June day, the New York Times happened to have posted not one, but two, stories about Niantic and its forthcoming game, Pokémon Go.

Banerjee and other program participants had spent two intensive days studying Niantic, the internal startup’s break from Google, and its CEO, John Hanke, MBA 96. The group of about 20 execs—which included Banerjee, a business intelligence architect at Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, and top-level managers from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, RAND Corporation, and Gilead Sciences, to a name a few—had all come to Haas to learn how to innovate.

Some had signed up for the Berkeley Center for Executive Education course—taught by Jerome Engel, who founded the school’s world-renowned Lester Center for Entrepreneurship two decades ago—looking for fresh ways to work within their companies. Others had come because they had startup dreams of their own.

Would you stay or would you go?

The question for students was whether Niantic’s spin-off from Google had been the right move for both companies, the employees behind the games, and Hanke. Students had all read a hot-off-the-press 14-page case study written by Engel—recently published as a Berkeley-Haas Case Study—and they had discussed at length the pros and cons of the move.

As he sat in the back of the Helzel Boardroom, Banerjee’s hunch was that the man seated to his left, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and an untucked button-down, was Hanke. But Hanke wasn’t on the agenda and nobody had mentioned he might be there. The prospect was both exciting and nerve wracking, he recalls.

That’s because Hanke, MBA 96, is an A-list celebrity in Silicon Valley. A serial entrepreneur, he embodies the spirit of innovation at the heart of the region’s success. Among his many successes: co-founding Keyhole, which developed the technology that became Google Earth, Maps, and StreetView. Hanke then led Keyhole through its acquisition by Google in 2004, and guided the search giant’s 2,000-employee “geo division” through iterations of its mapping products. He founded Niantic inside Google in 2010, and built a team that’s at the forefront of the convergence of technology’s most dominant trends—mobile, maps, social media, and gaming.

Hanke was dubbed “Google’s Greatest Idea Man” by Inc. magazine in 2012. All this, years before Pokémon Go exploded on the scene.

Engel pointed out that what makes Hanke so successful is not only his ability to look at the larger trends in the economy, society, and deduce what’s really happening. Hanke also has a special quality: “People who own the opportunity have repeatedly invited this guy to be their adult supervision. He’s seen as leader who can make big decisions, and they are willing to accept him as a leader,” Engel says.

The Reveal

As it turned out, Banerjee guessed right about the inconspicuous stranger. Just as the participants were voting on whether they would have struck out on their own or kept Niantic in the fold, Engel called out to the mystery man. “Which side are you on? Should Niantic stay with Google or go?”

Hanke stood up and gestured, somewhat sheepishly, “Go.”

“Oh my god,” Carole Cuffy, vice president of communications at HM.Clause, the world’s fourth largest seed company, recalls thinking when she realized that Hanke was in attendance. “This is amazing!”

Hanke, left, gets a round of applause

What followed was a remarkably candid interaction. Hanke spoke plainly about the enormous leg-up Niantic got as part of the Google behemoth, including an instant global footprint thanks to Google’s vast resources and engineering talent. He was equally upfront about the personal, structural, and operational drawbacks he and his team experienced as part of a massive organization whose main line of business isn’t gaming.

Niantic’s multiplayer games are based on a new entertainment model that relies on augmented reality or A.R., which superimposes virtual objects onto physical ones to lure players off their couches and into the real world. Niantic’s first game, Ingress, has been downloaded more than 15 million times in more than 200 countries. Niantic went solo last summer, and—in conjunction with Nintendo—released Pokémon Go last week. In its first week, the game looks to be the most downloaded app for both Android and Apple phones ever.

The decision to spin Niantic out of Google was, Hanke explained, “incredibly challenging, [although] in retrospect it’s ridiculously obvious that that was the right thing to do.”

Front-Row Seat to What’s Next

Banerjee calls Hanke’s appearance the highlight of the five-day program—which also delved into the major trends driving 21st century innovation, the different forms innovation can take, the venture capitalists’ perspective, and companies that have successfully embedded innovation into their DNA.

Roy Brown, manager of business pursuits at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, echoes that sentiment. “I’ve reviewed hundreds of business case studies and tried to put myself in the situation, but nothing brings a case to life like having the actual entrepreneur speak about the critical decisions,” he says.

For Engel, the Niantic case and Hanke’s experience as a professional entrepreneur highlight why Silicon Valley is a cluster of innovation.

“Certainly John, and dynamic entrepreneurs like him, are the heroes of our innovation culture. But his accomplishments demonstrate something even more profound than entrepreneurial excellence: What’s extraordinary about entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley is the way large companies and young companies collaborate to accelerate innovation.”

It’s “that process of open innovation that makes Silicon Valley unique. It is absolute magic,” Engel says.

Engel, right, listens as Hanke shares insights with the class

From a Master: The Art of Deal Making and Creating Value

This article is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Peter Goodson entered Cheit 110 on a recent drizzly Wednesday morning, ready to teach students the good, the bad, and the ugly of how mergers and acquisitions really get done. More importantly, he offered lessons in creating value, instead of destroying it, as many deals do.

“Any fool with money can buy a business,” says Goodson, a mergers & acquisitions veteran and Berkeley-Haas finance lecturer for over a decade. “This course is more about enhancing strategy and executing operational improvements to create value than teaching lessons in how to squander your own capital.”

The two topics that day included “Takeover Tussle,” which involved a hypothetical hostile bid by Oracle for Salesforce, and a case on buyer due diligence, which forced students to dig behind the scenes, questioning former disgruntled employees to find the truth about a seller.

The takeover scene is a meeting of Oracle directors, with some students taking on the role of company advisers presenting their case to the board. The rest of the class acted as directors. The first student to address the fictitious board didn’t get very far into his presentation before Goodson jumped in with a critique.

“Never go into a board meeting where you don’t intelligently compliment your audience in some way at the opening,” he said. “Realize that you have already met each director and have the total vote count in your pocket. Don’t read the (PowerPoint) slides. Synthesize what is important to the decision at hand. You must kindle an interchange with the audience that forces you to think on your feet.”

One presenter after another was challenged. “You’re role-playing as the board of directors— you don’t raise your hand. It’s demeaning,” Goodson insisted when the opportunity came to ask audience questions. Get to your point faster, he urged another student. “Insightful economy of words matters in leadership.”

Goodson’s bona fides run deep. He founded the M&A group at Kidder, Peabody at age 26 and later negotiated the investment bank’s $600 million sale to General Electric. Goodson’s perspective is shaped from his experience as lead advisor to hundreds of big M&A deals, but also as an owner/acquirer of many companies.  He was an early-stage partner at the influential private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, which acquired more than 65 companies valued at a combined $100 billion over 40 years. The firm is most noted for value creation, with famous CEO partners including GE’s Jack Welch.

Goodson, now retired, teaches an elective M&A value creation course for Full-Time MBA’s and Evening & Weekend MBAs and a summer block turnaround leadership course for EWMBA and EMBA students aimed to show aspiring management consultants, investment bankers, top executive candidates, and CEOs the art of “change agency.”

He also co-teaches a course in private equity centered on investing, ownership, and value creation.

An insider’s approach

Few students show up to Goodson’s classes short on caffeine. Nor do they arrive expecting to dissect spreadsheets or textbook theories.

They come instead to get a glimpse of the real world—no matter how uncomfortable the view or how challenging the required deliverable may be. “Peter’s not one for a lot of unnecessary fluff,” says Aleksey Lakhchakov, MBA 16, and the class graduate school instructor. “He tells it like it is.”

This approach is just one reason why Goodson is so highly valued by Berkeley-Haas and its students, who have awarded him the Cheit Outstanding Teaching award multiple times. “There’s this idea that most business classes are management by spreadsheets,” says Travis Dziubla, MBA 16. “Peter’s class is a refreshing example of managing by working with people.”

William Rindfuss, executive director of strategic programs in the Haas Finance Group, calls Goodson “institutionally important” to the school. “Peter is a walking M&A history.”

Berkeley-Haas Dean Rich Lyons has introduced Goodson as “the master of tough love and real-world decision-making.” “What students soon realize is that he has a passion for their improvement. Somehow he seems to reach each student, every term, providing inspiration and an invaluable tool kit for their career advancement.”

Asking the right questions

Goodson’s tone, at times sharp, will quickly turn supportive. Highly animated, he gleefully fist-bumps students and peppers his lesson with anecdotes from his own experiences.

His lectures include references to “The Big Short” and other Hollywood movies that eviscerate Wall Street—and he pleads with students to challenge him. “He loves that level of engagement,” says Jen Fischer, MBA 16, who openly questioned a strategy Goodson suggested during the “Takeover Tussle” class.

Fischer (pictured) and another classmate, Zara Khan, MBA 16, decided at the start of the course that they would work together to challenge Goodson whenever they felt the urge. He worships push-back and often says “don’t come to class unless you have a solution or a decision viewpoint. We all read the case and don’t agree with me out of pity if I am wrong.”

Says Khan: “You don’t take Goodson’s class if you want to find answers. You take it if you want to learn how to identify and ask the right questions.”

The Oracle/Salesforce “Takeover Tussle” exercise was a case in point: on the topic of gathering information on what any other potential bidders might do and whether top Salesforce performers were likely to bolt after a takeover, Goodson was unequivocal: covert intelligence- gathering is a must, even if it means pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable by hanging out at coffee shops near Salesforce or the headquarters of other potential bidders.

And so it went for three hours. Goodson made clear his disdain for today’s acquisition prices (“We live in a bubble.”), key players (“Sellers lie. Their advisers lie.”), and the buzzwords used to justify deals (“What does ‘synergy’ mean, anyway?”). Then he urged students to find value anomalies using judgment, leadership, operating improvement understanding, and creative negotiating skills to seek out deals where “you see potential others cannot envision.”

“Doing deals is easy, but it is a fool’s game,” he said. “Your job is to get to the truth.  Discover, if you can, how to strategically and operationally make a business you acquire substantially better and more valuable before you blow a fortune buying it.  Otherwise you are the definition of the ‘winner’s curse.'”


Classified: Measuring the Effectiveness of Nonprofit Programs

By Charlie Cooper

In our ongoing series of “Classified” articles we spotlight some of the powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

MBA students enrolled in the Social Impact Metrics course at Haas spent the fall semester wrestling with a challenge that’s puzzled management experts for decades: How do you go about measuring the effectiveness of a nonprofit program?

In an era of algorithms and analytics, where almost anything can be measured, there’s a growing push for metrics that will help donors know whether programs are effective—and whether they’re getting their money’s worth.

To get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Haas formed a multi-year partnership with Amgen. The partnership centers on an interdisciplinary, graduate-level Social Impact Metrics course on measuring outcomes of cancer patient advocacy education and support programs.

“I want our students to be savvy about the claims that organizations make, and to be able to separate what is really working within the nonprofit sector from activities that may feel good but aren’t having much real impact,” said Lecturer Colin Boyle, (pictured), who teaches the course and also serves as deputy director of UCSF Global Health Sciences.

Amgen awarded $35,000 each to four cancer patient advocacy groups participating in the project—Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, Cancer Support Community, Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation and Critical Mass.

In the class, 28 students broke into four teams that worked with the nonprofits to study the specific metrics challenges they faced. The goal was to come up with a plan of action by the end of the semester, when the class presented recommendations to their clients: four cancer patient advocacy education and support programs.

During the semester, the students evaluated the methodologies that the nonprofits might use to vet a program’s effectiveness. They also worked to identify signs that a program was succeeding or veering off track.

Many of the nonprofits were offering the same services—peer counseling, help lines, and webinars to educate people. But as Boyle noted, they weren’t learning from each other about how to do this more effectively.  The course presented a new opportunity to foster greater sharing of best practices within the nonprofit community, he said.

“If everyone has a different help line, then let’s learn from each other so that we can do it as successfully as we can,” Boyle said.

Brigid Warmerdam, MBA 16, worked with the Cancer Support Community, a non-profit that operates a cancer support helpline focused on improving the livelihood of cancer patients and their families.

Her group was charged with making recommendations on how to best measure the helpline’s impact. At the end of the course, they recommended that the non-profit differentiate callers based on their reason for the call— for information, logistics, or emotional support —and to ask callers if their needs were met. The nonprofit could then use aggregate data to inform their program changes.

Warmerdam, who is a vice president at Wells Fargo, took the class hoping to learn more about measuring shifts in attitudes and behaviors, so she could apply this to both her job and her activist work. (One of her initiatives as a diversity leader was to launch a company-wide outreach program to engage LGBT team members with LGBT “allies” to promote diversity at the company).

“Measuring impact is a big challenge and the skills required are not obvious,” she says. “You need be a good listener, get comfortable with ambiguity, and work as a team. To me, this is the solution to doing the best job for your client.”

Chelsea Samuel, a master’s candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy, who worked with Warmerdam on the project, said the course allowed them to apply principles from class in a real world setting, “with real constraints on their personnel and resources.”

“It was also fascinating to see how they intended to use the metrics,” she said.

Students who worked with the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network came up with an entirely new approach for the non-profit, centered on the impact of bladder cancer treatments on sexuality.

The data the students gathered is also valuable for grant-pitching purposes, said Stephanie Chisolm, director of education and research for the Bethesda, Md organization.

“When we go to our partners in the pharmaceutical industry, they want a good estimate of whether what we’re doing will have an impact, and to know that we’re going to be able to report the results,” Chisolm said. “Ratcheting up our metrics is going be a huge benefit.”

Scott Heimlich, vice president of the Amgen Foundation, said many non-profits lack the resources to collect this sort of data.

“Our hope is that this work will go toward helping all patient advocacy organizations measure their effectiveness, and to help the larger nonprofit sector do what it does better,” he said.

Classified: Learning to Let Go in New Product Development

 “Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Four students sit around a table, staring at a small plastic device, round with a button on top. On the screen of one of their laptops is a mockup of an app that shows how the device—once it’s rigged with microphones—will help MBAs track meeting agendas. Prof. Alice Agogino is sitting with them, quizzing them on their product’s name.

She doesn’t like it.

“I like the idea of something subtle, but ‘Imprint’ doesn’t do it for me,” says Agogino, the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering and an affiliated faculty member at Haas.

Agogino is co-teaching the course Managing the New Product Development Process, where students learn the process of bringing a new product from pitch to prototype to market. It’s a class that’s intended to help students figure out how to think nimbly and flexibly—and it’s clearly working. After just a moment’s hesitation, the students start throwing out new names, while Agogino gives feedback.

“’Mentor’ is really hot right now,” she muses.

The team is working on their product for the class final, a tradeshow where each of the seven teams present their work to each other and a panel of judges. The product, “meetingMentor,” is designed to develop leadership in small groups.

Lecturer Michael Borrus, a venture capital investor co-teaching the course with Agogino, says it introduces students to a variety of ways to approach product development. “What we try and do is say, ‘Look, there are a different ways of thinking, each with its own strengths and limitations,’” says Borrus, pictured above with Agogino and Autonomous University of Mexico City instructor Marcelo López (left).

More than a hundred ideas

The course attracts not only MBAs, but also students from the schools of engineering and information sciences. Together, they form deliberately multidisciplinary teams.

Some projects come from the students’ own ideas, and some from sponsors like Samsung, which this fall backed two projects—one of them the note-taking app for MBAs. One team was a collaborative effort with a parallel class at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, and sponsored by the appliance company Mabe.

The students follow a demanding schedule, first pitching ideas and assembling teams, then doing some intensive idea creation. “You have to come up with more than one hundred ideas,” says Laura Burkhauser, MBA 16, (pictured with her team).

And that means the final product may be far from its original plan. Burkhaus and her teammates started with a mirror that took a photo, and ended up with a marketplace app for amateur photography that they dubbed Foto.

“There’s a whole unaddressed market between the selfie and wedding photography,” she explains.

Getting there took a lot of steps, including conducting in-depth interviews with potential customers, prototyping, and then going back to customers again. That back-and-forth is a necessary part of the process, Agogino says.

“And then their customers usually don’t like what they’ve initially come up with,” she adds with a smile.

So it’s back to the drawing board again, refining and refining until they have something they can present. Along the way, they receive help from coaches as well as guidance from Agogino and Borrus.

Judging the work

At the tradeshow, students’ work is judged by the types of people who may one day employ them. They use criteria like the effectiveness of how the teams have gauged customer needs, their creativity, and how well they’ve looked at the costs, revenue, and societal impacts of their product.

It’s a way of checking whether the students have been able to be flexible about their approach. “The real world’s messy,” Borrus says.

Sneha Sheth, MBA 16, learned that this isn’t something you can do while sitting in a classroom—or a conference room. “The process requires you to get out of the building,” she says.

Sheth’s team worked on a game they name “Character Quest,” which helps parents develop positive character traits like grit and perseverance in their children.  “I think the essence is getting a framework and toolkit to be innovative.”

Photos: Lee-Huang Chen


Classified: Game Theory Class Turns to “Survivor” for Life Lessons

In our ongoing series of “Classified” articles we spotlight some of the powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas. 

The soulful sounds of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” reverberated through Cheit 125 as second-year MBA students filed in on a recent Monday for Prof. John Morgan’s Game Theory class.

For nine weeks now, the 65 students enrolled in the elective course have been participating in a game modeled after the CBS reality show “Survivor.” Of the 14 original teams, only six were still in the running.

Just as on TV, Morgan’s contest features a series of teams competing weekly to win a game—minus the sleep and food deprivation and exotic locales. In Morgan’s version, each game mirrors a real-world business challenge, including basketball free agency, radio spectrum auctions, online retailing, and legislative lobbying.

The team with the highest score each week gets immunity, while losing teams duke it out in “tribal council” to see which one would get voted out of the competition in a secret ballot.

Morgan, who has taught Game Theory, or the science of strategy, at Haas for 11 years, has long relied on team competitions within his class. But it wasn’t until last year that, at the suggestion of his then-11-year-old son, he combined the games into a semester-long contest modeled after “Survivor.”

His goal, he says, is to teach students to be “outward thinkers.” By that, he means to show them that they need to be able to relate to others to succeed in business. “You don’t really learn how to empathize by having some professor tell you about the need to empathize. It’s like a reading a self-help book. It doesn’t work. You actually have to do it.”

Fragile vs resilient

On this day, Morgan’s game was about to take a dramatic turn. The theme of this late October class was “Redemption Island.” As the name suggests, one team that had previously been given the boot would be given a second chance.

That team—called WITS Going Down! (WITS stands for “Walk in Their Shoes,” an acronym Morgan uses to promote the use of outward thinking)—had excelled at the weekly challenges, but stumbled badly when it came to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, where personality often trumps performance.

The team recovered quickly, and spent the intervening weeks when it was officially out of the competition building the kind of alliances that led to its redemption.

WITS Going Down seemed to have figured out that, to win, its strategy didn’t need to be perfect. “Perfect-but-fragile strategies,” says Morgan, “are less good than mediocre-but-resilient strategies.”

Getting to the final round

Here’s how “Survivor: Game Theory” has worked during the course: 14 teams started the semester split evenly into two camps, named after Nobel Prize winners in economics: House Harsanyi (the Haas School’s own Nobelist) and House Vickrey.

After each competition, all members of the house with the best-performing team were guaranteed to make it to the next round. The teams in the losing house then convened in an end-of-the-week “Tribal Council,” run by Morgan’s assistant Sibo Lu, to talk through which one of their own to vote off.

Through a process of elimination, three teams will make it to the final round in December. At that point, all 14 teams will get to decide which of the three wins the entire game. Each member of the winning team gets $100 (out of Morgan’s pocket) with the team captain collecting $150.

The incentives are an important aspect of the game: “People play differently when money is on the line,” says Morgan. But because he wants the incentives to mirror closely the business world, he won’t grade students on their performance in the game.

At first, the votes were straightforward. The first team to be eliminated, for example, didn’t show up to Tribal Council. Soon, however, the balloting became much less predictable. And that’s when WITS Going Down! ran into big trouble.

Emanuele Rusina, MBA 16 and a member of WITS Going Down!, says the teams in his house had all agreed to vote off members who had acted ruthlessly in trying to win weekly competitions. Yet, when votes were tallied, the “nice” teams in his house were being picked off. “It was clear early on that someone was playing a different kind of game,” says Rusina.

Learning from mistakes

To get back into the competition, WITS Going Down! embraced the kind of behind-the-scenes lobbying that it had originally avoided. The result: a second shot and an alliance that Rusina says — at least as of press time — will determine the team’s votes going forward.

Rusina, for one, is taking Morgan’s message to heart. “The game has been a great reality check for me, for my team, and for a lot of people who pride themselves on defining principles,” he says. “It’s teaching us how to learn from our mistakes, get back on track, and to keep friends close but your enemies just as close.”

Travis Dziubla, MBA 16, was surprised by his takeaway. He signed up for Game Theory in the hopes of learning more about mathematical approaches to complex business situations. He didn’t expect to get a heavy dose of life lessons, too. “We have this tendency as humans to attribute the worst possible intentions to any outcome,” says Dziubla, whose team, Russians v. Germans, was eliminated. But when dealing with human beings, “there can be lots of misinterpretation or different interpretations of the rules of a game.”

Hannah Davidoff, MBA 16, agrees: “If you think about it, ‘Survivor: Game Theory’ recreates the game of life.”