2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Benjamin Cole, Fordham University (Gabelli)

Benjamin Cole

William J. Loschert Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship

Fordham University, Gabelli School of Business

In the case of Fordham professor, Benjamin Cole, students have a tendency to rave about his teaching and overall impact well beyond graduation. “I studied under Professor Cole at Fordham University in 2008.  The only remaining notebook I still reference from undergraduate studies is from Professor Cole’s Business Policy class, from almost a decade ago,” says one student. “At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I want you to understand that Dr. Cole has impacted my life with such profoundness that my character partially reflects his impact,” reflects another. It’s no wonder, then, that this strategy professor has been selected three times by outgoing undergraduate students for the Gabelli School’s Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence. As an educator, he’s praised by students and colleagues for not just teaching students, but mentoring and pushing them beyond their comfort zones in order to achieve the full potential he sees in them. An endowed chair in entrepreneurship, Professor Cole’s expertise centers on technological innovation with a key interest in blockchain as a disruptor. He is an active participant in the management academic research community as an award-winning author and reviewer. As an administrator within Fordham’s business school, curricular innovations he implemented as director of the school’s full-time and part-time MBA programs are credited with boosting the school’s placement in various b-school rankings.

Age: 48

Education: PhD in Strategy, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, 2007; MBA with Distinction, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, 2002; BA in Japanese Language & Culture, Occidental College, 1992.

At current institution since: 2008

List of courses you currently teach: Strategy; Blockchain: Industry Disruptor & Creator; Undergraduate Honors Program

Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/BenjaminMCole

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Organizing the Blockchain Disruptor Conference at Fordham University to help newbies become comfortable with a technology that is going to change the world. We measured real learning among participants, both in terms of knowledge of blockchain and comfort level holding a conversation about blockchain. It was an amazing conference that I hope to repeat in the future.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I was working late into the evening with my manager during my MBA internship. At some point, he started reminiscing and said, “Did you know that I was once in a PhD program to become a professor? I completed all my coursework and exams, but never completed my dissertation. I left the program and started this company because I wanted to do something that ‘mattered’ in the world.” That conversation really haunted me because I just kept coming back to one thing—that those who have ‘mattered’ the most in my life have been educators, those who pushed me to see the world differently. And that’s what I try to do as a professor every time I step in a classroom.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Exhilarating

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I am working on a paper that examines the paradox of skunkworks. That’s an innovation team that is sequestered away from the rest of the firm and given its own budget and autonomy to create a new product or service. To be effective, such teams often ‘other’ headquarters, saying things like, “We’re innovating the way the firm used to innovate.” While this rhetoric may galvanize the team, it also may lead team members to de-identify with the firm itself. And when they no longer identify with the firm, they no longer feel like they have a place there. So even though the skunkworks may be able to create an amazing new product for the firm, the experience may drive team members to leave the firm once the skunkworks is dissolved and the employees are reintegrated back into their old departments. Thus, you can end up with a product success but an organizational failure. Thus, the paradox.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? Hearing back from students I taught years ago and hearing that my course changed their view of the world and the way they comport themselves as business leaders.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? I think the speed of technological change has accelerated drastically. If you are an Information Systems professor, for example, you have to update your courses constantly as new technology emerges. How can you be an Info Systems professor and not understand how to program Python, plus MySQL servers, plus Data Analytics, plus Blockchain, plus AI. Each requires an enormous amount of study to master and to be able to teach effectively. So professors have to step up and learn new material to keep ahead of the curve, and students cannot shy away from these changes. They have to be willing to attack the material and keep up with the changes, or they will quickly find themselves irrelevant in the market.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” A management consultant. I love helping people solve problems.

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: That grading would be the toughest part of being a professor. It’s excruciating to not give a student an “A” when the student has put his/her heart into the course, but somehow not made the grade.

Name of the professor you most admire and why: I have been lucky to know some amazing professors, but Dr. Gautam Ahuja (formerly at University of Michigan, now at Cornell Tech) stands above all others. Dr. Ahuja has made a huge impact in the field of Strategy and Technology as a scholar (with 19,000+ citations of his work by other scholars), but his Advanced Strategic Analysis course at Michigan took Strategy to a whole new level for me. I left my first MBA class with Dr. Ahuja exhausted, and felt like I had learned an entire term’s worth of material in just two hours. It was one of the most intense and rewarding educational experiences of my life. That experience helped me understand what is possible in a classroom if the professor is running on all cylinders.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? Undergraduate students really do think they can change the world. And I would not dare tell them otherwise!

What’s the biggest challenge? Students don’t understand that good writing requires many drafts. They think that if they sit down and write something, that it is “done.” That’s not how the real world works. Compelling writing that can move people to take actions that they might not otherwise take requires rewrites upon rewrites upon rewrites. Students falsely believe that throwing away work is a “waste,” when it actually a vital step to retaining their best work.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? Fordham prides itself on giving first-generation college students a chance to attend college. Over the years, I have had so many students who are the first in their family to ever go to college. They may have never owned a suit or worn dress shoes, and everyone they know works at a job for an hourly wage rather than a salary. But those students come to Fordham and they grab onto that opportunity to change the trajectory of their life and the trajectory of their family members’ lives. I am consistently impressed with such students and so proud to play a part in their journey.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Put her name on work to which she contributed nothing.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? Given how much writing and reading is on cell phones these days, students’ ability to handle long-form writing has really deteriorated. Students actually freak out when asked to write five whole pages single-spaced, or to read a 20 page case study. That’s a real shame, because in the real world, one needs to be able to get through a lot of pages of reading quickly, and if you don’t build the skillset in college, you have to learn that skill when working 10 hour days.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Go beyond what they thought they could do.

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

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? “Precipice,” Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Soundtrack

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Eager

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Apathetic

“If my students can navigate uncertainty, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: I self-published a book that went to $2,300 for a used copy on Amazon

What are your hobbies? Martial arts

How did you spend your summer? Finished an important paper and started writing a book on blockchain

Favorite place to vacation: Tokyo, Japan

Favorite book: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Favorite movie and/or television show: Stranger Things

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Pink Floyd

Bucket list item #1: Learn to play piano

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment? The rising cost of business education is making it inaccessible to many deserving students

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Interdisciplinary coursework, divorced from the silos of different departments

“And much less of this…” Bean counting

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: Inspiring a couple of students to start an organization that changes the world for the better

Students say…

“Professor Cole brought the type of rigor and thinking to his Business Policy class at Fordham that I received in my MBA classes at Notre Dame. His class was one of the main reasons why I wanted to attend b-school. I thought that if I was learning that much in an MBA-like class for undergrads I would benefit a ton with 2 whole years of those types of classes.”

“Fordham University provided a challenging and competitive atmosphere while remaining jovial at its roots. Professor Cole attributed to these characteristics of my college experience more than any other educator. His style of teaching and coursework, peppered with his life experiences, made for a remarkable educational journey. Professor Cole related to his students in a fashion that mimicked a mentor, constantly challenging them to hold accountability for their work and to better themselves. If I were in a position to aid students on their coursework at Fordham I would encourage them to sign up with Professor Cole.”

“Professor Cole changed the way I think about challenges in life. During an interview training session he hosted outside of our scheduled class, he presented a challenge that has changed the way I approach problems. He asked “how many golf balls would fit inside the Empire State building?” He taught me it isn’t about getting the right answer or making a good guess. But instead, about how you break the problem down and use smaller, manageable concepts to solve the whole. How many golf balls will fit in this box? How many boxes would fit in this room? How many on one level of the building. Approximately how many levels are there? With this type of thinking complex challenges become achievable and this has supported my success.”