2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Shimul Melwani, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Shimul Melwani

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Shimul Melwani’s current research expertise is in an area not often talked about in a business school setting: gossip. According to her school bio page, Melwani’s current research explores gossip and the influence of it and the “negative and positive consequences of initiating and participating in it — for individuals, dyads, and groups in the workplace.” The assistant professor of organizational behavior is also examining the impact of discreet emotions in the workplace how emotions can “influence attributions, relationships, and performance of both those expressing emotions as well as perceiving them.”

Students gush about Melwani, but one of the biggest impacts she has had on the Kenan-Flagler community is being a woman of color in the business school setting. Multiple students mentioned how important it is to see a woman of color in a leadership role and the impact that has on their own lives. “She continues to be one of my favorite classes that I have ever taken in my career as a student,” one student said. “She made a profound impact on my development as a UNC Kenan-Flagler business student and as an aspiring professional woman of minority descent.”

Age: 38

Education: PhD, organizational behavior, Wharton School; MA, industrial and labor relations, Cornell University; BS, engineering, University of Mumbai, 2002

At current institution since: 2011

List of courses you currently teach: Leading and Managing in Organizations (core organizational behavior class for undergraduate business majors) and Foundations of Leadership (a course for first years guaranteed admission to the business school)

Twitter handle: @profshimul

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Connecting with and developing my  students is something I work really hard at so being recognized for that through teaching awards I’ve won at Kenan-Flagler and more broadly at UNC is close to professional nirvana for me. As a personally relevant achievement, I’m proud of the fact that I taught a class while I was in labor with my second son and then went back and finished the last two weeks of the semester after taking a couple of days to recover.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I got my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering in Mumbai and the thought of being a professor, much less at a prestigious business school in the U.S., was out of the realm of my imagination. After a career shift that brought me to Ithaca, New York, to get my masters at the industrial and labor relations school at Cornell, it took only one class session (an 8 a.m. course on human resources) to give me a glimpse into what I wanted my future to be.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…”Finally” (accompanied by a happy sigh)

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? With my best friend and co-author Naomi Rothman, I am studying the beneficial role of complex emotions and relationships at work. In a recently published paper, we develop a model that explains how complex emotions, or emotions that dynamically shift or occur simultaneously hinder leader emergence yet facilitate leader effectiveness. We theorize that even though complex emotions can signal submissiveness and vacillation, their experience and expression can be beneficial for leaders’ ability to lead change. We continue to focus on the experiences of complexity at work, by studying ambivalent relationships, popularly referred to as “frenemies.” In this work, we find that individuals in ambivalent relationships are more likely to help their frenemies when working with them, but then take the opportunity to hinder them behind their back. To note, Naomi Rothman was one of P&Q’s 40 best undergraduate business professors in 2017

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? Teaching the day after the 2016 Presidential election was a watershed moment for me. Through class discussions through the semester, I had been aware that there was a good amount of underlying political tension amongst the students my class, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into class that day. As I did, however, I made eye contact with a student, who looked at me with tears running down her face. For me, this was the moment that I realized the importance of my identity as a woman, an immigrant, a minority for many in the front of the classroom, and how I had been trying to hide these aspects of myself through my teaching career. I landed up re-organizing class that day to talk through how social psychological concepts that we had studied so far would help us start perspective-taking and led a conversation on how teams and leaders could work through moments like this at work, instead of ignoring them.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? I’ve been lucky to be at the forefront of innovations in business education (for instance, as a graduate student I played a small role in the design of Wharton’s immersive team-based simulation that is used as the foundation for their leadership core course), and like to stay ahead of some of these trends in my own classes. From a more macro-perspective, however, business education has stayed relatively unchanged during the 15 or so years that I have been part of business schools. However, because the interests, needs and values of our students have drastically altered, the time is now ripe for large-scale disruption of business education as we know it.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” Running for office, or hopefully making important decisions while in office. To be honest, I’m not ruling it out; it’s still a possibility.

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: How relational the job is. I always thought I would be delivering lectures and then quietly doing research in my office, but I spend much of my time talking to and deepening relationships with my undergraduate and PhD students, colleagues and other members of the business school.

Name of the professor you most admire and why: My graduate school advisor, Sigal Barsade at the Wharton School, tops this list. She is an absolutely brilliant scholar and masterful teacher who gave me the freedom to find my own way. Also my amazing senior and junior colleagues in the Organizational Behavior area at Kenan-Flagler (especially Dave Hofmann, Mike Christian and Jessica Siegel Christian) who showed me how to be tremendous researchers and teachers but grounding it with all-around niceness and humility. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? Because they care. They care about developing themselves, improving their skills, building relationships, but also the impact they have on each other and the world at large. As someone who cares about pretty much everything, I love sharing this characteristic of myself with my students.

What’s the biggest challenge? Students who have spent very little time in organizations, especially in management roles, often walk into my organizational behavior course with the preconceived notion that because they’ve been interacting with people all their lives, that they will be able to translate these experiences to working in teams and managing and motivating others. I relish working with students like this because I love finding ways to change their minds and help them develop and hone these skills.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? I really mean it when I say that that they’re all impressive and incredibly motivated and make me feel like I have much to aspire to. But I’m always filled with amazement when I meet student athletes who are managing grueling pressures or student entrepreneurs who are starting and running their own organizations while managing the demands of school. At the top of this list is a former student who started an organization called Lead For America while in his last semester at UNC. With a goal of strengthening America’s public institutions and transforming local communities, Lead for America will recruit and place recent college graduates in local government settings. Watching my former student attain these goals while embodying service, sacrifice and a commitment to communities and others has been a truly moving experience for me.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? An MBA student lied about participating in a class exercise. After I confronted her about it, she went on almost every teaching rating website, ranting about how much she hated me.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? I’ve only been teaching for under a decade but I’ve already seen a big change in the students I’ve taught. Unlike my earlier years in the classroom, my students today are never afraid to question the status quo and push me when I talk about “how things are done.” They are more creative, operating with an entrepreneurial mindset even when they aren’t necessarily working on creative endeavors, and this open mindset also makes them more receptive to others’ perspectives. They are less conscious of age and power differences, actively seeking close relationships and mentorship when they see you as a resource. For me, this has led to wonderful relationships that have enhanced my life as well.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Besides performing well in the tests, class participation plays a large role in my course. I have strict expectations about avoiding technology, attending regularly and engaging deeply with the experiential exercises that are an essential aspect of every one of my course sessions. I also encourage and reward creativity. For instance, in one of my courses, I ask students to work in groups to organizational behavior concepts to enact positive change in the school or community. I’ve had students tackle issues like improving recycling efforts or reducing texting while driving. In my other course, student teams start by pitching their ideas to a set of faculty judges and are awarded seed money to use for marketing and production. By actually running their businesses over the course of the semester, these students get realistic experiences with leadership and teamwork.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Having high expectations.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? According to one of my students, it’s “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift because the song is fun and upbeat but it also conveys the message of owning your true self.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Whole. Classroom experiences are richer when everyone can bring their many identities to class.

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

Fill in the blank: “If my students can understand the importance of perspective-taking, inclusion, giving and meaning, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: I don’t have any fingerprints.

What are your hobbies? Cooking, reading, yoga. And I’m a HUGE Tar Heel basketball fan.

How did you spend your summer? I submitted my tenure packet and then went on a family trip to Ireland with my family (from India and England). And lots of hours spent at the pool with my 7- and 4-year old sons.

Favorite place to vacation: I love big cities.

Favorite book: This is always my least favorite question, because I read almost 10 fiction books a month and I tend to flip flop between crime, historical fiction and memoirs.

Favorite movie and/or television show:  “The Wire” and “Mad Men”

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Folk/Americana. But I also grew up in the 1990s so have to add, big hair bands and ‘90s hip hop.

Bucket list item #1: Write a novel. And run and win an election.

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment? The internet/MOOCs has democratized but also commoditized much of what we teach in classes in business schools. This combined with student values of immediate, not delayed gratification, makes disruptive innovation an imperative right now.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” A deeper merging of profits and purpose. I’d love to see business schools helping develop leaders who can tackle the incredibly complex problems to provide value at every level of community and society.

“And much less of this…” The above wouldn’t be possible if business schools continue to measure success in terms of graduates’ salaries and employment outcomes.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, talks about two types of virtues, resume virtues, which reflect our level of skills and career success, and eulogy virtues, which capture your inner character, the virtues that are talked about at your funeral. I’m far from achieving everything I want professionally, but I’m consciously starting these next ten years thinking about building and deepening my eulogy virtues.

Students say…

“I used to be very shy when it came to approaching professors, but Professor Melwani’s warmth and willingness to help boosted my confidence and has allowed me to not only cultivate a relationship with her, but with other professors at UNC.”

“She continues to be one of my favorite classes that I have ever taken in my career as a student. She made a profound impact on my development as a UNC Kenan-Flagler business student and as an aspiring professional woman of minority descent.”