2020 Best Undergraduate Professors: Cheng Gao, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Cheng Gao of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business is a 2020 Poets&Quants Best Undergraduate Business School Professor. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Cheng Gao

Assistant Professor of Strategy

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

Cheng Gao was a highly-nominated and is an award-winning assistant professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. After earning a DBA from Harvard Business School, Gao began teaching at the Ross School of Business in 2018. This past year, Gao won the Neary BBA Teaching Excellence Award and previously won the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching.

“I am currently doing research on how firms effectively navigate and compete in uncertain institutional environments, particularly those characterized by regulatory uncertainty,” Gao says. “For example, in many of today’s prominent innovation industries―such as autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency, gene-editing, home and ride-sharing, fantasy sports, and peer-to-peer lending―successful firm outcomes, and even survival, often depend heavily on the effectiveness of a firm’s strategies for overcoming regulatory and nonmarket challenges.”

Gao’s combination of research, teaching awards, and thoughtful nominations made him an easy choice to be included on this year’s list of Best Undergraduate Business School Professors.

Current age: 34

At current institution since what year? 2018

Education: DBA, Harvard Business School; AB, Harvard College

List of courses you currently teach: Strategy 390- Corporate Strategy

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… When I was an undergrad, I took a course on the sociology of organizations that featured business case studies as part of the assigned readings. I really enjoyed the rich deep-dives into specific organizations and seeing inside the “black box” of the firm. This was one of the initial experiences that piqued my interest in business academia.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

I am currently doing research on how firms effectively navigate and compete in uncertain institutional environments, particularly those characterized by regulatory uncertainty. For example, in many of today’s prominent innovation industries―such as autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency, gene-editing, home and ride-sharing, fantasy sports, and peer-to-peer lending―successful firm outcomes, and even survival, often depend heavily on the effectiveness of a firm’s strategies for overcoming regulatory and nonmarket challenges. So in this regard, my research has focused on developing theoretical frameworks that unpack how firms navigate uncertain market and regulatory environments, engage institutions and shape standards, and ultimately compete for success.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… I’m not quite sure. Prior to academia, I worked in management consulting and policy research, so maybe something related to those areas.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Nervous

TEACHING BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

Business students bring a wide range of viewpoints and functional expertise stemming from their varied professional, personal, and extracurricular experiences. This creates for really fascinating and rich class discussions, especially in the context of the case method. Business students also have a great feel for the latest technologies, products, and emerging trends, and thus can often shed light on novel business issues with a unique bottom-up, user perspective. Additionally, business students are generally very passionate, creative, and open-minded. This creates an energetic dynamic inside the classroom and often leads to very rewarding discussions and debates.

What is most challenging?

When preparing for the case method, it can often be difficult to predict how the class discussion will unfold. That makes it both challenging and exciting.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…

A lot of business schools now have field immersion programs that allow students to go into the field (often in a global location) and work with real companies to solve a tangible business problem. This is generally a wonderful opportunity to bridge theory with practice and provides a context for students to practice applying some of the frameworks and tools covered in the classroom, particularly in terms of adding structure to uncertainty and making decisions under imperfect information. Seems like these types of field immersion programs are very rewarding and it might be nice to expand on these opportunities in the future.

I’m grateful for…

I’m grateful to be in this profession. It’s a tremendous honor to be able to work with students, intellectually engage with them in the classroom, and help play a role in their educational experience during a formative period of their lives.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say: 

“In just his second year on the Michigan Ross faculty, Cheng Gao’s students honored him this spring with the prestigious Michigan Ross BBA Teaching Excellence Award. He teaches Corporate Strategy, the senior-level required core course in the Ross BBA curriculum. He’s also earned considerable recognition for his research — focused on strategy in nascent industries, technology and innovation, entrepreneurship, and non-market strategy — including the Best Dissertation Award from the Academy of Management, Technology and Innovation Management Division; the Heizer Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Academy of Management, Entrepreneurship Division; the Harvard Business School’s Wyss Award for Excellence in Doctoral Research; and the Strategy Research Foundation’s Dissertation Scholar Grant. His research has been published in Strategic Management Journal and Organization Science.” – Scott DeRue, Dean, Michigan Ross School of Business

“Professor Gao is more than an educator, he stands among one of the few faculty who is an investigator. He investigates his students, his material, and his craft. Everyday was an adventure that he planned out perfectly. I am thankful that he let me in his class because I learned a gargantuan amount from him and his investigations.”

“Professor Gao is one of the best professors I have ever had. In addition to being knowledgeable about strategy, his encouragement for student voices in discussion and sense of humor made every class a treat. Professor Gao is also deeply committed to supporting students personally, academically, and professionally however he can. Every time I spoke to Professor Gao outside of class, I felt like I was heard and respected as a person. From his guidance, I have taken away a deeper understanding of strategy and the ability to think critically about the challenges facing today’s businesses. I have frequently referred to the frameworks and cases we studied in later classes, and can easily see myself doing the same when I start my career. Because of Professor Gao, I am a more analytical, driven, and reflective person. No other class that I’ve taken during undergrad has impacted my growth as much as his class did.”

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