2020 Best Undergraduate Professors: Mary Benner, University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management

Mary Benner of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management is a Poets&Quants 2020 Best Undergraduate Business School Professor

Mary Benner

John and Nancy Lindahl Professor for Excellence in Business Education | Chair, Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Department

Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

A research monster.

That’s how one of our evaluators described Mary Benner’s nomination. With nearly 9,000 Google Scholar citations, no other professor on this year’s list came close to matching Benner, who is the John and Nancy Lindahl Professor for Excellence and the Department Chair of the Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship department at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

“I study how capital markets (shareholders and analysts) affect innovation in firms,” Benner says. “There is no uniform type of pressure from the stock market on firms; some firms face short term performance pressures, while others have leeway to invest in the future; it depends on how investors and analysts categorize a firm, and not necessarily on what the firm currently does or could do.”

We love the amount of research Benner has published as well as its impact. We also love that she is a first-generation college student who is teaching where she earned her undergraduate degree.

Current age: 50-60

At current institution since what year? 2010

Education: Ph.D., Columbia University Business School; MBA, Stanford Business School; B.S. Economics, University of Minnesota

List of courses you currently teach: Business Strategy (undergraduate), Technology Strategy (undergraduate), Technology Strategy (MBA), Organization Theory (Ph.D.)


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I had an MBA and a dozen years of work experience and wanted to share and learn more.

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

I study how capital markets (shareholders and analysts) affect innovation in firms. There is no uniform type of pressure from the stock market on firms; some firms face short term performance pressures, while others have leeway to invest in the future; it depends on how investors and analysts categorize a firm, and not necessarily on what the firm currently does or could do.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… Still working at Honeywell, possibly.  Or else a host on the Food Network.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

I care about students and their learning. I try to create a course that allows learning for different types of students.  I also have significant work experience, which helps bring the strategy topic to life.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Overwhelming

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: There will be a lot of meetings

Professor I most admire and why: Professor Michael Tushman at Harvard Business School, an outstanding business school professor, researcher, and teacher. He was my advisor for my Ph.D. at Columbia, and knowing him has changed my life!


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

I like teaching students who will next begin contributing to – and shaping – important organizations.  They are smart and engaged and they have the potential to change the world by first understanding and then changing their organizations.

What is most challenging?

This year?  COVID-19

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Engaged

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Distracted

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


What are your hobbies?

Research and teaching at a business school!  It’s what I enjoy the most, so that’s mainly where I spend my time.

How will you spend your summer?

This summer?  Figuring out how to teach effectively in the fall given COVID-19.

Once I work that out, I hope to finish some research and attend a few (virtual) research conferences. And since I’m still sheltering at home, I will spend a lot of time with my family.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Rhode Island

Favorite book(s): Currently reading – The Great Influenza: the Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. My favorite book is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A classic!

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

Most HGTV and Food Network shows

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

Favorite music – alternative rock. Favorite artists – Pete Yorn, Nada Surf, or The National.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Active learning in class; experiential opportunities to apply strategy learning to real-world business problems.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Innovating

I’m grateful for… The University of Minnesota and the opportunities I have been able to have since (and because) I started out here as a first-generation college student.

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

Professor Raj Singh, Associate Dean – Undergraduate Program & Arthur R Upgren Professor of Finance, Carlson School of Management:

“Business students often define success in a very limited way, such as getting a banking internship, a consulting job, or a high profile position in a student organization. Professor Mary Benner is known to inspire students to find their own path to the top of the mountain. She is an amazing teacher of strategy and also teaches life skills. We are lucky to have her at our school, and I am personally proud to be her colleague.”

Comments from students:

Spring 2020:

“I thoroughly enjoyed going to your class and learning from you. I was excited each and every day to learn from you and I was disappointed when we had to move to online classes. I have never written an email like this to any professor to thank them, but I felt like in this case it was absolutely necessary. Having now almost completed 2 years of college, you are by far my favorite professor and I really enjoyed the way that you structured your class. I never felt like I was doing tedious work and I always enjoyed our in-class discussions. Just to emphasize how impactful you have been on me, I even chose to pursue strategic management as a minor. After you introduced it to us in class I was really curious so I did some research on my own and decided it was perfect for me…Thanks again for the fun class as well as your wisdom and time”

“I want to say that I really appreciate how Professor Benner isn’t afraid to disagree with students in order to help them grow. Most professors won’t tell a student they are wrong, but Professor Benner will keep a class discussion going in order to find a well-justified and correct answer. She also will keep asking questions if a student gives a simple one-word answer, by saying something like “tell me more” or “what do you mean by that?” She likes to understand the reasoning behind a student’s answer, which is fairly unique, and I believe fosters a great learning environment.”

“I thought this was the best class I have ever taken and can’t think of anything to improve it. The case discussions were the best part, so never get rid of them.”

“Professor Benner very clearly stated her expectations for the class and made sure all course materials were presented in an effective way that made it easy to understand for all students. Once we transitioned to online learning, Professor Benner made sure we all had the materials we needed to be successful in the course and made herself available to meet with students via Zoom if they had questions or needed clarifications. Professor Benner helped me to greatly improve my understanding of Business Strategy and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in her class.”

“Mary put her lectures online at the beginning of the week so I could watch them at my convenience, which was very helpful. She made me love strategy, and presented it very clearly, with engaging class discussions that helped me learn the content. When we switched to online, our groups answered discussion questions instead, which helped me learn and analyze the material from my and others points of view. She eliminated the presentation portion of our group project to support us during the transition. Not to be a nerd but I’m lowkey sad we’re done learning; I loved learning frameworks and about companies’ strategies. When we took a midterm online, something weird happened at the end which made it look like my test wasn’t submitting. I emailed her and she emailed me back within 5 minutes, telling me a lot of other students had had the same issue and it must have been scary, but that she’d gotten my test.”

“Professor Benner had a really interesting class format that required you to come prepared, and I enjoyed the lecture/conversation style of teaching that she did. MGMT 3004 was a great course!”

“Keep Dr. Benner in this role and also let her create new Strategy courses for Carlson undergrads. I want to take as many classes from Professor Benner as possible.”

Spring 2019

“She was the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of all time)”

“By far and away the most intelligent, personable and professional professor I’ve ever had”

“Very helpful both inside and outside of class. Extremely understanding of students’ needs”

“Best teacher I have had at Carlson”

“Charisma Funny Interesting You are an amazing teacher”

“Loved her. Absolute delight. Great class.”

“Professor Benner is a wonderful teacher, thank you!”

“Caring and authentic”

Spring 2018

“Mary is incredibly smart and knows a lot about business strategy. The class was mostly exams and a project, and the exams are easy if you study the practice exams. She is very funny (if you like dry humor) and it is obvious that she cares a lot about her students. I never thought that I would love a management class, but this was my #1 I Core class”

Spring 2017:

“She showed passion in what she does.”

“Benner was such an amazing professional. She was straight up with the students & had great discussions. She was always available to help & answer questions.”

“Speech about finding what you love was awesome”

“Really caring teacher, took time to know who we are”

“Her humor made class more interesting “

“Professor Benner genuinely cares about her students.”

“Professor Benner is easily the best professor I’ve had… she always kept us in the loop, reminded us of what we had learned, showed us where we were going”

“Professor Benner was the best/most well versed Mgmt professor I have had. She combined lots of current issues into course material and I thought she taught the course very well”

“Phenomenal teacher”

“Benner was awesome. Difficult grader, but I could tell she actually cares about her students and their wellbeing”

“She was a fantastic professor – one of the best. She was clear in requirements & made the class enjoyable. Love her sense of humor”

“I love you – amazing!”

“Always came to class so happy & knowledgeable (great woman)”

“Awesome course”

“Professor Benner pushed us to critically think…”

“Mary cares 100%, no doubt, about us and that made me want to be here”

“You are a great teacher. You are inspiring and I hope you know how many people you influence seeing your success and emphasis to stay true to yourself is inspiring to me as a woman and I’m sure many of my female classmates.”

“Extremely knowledgeable, amazing prof., made class fun, made me want to attend”

“Very clear expectations, truly cares about students”

“Good sense of humor. Awesome professor”

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