2021 Best Undergraduate Professors: Alicia DeSantola, Washington (Foster)

Alicia DeSantola

Foster School of Business, University of Washington

“Professor DeSantola had an integral role in starting my journey as an entrepreneur. In teaching the fundamental entrepreneur class, she did a phenomenal job transitioning to the online environment, brought in a variety of useful speakers and guests from her personal network, helped foster collaborative learning through class discussions, gave a glimpse into the entrepreneur world through live cases and a start-up project, and, most importantly, helped my confidence as an entrepreneur through personalized emails and feedback.” – Andrew W. Wang, Student

Alicia DeSantola, 34,  is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, where she has taught since 2019. She currently teaches Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurial Strategy.

She has a PhD in Organizational Behavior and an AM in Sociology from Harvard University. She also has a MS in Management Science & Engineering and a BA and BS with Honors from Stanford University.

Dr. DeSantola has expertise in entrepreneurship, organizational transformation, technology and innovation strategy, and venture capital. Her research has been published in Organization Science, Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Annals, and Harvard Business Review, among others.

She is the winner of the Industry Studies Association Dissertation Award and a finalist for the Heizer Dissertation Award in New Enterprise Development.

Professor DeSantola is my greatest entrepreneurial inspiration. She recruits accomplished VC/angel investors and high-growth entrepreneurs to share engaging experiences and advice,” writes student Christina McMillan. “This offers credible networking, job and funding opportunities due to her connections and willingness to advocate for ambitious students. She empowers students to devise solutions to high-profile, real-time dilemma cases and build teamwork skills to pursue startup ideas. I learned to chase after my goals with supportive people and tools by my side. She develops achievers.” 


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I took a PhD seminar on strategy in technology-based companies as a master’s student in Management Science & Engineering at Stanford. I found the prospect of a career path that entailed being able to conduct original research and offer actionable insights for practice exhilarating. However, given that I had spent so much time in school, I also wanted to expose myself to a private-sector work environment to allow myself to see if a non-academic path could also be a good fit.  So, I did not pursue a PhD right away. Afterwards, I found myself continuing to observe management and strategy puzzles that I wanted to solve through systematic research, particularly the dilemmas faced by my friends and classmates who had pursued careers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. After deep reflection, I decided that it was time to stop resisting my passion and took the leap to enter a business school PhD program. 

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?  Much of my research focuses on the organizational and strategic challenges of resource mobilization and scaling in growth-oriented entrepreneurial ventures. In a recent paper on new venture professionalization, my co-authors and I explore how the conventionality of a venture’s market positioning gets reflected in its internal organization.  Existing research has argued that ventures tend to professionalize (e.g., develop internal structures and staffing more akin to mature corporations) as they scale up and interact with external backers such as venture capitalists. The implication is that ventures become more alike or converge to a common template as they mature. In contrast, we find that differences in ventures’ initial market positioning leads to deepening differences in which functions they choose to professionalize. Ventures that pioneer new market spaces – and thus need to evangelize their novel offerings – more strongly professionalize their external-facing functions such as marketing & sales and customer development, at the expense of internal functions such as human resources, accounting, and finance. We observe the opposite pattern for ventures that focus on efficiently executing within well-established, conventional market spaces. Such differences deepen, rather than diminish, as ventures get successive rounds of venture capital funding. In other words, in contrast to the generally presumed pattern of convergent professionalization, we show a pattern of divergent professionalization between ventures that pioneer new market spaces vs. those that position themselves in established market spaces.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… Helping build early-stage companies as an advisor, team member, or investor.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I view the classroom as an interactive conversation space where students learn by engaging in a dialogue not just with me, but also with each other and with members of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our classroom discussions are often quite lively. One pedagogical tool I enjoy employing in my undergraduate classrooms is a “live case.”  In a live case, I invite  a founder or entrepreneurial leader to present a real-time dilemma faced by their business to the class. Students engage in Q&A and then provide a written assessment of what they think the protagonist should do. This offers students the unique opportunity to assess what to do in the face of the constraints many entrepreneurs encounter such as uncertainty, limited resources, and tradeoffs between courses of action.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Thrilling.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: I was lucky to have great mentors who prepared me well for this path, but I’m always impressed by how much I learn from the students too in every class. 

Professor I most admire and why: My undergraduate advisor, historian Barton J. Bernstein, is both an intellectual giant and a masterful storyteller. He had the extraordinary ability to keep a large lecture hall of undergraduate students riveted to their seats even after the bell rang signaling the end of class. He also ignited a passion for investigative research in his advisees, encouraging them to be unafraid to challenge paradigms and seek out evidence for themselves.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Entrepreneurship students are inherently problem solvers who are interested in identifying and building solutions to challenges in the world around them. It’s a joy to get to work with such creative and engaged individuals—the entrepreneurial spirit is essential to tackling some of the most difficult dilemmas faced by the world today. 

What is most challenging? Particularly when we do case discussions, it’s tempting for students to focus on what happened in retrospect rather than the information that was available to decision-makers at the time. It’s always important to keep in mind that good decisions do not always lead to good outcomes (and vice-versa). That’s why I love employing live cases when possible—the outcomes are not yet known. 

In one word, describe your favorite type of student:  Curious.

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Constructive. I endeavor to offer feedback that helps students refine their product or business concept. I am rooting for them to succeed as entrepreneurs if that’s the path that they choose.


What are your hobbies? Outdoor activities such as hiking and biking (one of my favorite hikes of last year was an 11-mile snow hike with the UW student group Peaks and Professors); fostering dogs through our local humane society; testing out new recipes in the kitchen.

How will you spend your summer? Doing research, and in between hiking as much of the beautiful Pacific Northwest as I can.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Kauai and Ireland (both are very green, like Seattle)

Favorite book(s): I have so many favorite books across many different genres! I typically share an ever-evolving list of my favorite entrepreneurship books with students at the beginning of the quarter. It’s tough to narrow it down to just one.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… students engaging in building or developing new products or services as part of their core curricula. I think that all business school students—whether they want to lead a large company or start one of their own— have much to learn from the entrepreneurial mindset, and one of the best ways to develop that mindset is to learn by doing.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at…utilizing the talents of people who thrive in early stage, dynamic, or fluid environments. Many such individuals shine when they are allowed the opportunity to work at the frontier of a company or organization, but far too often they are placed in roles where their talents and interests are underutilized or stifled. That’s a shame—and not just because it can lead to disenchantment or disengagement. Organizations benefit from having robust innovation at their frontiers; a critical step to spurring innovation is harnessing the talents of people who thrive in dynamic and uncertain environments. 

I’m grateful for… the ability to be part of an energizing and rewarding profession that not only enables me to help craft new knowledge but grants me the extraordinary privilege of teaching and mentoring the next generation of business leaders.


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