2022 Best Undergraduate Professors: Shelby Lun Gai, Michigan State University Broad College of Business

Shelby Lun Gai
Michigan State University Broad College of Business

Shelby Lun Gai, 34, is Assistant Professor of Management at Michigan State University Broad College of Business.

Her research centers on board design – a new subfield of organizational design that emphasizes how to design a company’s board of directors to align with the organization’s strategic goals.

She has been published in the Strategic Management Journal, Journal of Management Inquiry, and Industrial and Corporate Change. She is winner of the 2018 Andreas Al-Laham Best Paper Award from the Multi-Level Network Research Standing Working Group at the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS), and she was nominated for the 2019 Best Paper Proceedings from the Strategy Division of the Academy of Management.

After her first year in the classroom, she won an Instructor of Excellence Award, which is conferred to the top 10% of Broad College faculty members.


At current institution since what year? Fall 2020


  • A.B. magna cum laude, Sociology (and a Certificate in East Asian Studies), Princeton University
  • M.A. Ethics and Legal Studies, The Wharton School – University of Pennsylvania
  • M.A Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management – Northwestern University
  • M.S. Statistics, Northwestern University
  • Ph.D. Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management – Northwestern University

List of Undergraduate courses you teach: Organizational Design and Strategy Implementation


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I finished my first year in Shanghai at my corporate job. By that point, I had already realized how important—and expensive!—it could be to recruit the right person for an organization, especially for something as pivotal as a seat on the board of directors. That being said, corporate governance was a relatively new concept in China, and seeing how companies embraced or rejected the importance of good governance opened my eyes to the potential impact I could have as an academic and teacher in educating future leaders. I never aspired to be CEO or found my own company. However, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher (I “taught” for the first time in 4th grade when my teacher Ms. Stevens let me teach Chinese to my classmates). My passion was always to lead in the classroom, and I was fortunate to find business schools as a place that melds my academic interests and corporate background.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My research concerns how to make boards better. We have all these laws and regulations about what boards must do, as well as social expectations about what boards should do. But a lot of these demands discount the socio-psychological factors—which is just a fancy way of saying the human element—that makes implementing these changes difficult if not impossible. I tell my students that management is a science and art. Science in that there is a ton of research out there giving us insight into why people behave or believe the way they do. Art in that people don’t always behave or believe in the way we would expect them to all the time and under all conditions, so there needs to be some finessing as well. I think a lot of companies—both for profit and not for profit—suffer from governance issues not because their leaders are evil or power hungry or stupid, but because they don’t realize there are structural or behavioral barriers that prevent successful change. My hope with board design is that we can take insights from other fields and use that mix of science and art to help design better boards.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… a Zumba instructor and bartender. This is going to make me sound so lame but there’s something magic about music and movement. I fell in love with Zumba back in college and have made it a point to find a good Zumba instructor in every place I lived. I specify good because a Zumba class is just like any other class- having a good teacher can make a massive difference. And bartender because I’m a night owl, chemistry is fun, and alcohol is delicious. Drink responsibly!

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? Obviously my wicked wit and stunning outfits. Joking aside, I think my defining trait is that I really really care about my students. My primary goal each class is that my students leave “better” than when they came in. Whether its because they learned something or had a laugh (with or at me) or had some break from whatever else was going on in their lives. I legitimately think that what I teach is super important and impactful, and take seriously the fact that my class is one of the last classes they’ll take before they graduate. So I try to teach them things that I wish I knew when I graduated from college. It is a major responsibility and I hope my students know that I’m always here to help.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Zoomies

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: I was worried that I would have to dampen my personality when I became a professor because otherwise my colleagues and students wouldn’t take me seriously. I’m glad I have a MSU mentor who dispelled those doubts and encouraged me to be myself.

Professor I most admire and why: I’ve been blessed to have had amazing professors throughout my undergrad and grad years. Ed Zajac was my PhD advisor and chair, and I couldn’t have asked for someone more compassionate and understanding during my time at Kellogg. Willie Ocasio also played a major role in helping me develop as a scholar and theoretical thinker, and I’m especially grateful for him kicking my butt when I needed it. I basically want to be Jeannette Colyvas when I grow up – she’s spectacular.

But when I think of the professor who transformed my life and the person whom I’ll always admire, the first name that comes to mind is Ned Smith. As his coauthor, TA, and student, I learned more from him than I can ever express or capture in words. From my first exposure to organizational design and networks to mastering the classroom, from how to create effective PowerPoint slides to the deliciousness that is Maplewood’s selection of beers, he has left an indelible impression on me. He was 40 when he passed away last year. I’ll never forget him.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Because I teach a capstone class for students majoring in management, HR, sports business, and retail management, I’m blessed to have a mix of students from different “business” backgrounds in my class. I’ve learned so much from them and love seeing how they combine their disparate interests and experiences in illuminating ways.

What is most challenging? Because management is considered a “soft” skill, some students may come in skeptical about what my course can teach them and whether or not it would actually be useful for them in the future. I’m always excited to prove the doubters and haters wrong.

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

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

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… fast and fair. I am a huge fan of extra credit and second chances, but also that closed mouths don’t get fed.


What are your hobbies? I love to dance. I was a color guard in high school because all my friends were in band and I was in orchestra, and spinning flags was the only way to hang out with them during marching band season. From there, I started dancing in college, starting with Raks Odalisque (belly dance troupe) and eventually spending three years with Triple 8 (East Asian dance troupe specializing in traditional, hip hop, and martial arts). The beauty of spending a bazillion years in grad school meant that I could continue dancing with MBA dance groups (Wharton Dance Studio and Groupwerk).

How will you spend your summer? Trying to convince my husband that we should adopt a dog and visiting my family and friends back home in Hawaii.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Anywhere that has good food. My three favorite food places are: Barcelona, Taipei, and Seoul.

Favorite book(s): I read “The Alchemist” during a particularly pivotal time of my life. “The Joy Luck Club” also really captured the Chinese American daughter experience in ways that are pretty profound. I’ve also read every single book in the “In Death” series by JD Robb.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I’ve watched “Crazy Rich Asians” more times than I can count. And cried every time of course. “Yellow” was the outro song for my wedding ceremony. As a Chinese American who cares a lot about Asian American issues, I thought it was such a triumph for our community. It’s not perfect by any means, but there is an indescribable joy that comes from seeing someone you identify with overcoming feeling like an outsider and finding love. That hurt of being told you’re not worthy transitioning into a burning vindication when you prove that you are.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? Taylor Swift and Bon Jovi are the two most liked artists on my Spotify. That being said, three of my preset radio stations in my car are country stations. I love 2000’s country the most.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… interaction within the classroom and engagement with topics outside of “traditional” business contexts and settings. I’m a huge proponent of having exposure to other fields outside of your major.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… understanding why their employees are behaving the way they do rather than just forcing them to listen and obey. The great resignation just shows the limits of compelling behavior based on threats or pressure. If you can win the hearts and minds of your employees by find out what is really driving them, you’ll have much more success.

I’m grateful for… a wonderful husband, phenomenal parents and in-laws, the best group of friends and colleagues one could ask for, and a fantastic set of students. Also dogs. Because dogs are the best.


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