2023 Best Undergraduate Professors: Unnati Narang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business

 

Unnati Narang
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Gies College of Business

 

“What sets Professor Narang apart is her ability to create an inclusive and engaging learning environment. As a military-connected student transitioning from military life to academia, I faced unique challenges, and Professor Narang’s understanding and support were invaluable. Her dedication to her students and her passion for the subject matter makes her an exceptional educator.” – Christopher Umbanhowar

Unnati Narang, 34, is Assistant Professor of Marketing at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business. 

She studies mobile marketing, consumer mobility, and engagement in digital environments using causal modeling, econometrics, machine learning, and deep learning approaches. Her research has been published at Marketing Science, Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, and Review of Marketing Research

She was awarded the 2019 Mathew Joseph Emerging Scholar Award, the 2019 PDMA Emerging Scholar Award, the 2019 Mays Business School Outstanding Doctoral Student Award for Research, and the 2018 Shankar-Spiegel Best Dissertation Proposal Award, the AMA Emerging Scholar Award (Retail and Pricing) 2022, and the AMA Doctoral Student Award (Retail and Pricing) 2022. She was the finalist for the EMAC-AiMark Doctoral Dissertation Award 2021. 

BACKGROUND

At current institution since what year? 2020

Education: PhD Business Administration, Texas A&M University 2020

List of Undergraduate courses you teach: Marketing Analytics and Advanced Marketing Management 

TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when … I never wanted to be a professor. I found my way to this career – which is now truly my dream job – through many winding paths and serendipity. Growing up in India, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I co-founded a musical instruments’ retailing store with two other partners when I was 22. In parallel, I was finishing my Masters’ degree and was also substituting as a teacher of accounting and business studies at my own high school. At one point, I was working three full jobs. Teach from 7am to 2pm, go to my Masters’ lectures, and then work at the retail store!

I did enjoy teaching high school students, but never thought much more of it even though I come from a family of teachers and professors (including my mom!). It wasn’t until I started working with a Columbia Business School (CBS) professor – purely out of serendipity – that I even considered a PhD program. Realizing we could not scale our retail store online in those early days of ecommerce, I started looking for opportunities elsewhere. A friend introduced me to the CBS professor, and I suddenly found myself setting up his education startup in Delhi. What started as a temporary gig soon brought me to CBS in Fall 2013 where I sat in on a marketing MBA class. It instantly piqued my interest in academia. For the next two years, I read all kinds of academic journals, taught myself to code, took my GMAT, wrote my essays, and landed at Texas A&M– not knowing still whether I’d end up in academia or not (though most incoming PhD students these days already know!). I think sometime during my PhD, I realized that I loved research and the unique combination of research and teaching that being a business school professor offers. 

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I study mobile marketing, mobility, and digital platforms. I am currently studying the privacy trade-offs of geo-tracking consumer locations. While geo-tracking data collected by mobile apps and devices can benefit firms, they also threaten consumer privacy. We use rich GPS data with over 120 million driving instances for almost 40,000 users to quantify the usefulness of geo-tracking data for predicting one specific outcome of interest, i.e., visits to restaurants in Texas. We show that geo-tracking data increases the prediction accuracy of machine learning models significantly relative to models that only use consumer demographics and past behaviors. We then show that privacy restrictions that limit what geo-tracking data are tracked, which users are tracked, and where and how frequently they are tracked reduce the predictive performance of geo-tracking. This magnitude of decrease varies by the type of policy restriction, particularly worse for what data are tracked. These findings can help policymakers and firms assess the risks and benefits of collecting and using geo-tracking data for prediction, which is relevant based on my conversations with managers.

In another ongoing project, I am also examining the impact of generative artificial intelligence (AI) on content creation and engagement by users in online learning platforms. Using randomized field experiments and an analysis of nearly 13,000 posts and comments by 774 learners, I find that the use of generative AI in online course forums improves content creation but reduces content engagement. Importantly, I also demonstrate that a simple and low-cost strategy of simply asking learners to modify the AI-generated content mitigates the negative effects on engagement. 

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be … Entrepreneur or writer. Luckily, many elements of both those careers reflect in my life as a business school professor!

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? Bringing mine and others’ research into the classroom to keep the course current and relevant. Bringing my students’ personalities and experiences into the classroom; I might teach the exact same course content, but it might look very different for each cohort of students. I like to co-create unique learning experiences in the classroom through hands-on practice, storytelling, and well-designed activities that magically make the teaching-learning dynamic happen real-time. And yes, it is possible to do this in both in-person and online sessions although the engagement strategies may be different. 

One word that describes my first time teaching: Unexpected. Things I thought will be easy were hard, and things I expected will be hard were easier. 

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: It’s a 24/7 job! In fact, it feels like an identity or a lifestyle more than a job. What you do when you are “not working” makes you better at your work. Intentional rest and time for reflection and learning are key. I don’t know how else to describe this. I love to go on long walks and that’s also me “working!”

Professor I most admire and why: Most of my economics professors. My undergrad professors at Shri Ram College of Commerce sparked my early interest in applied microeconomics. One key reason many economics faculty inspire me is their ability to tell coherent and robust narratives from equations and take them to the data to discover new insights. This is a skill I work on honing every single day. 

TEACHING BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? I love the challenge of keeping them engaged and preparing them for life. Business undergraduate students, in particular, are at an age when they have their whole life and many opportunities ahead of them. Every door is an open door. Yet, they often carry huge anxieties, pressures, and fear of failing – or of making the wrong choice. So, in addition to equipping them with new content, skills, and technologies, I also try to introduce a way of thinking about their careers and future by drawing from my own career, which is more of a mentorship role that I love to be able to play for them.

Students see me as a professor who is also an immigrant, an Indian woman, an entrepreneur, a researcher, someone who is standing in front of them telling them anything is possible if they dare to dream. I tell them this is my dream job but that I didn’t start out here—- I had to fail many times, face rejections (and continue to do so), and make many “wrong” decisions before I found my calling. They are scared sometimes but time is on their side; so, I tell them there are no “wrong” career decisions when you’re that young. Pick a path and commit to it for a reasonable period and see where it leads you. Then take the next path. Inaction is perhaps the only enemy. 

What is most challenging? As a tenure-track faculty, I have huge research expectations from myself in addition to being the best version of myself for my students in the classroom. Balancing research and teaching can sometimes be challenging, so I try to make them synergistic. 

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

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: There are no bad students, only bad teachers as Mr. Miyagi would say!

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as … I think they’d say I care more about their learning, effort, creativity, and curiosity – and that the grade is just meant to be a reflection of the process. 

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies? Working out. If I am not working, you can almost always find me at the gym. I love heavy weightlifting and all types of yoga.

How will you spend your summer? Believe it or not, I work throughout the summer. It is the quiet time I need to work mindfully on one or two focused research projects. In summer 2024, I’ll likely be in Australia both for a conference and to see my family there!

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Home, honestly. I love being with my dogs and family. 

Favorite book(s): “All the light we cannot see (by Anthony Doer) and The covenant of water (by Abraham Verghese) are my latest favorites.”

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I love coming-of-age stories like Tender Bar. I think I love how these stories come full circle, even as there is often no real closure in life. I also love sport movies, especially boxing classics like Raging Bull for their underdog narratives. Most recently, I quite liked Killers of the Flower Moon. 

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? The farther I get in both spatial and temporal distance from India, the more I enjoy Hindi music these days. 

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this … Here’s my wish list: The business school of the future will engage students in dialog and a way of thinking with nuance; to be mindful and self-aware about their simplest of actions including “likes” and “comments” on social media and what message they help propagate or suppress in the world. The business school of the future will allow learners to understand the different sides of an argument in the complex and divided world we live in – whether they agree with those arguments or not. The business school of the future will be integrated more closely with social, political, and environmental concerns. The business school of the future will empower learners to design their own personalized learning pathways; learning technologies make this possible now more than ever before. The business school of the future will create opportunity, access, and engagement for learners across the world while valuing who they are i.e., embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (at Gies, we call this the “seen, valued, heard” perspective). In yoga, we often say: “The light in me values and honors the light in you” – the business school of the future will prepare resilient yet empathetic and aware leaders. 

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at …Integrating consumer intelligence across channels, collecting, and using consumer data transparently and carefully, protecting consumers’ interests while managing their own, being more compliant and proactive about data regulations and technology use in general, particularly algorithms. 

I’m grateful for … Being alive. Every day is a gift.

DON’T MISS THE ENTIRE ROSTER OF 2023’S 50 BEST UNDERGRADUATE BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSORS.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.