Sharon Oster is the Frederic D Wolfe professor of management and entrepreneurship and director of the programme on social enterprise at Yale School of Management in the US. She joined the school in 1983, the first woman to receive tenure at the school and served as Yale SOM’s first female dean from 2008 to 2011.
Before joining Yale SOM, Prof Oster studied for a PhD in economics at Harvard University. She specialises in competitive strategy, microeconomic theory, industrial organisation and the economics of regulation and has published two books: Modern Competitive Analysis and Strategic Management for Nonprofit Organizations.
Prof Oster was recently awarded the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award by the American Economics Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. The annual award is given to a woman in the field of economics for work done in research, teaching and mentoring to improve the position of women in the profession.
1. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Academics offers great variety and choice. I love the fact that I can follow my own research interests rather than producing work ordered by someone else. I enjoy teaching economics and believe strongly in the ability of the field to improve management practice. I love exchanging ideas with students and colleagues and perhaps most of all love the constant growth that the academic environment allows.
2. How do you deal with pressure?
Like many people, I find that exercise helps reduce pressure. Ageing has also helped. I completely agree with the social science surveys that find that life gets much less stressful over the age of 50.
3. Who are your business heroes?
I have come to admire a number of my former students who have left the Yale School of Management and accomplished a great deal in the world of business and non-profits. Indra Nooyi, the current chief executive of PepsiCo, is a powerful leader of that organisation, bringing new ideals about managing with principles to the corporate world. Sandra Urie, another former student, runs Cambridge Associates, a major player in the world of non-profit investing. Linda Mason founded Bright Horizons, a large child care company and is now active on the board of Mercy Corps, a relief and development organisation run by Yale graduate Neal Keny-Guyer.
Each of these people have combined their intelligence and education with strong leadership skills and principles and made a difference to society. For someone like me, a long-time teacher of MBA students, seeing these accomplishments makes all of the class preparation and mentoring worthwhile.
4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I was recently awarded the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award. As a lifelong feminist and a strong believer in the power of economics to improve society, this award meant a great deal to me.
5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Some years ago, a student who came to Yale from overseas remarked that he understood all of my equations but he didn’t get the jokes. And, he said, he sensed that the jokes were important. Of course, he was right. In economics teaching, few will remember our equations but a joke or a story whose punch line illustrates an economic principle lasts a lifetime.
6. What is the last book you read?
I have just finished Robert Trivers’ new book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology. I also recently read and enjoyed a new novel, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.
7. What is your favourite business book?
I very much admire Barry Nalebuff’s book Co-Opetition, a book which changed the language of strategy work.
8. What would you do if you were dean for the day?
I was a dean for three years and as anyone who has been a dean knows, most of what actually gets accomplished comes with the help of the faculty and takes a good deal of time. Universities are noted for their inertia. I spent much of my time connecting different parts of our community; connecting faculty to students, students and faculty to alumni; and our faculty and students to those in other parts of Yale University.
9. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
I have a thick skin, a direct manner and a sense of humour. I have found all three very helpful.
10. What is your plan B?
I began graduate school in 1970. At that point, the opportunities for women were more limited, particularly in the business world, than they are now. Were I to have graduated more recently, I think that working in a consulting company or financial institution might have been quite attractive. As I discovered in my deanship, I enjoy active problem solving and complex management.
Compiled by Charlotte Clarke
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