Five questions with Kellogg Professor Paul Christensen

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Paul Christensen is a clinical professor of finance at Kellogg, where he teaches courses in microfinance and international business. In addition, he serves as Academic Director for Kellogg’s Global Study Programs, enabling MBA students to explore international business and markets through global immersion experiences. Prior to Kellogg, Christensen was the founder and President of ShoreCap International Ltd., a $28 million private equity company, based in London, which invests in financial institutions in developing countries throughout Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Christensen took time to talk about what he teaches, why he teaches and what he hopes students take away from his courses.

What courses do you teach?

I teach three classes here at Kellogg. The first is a class on microfinance and the role that development financial institutions play in the emerging markets, helping people access credit, savings and other basic financial services to improve their lives. Microfinance is the reason I am at Kellogg. It’s the first course I was ever invited to teach as an adjunct instructor before taking more of a full-time role here. In addition, I teach our Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) classes. Over the years, I have taught courses focused on business and markets in Africa, Brazil and most recently China. The third class I teach is an experiential learning one called Global Lab, where teams of MBA students work with overseas organizations on a particular project, typically one around strategy or marketing. I haven’t taught that class recently, but someday I hope to return to it because it’s fun to work with students and help them apply what they are learning here at Kellogg.

What do you hope are two or three main takeaways that students get from your courses?

I focus on a couple themes throughout, whether it is my microfinance class or doing business in China. The first is I like to provide students with new insights and understandings into the way that business and capital markets are truly global these days. In microfinance, we talk about the role that major national banks and the capital markets play and how they are providing capital to support microfinance loans. Certainly when we go to China and tour manufacturing plants and talk to global multi-nationals there, the increasing role China is playing in the global economy becomes obvious. That is one theme.

The second theme is I like my students to walk away from all my classes with a deeper appreciation for the ways that business can be a force for social good. Most microfinance organizations have transformed from NGO’s or non-profits to socially motivated, for-profit institutions. Even in the international business courses that I teach, I try to introduce this theme. China, for example, has lifted more people out of poverty through industrialization and business expansion that any other country in history.

Then last, but not least, I would say I really like to give all of my students a first-hand account of what it is like to be a manager in an overseas setting, working for an overseas company or working for a US company overseas. Managers need to pay close attention to the local culture and customs, the difference in working styles and personalities, because without that sensitivity, even the best managers can wind up falling prey to ugly prejudices or simply be ineffective. One of the things I have been doing as Academic Director for Kellogg’s Global Programs is working with staff and students to identify cultural awareness/intelligence tools that are available online. These tools allow students to test how aware they are of the local culture they are going into, how business practices differ between countries and the role of different institutions in these markets. We haven’t implemented it school-wide, but I would like to see us to do it someday.

What do you like most about teaching?

I really like sharing my knowledge and experience with students. I have 25-plus years of private sector experience, and being able to share some of that experience with them is very rewarding personally.

I also learn a lot from the students, and I really enjoy seeing the world through our students’ eyes — the new perspectives, the difference in backgrounds, and work experience they have, especially when I travel with them. Visiting Tiananmen Square with a group of students for the first time and talking about the importance of that place is terrific.

I really do learn a lot from them, especially in technology. I am sort of a technology dinosaur in many ways. I probably wouldn’t even know what Google docs and Dropbox were if it weren’t for my students who forced me to use some of these tools in the classroom. Learning about their creative use of new technology, their experiences on the job and what they are learning across the school in their other classes is something I find invigorating.

What do you think makes Kellogg unique?

I have studied and taught at other schools, and what keeps me coming back to the classroom here at Kellogg year in and year out is not just the quality of the students in terms of how smart they are, but the way they get engaged in everything they do, their desire to make an impact — whether that is a social impact or an impact on the organizations they are going to work for — and that special sort of collaborative nature. It’s not a sharp elbow place.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering pursuing their MBA at Kellogg?

I have three pieces of advice for students considering an MBA at Kellogg.

First, take advantage of the scale of Kellogg and Northwestern University. I attended a fairly small MBA program and there are MBA programs around the world that aren’t affiliated with large research universities like Northwestern. Kellogg’s scale means students get a huge number of opportunities to take electives across all sorts of different areas. Explore the electives. Join one of the hundred-plus clubs. Attend seminars and events across the campus.

The other thing is you have incredible diversity because of the scale of our student body. You have an opportunity to get to know a lot of students from across the United States and around the world.

I think another advantage of having scale is that we have a ton of different kinds of recruiters that come to campus. I encourage people to sit in on those corporate information sessions, even if you think you know what you want to do in terms of an industry or function. Go visit one that you don’t know much about. Learn what it is like to work in those areas.

My second piece of advice is to study hard, but make time for building lasting friendships across the school, because it is the knowledge you will learn in the classrooms as well as the relationships you will leave here with that will last for a long time. As I look back on my own MBA experience, I think I sacrificed relationships with my peers in favor of the academic focus, and I would have been better served having more of a balance. So my advice is to work hard but save time to build those relationships.

Then I guess the last piece of advice I would have, and again this is part of what differentiates Kellogg, is to pick the management program that is best for you. We have one of the broadest degree portfolios to choose from among any major US business school. You can get your MBA the traditional way, the way I got it, in a two-year, full-time setting. We also have an accelerated one-year program for people with business undergraduate degrees. We have specialized joint degrees, like our MMM program for students with a design and engineering bent who want to combine that with a business education. We have a part-time degree program. For more experienced managers, we have the EMBA program.

There are so many different ways to study. Find the program that is right for you.

Read Prof. Christensen’s discussion on the role of microfinance in combatting global poverty, as well as a new way of assessing credit-worthiness beyond the FICO score.

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