Get to know Foster’s Assistant Teaching Professor of Operations Management Jennifer Graves, who teaches the core MBA course Business Statistics.
What do you like about your subject area – statistics?
What I like about statistics is its usefulness from a data literacy standpoint. My goal is to help everybody feel empowered, and to be able to speak their opinions. Often people feel shut down in the boardroom if somebody has facts, especially when they say “statistical confidence,” even though sometimes it doesn’t mean anything as powerful as it sounds. I also want business leaders to know how to ask the right next question of analysis that is presented to them, and that’s part of being a good leader. In this sense, statistics is just table stakes for anybody to be a capable leader.
What influenced you to join Foster?
I was a husky, and I love this university! I am so honored to be able to teach beside some of the professors that I had. I don’t take that honor lightly. This place has my heart in so many ways. It’s a community I’m proud to be from, and one that I’m proud to give back to as well.
Before you joined Foster, you were in industry. Can you share how that experience was and how it compares to being in academia?
In Academia I am called an industry hire, which simply means I practiced these concepts for many years prior to joining the faculty ranks. When I first graduated, I went to a consulting company called Bain and Company. I graduated during the heart of the recession and was very fortunate to get my dream job there.
After working at Bain for a bit, I decided I wanted to focus more on helping society and specifically K-12 education; however, I found that working in education wasn’t the best fit for me and so I decided to keep searching for what was next in my career. So I went to Harvard Business School, similar to why I think many of you are getting your MBA, to figure out what do I want to do with this one life that I have?
I explored a handful of areas while in school and it turns out that Bain was a pretty great option, so I came back after earning my MBA. Coming back after business school, my perspective shifted to be more focused on what I could learn from my access to all these really fascinating problems, rather than before business school when I was just focused on trying to be the best consultant possible. It was a very helpful shift in perspective.
I left Bain for an incredible role at Starbucks in food innovation. The only way to make food profitable is an operations play so I quickly moved over to their Ops group. When I left Starbucks, I was head of all of their inventory for the US and Canada stores, which was a very large job to say the least. After a few more steps, I eventually ended up in my department which was really interested in my operations skill set.
Having been a strategy consultant, the industry knowledge I have is very interdisciplinary, and it’s interesting now being in academia where business concepts are siloed. Operations and finance go hand in hand, and statistics is just in order to solve a problem. But all these things merge together in the real world. Why do we improve operations? To make more money. How can we make more money? Usually through operations. When you think of these concepts together, that’s where you can see how to make the most value for a company.
What I really love about being at Foster in particular is they value industry experience. I’ve had many conversations with my colleagues where they’ll want my eyes on a particular research study they’re conducting: “What do you think? Is this a conclusion that you would draw as a business person? Is this the question you would ask in setting up our study?” I have been surprised by how collegial and welcoming Foster’s environment has been.
While it’s evident students love your class, how has your experience been so far as a faculty member? And how do you see your experience align with Foster’s purpose statement of bettering humanity?
Foster has been very supportive and open to suggestions I’ve made so far. For example, let’s think about the statistics class. I wanted to be hyper focused on teaching students how to ask the right question to solve a business problem, and then at the end, figure out what’s the best way to present that information. I could imagine some schools would view that as the “fluffy stuff” surrounding the mathematical answer. I actually find presenting a complicated answer in a concise and persuasive way to be just as challenging as doing the analysis. Anybody can input something into a calculator, but how do you make sense of it and say it in a cogent way? That’s a more difficult skill. And I have felt very supported by Foster in adding this content to my statistics class.
In terms of Foster’s mission statement, I’m going to go a little bit outside of just the MBA curriculum. I also teach a handful of undergraduates, including a personal finance class for first-generation college students. Foster gave me a grant to go after designing and creating this class. I found that students who were not privileged to discuss personal finance prior to enrolling at UW were not speaking up in class. These were students who wanted answers to practical questions like making ends meet today or how do I begin to think about comparing job offers when I don’t understand what’s in the offer. So I brought this up to Foster and they were very supportive in creating this class. It’s a real class now, and that meant the world to me. Talk about inclusion for a topic that can be so uncomfortable to talk about!
Now, in terms of teaching the statistics class, I got a lot of support from other faculty members at Foster. The first class I taught was over Zoom. I was shaking in the background underneath the Zoom camera, because I was so nervous. It was just so outside of my natural comfort zone as a painful introvert! I have felt very supported by my colleagues in helping me understand how to teach. I’m willing to experiment with anything my colleagues mention. For instance, Beth Blankespoor, who teaches core accounting, was willing to offer so much advice after listening to my initial issues, “Okay, here are the things I do that work and think could help you a lot.” Or another professor, Thomas Gilbert, was also very willing to offer me advice without hesitation. And again, the surprising thing about Foster is, the inclusion is not just limited to the classroom, but it’s also among the faculty as well. I very much enjoy being a part of the faculty here.
You mentioned you are an introvert, and that might come as a surprise to many of your students. So how do you approach your role as a teacher? And how do you make sure introverted students feel included in class?
One thing I like to do for my fellow introverted students out there is if someone is willing to let me know, I like to give them a leg up and tell them here is exactly what I am going to ask you at the start of next class, because the hardest part of being an introvert is the first thing you say. Once you raise your voice and talk one time, then you’re ready to talk more.
Now in terms of what do I do as an introvert? I know this is weird, but I try to picture my students as my children in some ways. As you know, I have a million kids and I love them so much. They’re my whole world. And so I like to picture you as if you were five years old, and you’re purely wanting to learn and meet other interesting friends here. It helps deescalate how nervous I’m feeling about things such as what if I say the wrong thing, or I don’t communicate this point well, or I stutter, or I shake, or I sweat through my shirt, all of which has happened to me. But if it’s in front of my sons, or if it’s in front of the five-year-old version of you, it’s OK. It’s more laughable. And the whole class becomes more comfortable and innocent to me.
As an introvert, I am completely drained after class. I need time alone to recharge. So I’ve moved a lot of my office hours to be on zoom so I physically can have some alone space. The other thing that’s really helpful is that my spouse is wonderful and so supportive. So I’ll get planned time every week to just be completely alone, with nothing productive on the schedule. Those times help me to recharge quite a bit.
Please tell us a bit about how you have engaged with students beyond classrooms, or in any way supported students outside of the course work.
I’ve done endless numbers of mock case interviews, general interview prep, resume reviews, offer negotiations, and all that. But what I like best are the one-on-one conversations that are about real life. A huge reason why I came into teaching and want to stay on the teaching side of academia is the mentoring that goes along with it. This almost feels the opposite of being an introvert. But for me the one-on-one connection is so meaningful. Let’s say we are sitting in my office, and somebody will throw down a card – they’ll hint at something real that’s going on in life that’s hard. And then I can throw down a card, too. I think I’ve been where you’ve been, and then they’ll throw down another card that reveals a little more of what’s going on. And then all of a sudden, you have this huge conversation. It’s not that everybody ends in tears or anything like that. But these are some of those more impactful moments. I’m not that much older than everyone, so it’s recent enough that I remember what it was like going through a lot of these same stages. I really like being able to walk through that with my students. And it gives a silver lining to having gone through hard things in life –you know, the things that have nothing to do with your job or the superficial things that are easier to talk about than the things of depth.
Any favorite memories with your MBA students?
My favorite memory is when the class of 2024 came to my house, my actual home in the suburbs, in pouring rain, in the middle of rush hour traffic – it probably took everyone an hour to get there. The reason why this is one of my favorite memories is because it felt so comfortable. My kids loved it and my spouse asked if we could do that again with your class. It’s really touching that people would want to come and see what my life is like.
How’s your teaching influenced by instructional best practices?
I have this ace up my sleeve, known as my brother, who has a master’s in teaching. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My grandmother was a college professor. So maybe it’s a bit in my DNA. But, more importantly, I have people I can go to and ask very practical questions. My brother has watched my lecture recordings and told me exactly where I should change things, experiment with other things. I have read books, attended seminars, and reviewed student feedback, but getting that coaching from a trained teacher has been the most helpful.
How do you keep the curriculum most relevant to industry needs, and how do you think students can best utilize what they learn from your course in their careers?
When I was creating the statistics class, I had an issue where there were two different competing skill sets I wanted to offer. One was how to be a great business executive, and that’s really around asking the right questions and structuring the work effectively. And then the second set was how to tactically do the work because a lot of MBAs will have to actually do the analysis for a bit, and then they rise up to being the business executive. And so, instead of trying to just keep it theoretical and more CEO level, I decided to keep both halves in class at the same time. That’s why I always wanted to have some form of synthesis in every single class, so that it got back to how, as an executive, would you ask the right questions and present the results? Because at the end of the day, if you can’t speak to what’s going on in your answer, you’re not adding that much value.
I really love our textbook because it’s focused on business applications. I have found other textbooks can be focused on math tricks like finding the probability of picking certain colors of marbles from a bag – which is not relevant in a business context. I want to talk about something that will actually happen to a business leader and keep it focused on business math and so I think that’s where my background’s been really helpful. I teach things that I’ve actually used and apply it to issues that are going on right now.
What advice do you have for students to do well in your class, and how do you think they can best utilize the learnings from your class in their careers?
The best way to do well in my class is by putting in the work. If you’re feeling lost, come to me. There’s no way that you’re alone in your feelings. I would like to know so that I can reiterate learning in certain areas, or present the topic in a different way to make it click.
Engaging in class is also helpful for solidifying learning. Students that are brave enough to answer a question, even if it’s a wrong answer, help the class because we can talk about it. We can dissect a wrong answer, then rebuild it to a correct one.
The other thing I like is applying concepts we learn in class to a philosophical view of humanity. Apply things we learn to how you view yourself – not as good or bad, but rather on a continuum like the normal distribution. We’ll have a handful of great days, a handful of horrible days, but the majority of days will just be normal days. This helps provide a bit more perspective on life.
What keeps you busy outside of Foster?
I’d like to say my number one job is CEO of my children, because I’m obsessed with them, and so I turn into a pumpkin at 3pm. My top hobby might be just staring at them to see what on earth they are going to do next.
I also do some consulting on the side and occasionally I get those emails about whether I want to “come back to work.” I find that funny because I am working, so it’s interesting how industry views academia. It’s really fun when I do these consulting gigs, and it’s good to stay up to date about what’s going on in the industry. So it’s been helpful to keep that side alive as well.