Foster Finance & Machine Learning Faculty Spotlight – Thomas Gilbert

Get to know Foster’s Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics Thomas Gilbert, who teaches core MBA Finance and the elective course Machine Learning in Business.

Thomas Gilbert in halloween costume

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, surrounded by mountains and chocolate. And now you know my favorite hobby, climbing mountains, as well as my greatest weakness, a sweet tooth. Having realized that I would not become pope or Indiana Jones, I studied physics at Imperial College in London, hoping to one day move back to Geneva to smash particles together at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research). But life’s coincidences took me to investment banking and finance. After completing my Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, I became a professor at Foster and have been here ever since. My three sons keep me very busy but there is nothing better than skiing the Alpental backcountry with your kids.

Tommy G with his sons

 

What excites you about your subject area and what are some of your research interests?

Economics, finance, and business in general are core to the world we live in. As a result, I love reading about it, thinking about it, teaching it, and writing about it. My research has mostly been focused on the impact of macroeconomic announcements, such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and inflation, on the financial markets. But I also wrote papers on why universities invest their endowments in the financial markets and why corporations invest their cash in the financial markets. Keen students can quickly find two op-eds that my colleague Chris Hrdlicka and I wrote in the Wall Street Journal on those topics. There is nothing like throwing oil on the fire!

 

Which factors influenced your decision to join UW Foster?

Seattle is a great place to live and is in many respects similar to Geneva: mountains, water, seasons, big companies but not too big of a city. I really liked the congeniality of the school and the open-door policy – the dean told me I could stop by any time if I wanted to discuss something that could make the school better – you cannot do that at Harvard.

Tommy G climbing mountains

 

What do you find meaningful about your time thus far at Foster?

I think that I have helped generations of MBA students with no prior knowledge of finance get excited about the topic, or at least realize that there is nothing to be scared of in finance. Even if you want to be director of marketing, you will have to talk to the CFO and so you must be able to talk finance. When a student who wants to do sustainability at Starbucks becomes Director of Finance at Nike, I get a big smile on my face. When a veteran becomes a financial advisor at Goldman Sachs, my smile becomes even bigger. I like that, because we are not too big of a school, anyone can make a difference and have a lasting impact at Foster.

 

How does your work align with Foster’s purpose? Purpose statement: Together…We Foster Leaders; We Foster Insights; We Foster Progress…To Better Humanity.

Thinking is hard and thinking about difficult and controversial topics is even harder, let alone talking about it in the classroom. But to better humanity, we cannot shy away from hard things. I push students to question the status quo and not take the latest fad as given. In my core class, we read Milton Friedman not because I am trying to push an agenda but because the students are the future leaders and they need to understand the foundation they are stepping on to build a better world.

 

How have you worked to make your classroom/course curriculum inclusive?

Since my first day teaching at Foster, when I was young and had hair on my head, I used the pronoun “she” for the CFO and CEO. There are not enough women at the top of the corporate ladder and I am a staunch supporter of breaking that glass ceiling.

 

Any favorite memories from your experience with Full-Time MBAs/Evening MBAs? 

As a strong supporter of C4C, I once agreed to be pied if the students raised a certain amount of dollars by a certain date. This really motivated one particular alumni who got to smash one big pie of whipped cream on my face.

 

How have you supported students outside the classroom? 

While I am still waiting for a board seat and equity in the startups that you are all creating, every year, right before graduation, I teach an evening event to the graduating MBAs on the NPV (Net Present Value) of buy versus rent. Blue dots always attend and it is a fun and insightful way to wrap up the 2/3 years we have spent learning together.

 

How is your teaching influenced by instructional best practices?

Organization, content relevance, and enthusiasm. In my opinion, these are the pillars of effective teaching and I try to continuously adjust things to thrive for an amazing classroom experience.

 

How do you maximize learning and keep students engaged?

I wear a suit and tie every day and cold call students who are shy!

 

Are you currently doing work outside of Foster that influences what happens in the classroom?

As a Scholar at Amazon, where I spend one day per week helping teach non-technical managers about AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning), I have learned a lot about how large companies make decisions and educate their workforce to stay competitive.

 

Are there components of your elective that can help students build their resume?  

In my “Machine Learning in Business” elective, the quarter-long team-based project is a key learning component where students have to apply their skills and knowledge to solving a real business problem using machine learning. I would hope that this is something that students would be comfortable sharing with an employer to showcase their skills.

 

How will students apply the knowledge and skills they gain in your classroom in their careers?

Even though machine learning has been around for 20+ years, AI is now truly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Managers have to embrace it and know what problems they can solve with it. At the same time, my core finance class lowers the barrier for all students to embrace the topic since, as managers, they will have to talk finance to get their projects funded. 

 

What advice do you have for students to ace your course/s?

Be curious. Take risks. Do not be afraid of data and some basic coding. You can build a neural network with three lines of Python!

 

Any tips for incoming MBAs on how they can brush up on skills/knowledge over the summer? 

The MBA, and especially the first quarter of the MBA, is an intense experience. Rest, have fun, go outdoors.