How a Harvard B-school professor changed his course in the COVID-19 era

BY Mary LowengardJune 04, 2021, 3:00 AM
Celebrity chef Siba Mtongana, the star subject of a class at Harvard B-school | Getty Images

Women in business—specifically women who are “stars”—is an unusual and provocative research specialization, and one that might seem like a topic of interest relegated to academics of the female persuasion. Meet Boris Groysberg, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, a dynamic educator with an off-the-beaten-path specialty: women. In particular, “women stars” in the world of business. 

Groysberg’s research and teaching focus on a variation of that age-old quest (mostly by men) for “what women want.” But instead, he asks: “What makes women successful in business?” 

Groysberg’s elective seminar, How Star Women Succeed, was first offered several years ago. Groysberg then went off to work on related executive education programs at Harvard Business School. He returned in the fall of 2020 and offered to revive this course. Of necessity, it was set up as a Zoom seminar.

This is where it gets interesting. Groysberg compressed the normally semester-long course into just three days in October and November—two full-day sessions and a single half-day. He revamped it considerably to accommodate the virtual platform and format to include cases, lectures, exercises, guest speakers, and expert panelists. And he ended up not only exposing the many complex answers to his question, but also revealing information relevant to conducting a seminar in the middle of a pandemic.

The stars in the Groysberg galaxy

This course examined how women succeed, dissecting how they build successful careers, navigate challenges and opportunities—and leverage their talent effectively. Case studies of “star” businesswomen are featured, amplified by panel discussions among the “stars” and leading chief human relations officers at boldface-name firms, the latter group facilitated by the National Academy of Human Resources, of which Groysberg is a fellow.

This is the only course at Harvard (and likely one of the few on this unusual topic, if not the only, across business schools) that focuses exclusively on female leadership. It features cases with female protagonists, many authored by Groysberg himself.

One unique aspect of the course is demographics. Groysberg says the class has historically been (and continues to be) 95% female. He makes a point of keeping in touch with former students, especially as they themselves become “stars,” to include them in his research universe. And, perhaps not surprisingly, many do.

From these contacts Groysberg has also learned the value of the course for the men who matriculated. “When you are in the minority,” he explains, “it can be life-changing to gain a perspective not available to you in the worlds in which you operate.”

Everything old is new again

For the fall 2020 semester, Groysberg adapted the course to accommodate the pandemic environment. He made sure assignments represented “the world as it was unfolding”—not the world as it had been before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cases were retooled, and Groysberg added two to his syllabus. One case focuses on Siba Mtongana, a rising celebrity chef from South Africa, whose many hats include businesswoman, foodie, first-ever “star” from her country on the television cooking circuit, wife, and mother. And a second is about Jan Swartz, a 1996 Harvard Business School graduate, delving into her role as president of Princess Cruises, a female leader in an industry plunged into the belly of the beast in early 2020 when COVID-19 first appeared. Swartz was recently elevated to president of Holland America Group.

“I made sure my cases represented what was going on in 2020, and then put together panels to allow students to question these ‘stars’ about the different processes,” Groysberg explains. This made class far more relevant and experiential under the circumstances, he believes. And, he maintains, a better student experience than what had been achieved previously, pre-pandemic.

From computer screen to the dinner table

Under ordinary circumstances, assembling an in-person panel of leaders of this caliber would require weeks, if not months of planning, negotiation, and travel arrangements. Suddenly, this impediment vanished.

To be sure, the abrupt move from an in-person to virtual teaching model presented challenges even as it yielded surprising benefits. Groysberg believes his students thrived because of the virtual model, and considers that fall 2020 class one of the best he’s ever taught. He recruited experts from around the globe to speak on panels so compelling, he reports, students invited their parents to sit in. Groysberg embraced this, noting that classroom discussions in several homes transitioned from the computer screen to the dinner table.

“You hear people saying all the time how much they dislike the Zoom classes,” Groysberg laments. “But it’s really apples to oranges; you shouldn’t compare a virtual experience to in-person. It’s completely different, and digital has tremendous advantages.”

These include the simultaneous chat feature, real-time polls, and the ability to attract a diverse group of students and speakers. It is, in fact, “amazing” he says, how it expands and augments the learning experience.

Groysberg’s recent research on gender has been collected in a new book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, published in April. Will he continue to deploy the virtual format given the success of the fall 2020 class? This remains to be determined.