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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Costis Maglaras

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In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by Columbia Business School Dean, Costis Maglaras, as they discuss the future of higher education, the new 'global economic order', and why he says humanity's response to climate change will 'change the world'.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDY SERWER: In this episode of "Influencers," dean of the Business School at Columbia University, Costis Maglaras.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: We're here to train professionals, managers, people that are sort of well equipped to be able to thrive within the digital future that you and I live in. If you ask me what's gonna change the world in the next 75 years, it's gonna be our collective response to climate change.

All of these things are gonna be center stage both for businesses, for business education, for our economy, and for our society over the next half a century.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Costis Maglaras, Dean of the Business School at Columbia University. Dean Maglaras, welcome. Nice to see you.

There seems to be some controversy about getting an MBA and the value of an MBA. I mean, it's always been out there, but maybe with all this talk about the cost of undergraduate and, of course, in this case, graduate school education, some people are calling into question how valuable an MBA really is. How would you respond to that Dean Maglaras?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: So I think I'll make two comments, but I'll first start from your question directly. I think getting an MBA has been and continues to be an incredibly good investment-- investment of time and also financial investment. You get incredible training that launches you into, I think, a very good professional career path. That continues to be true.

In a time of change like the one that we have experienced in the last two years and I think the one that we'll be experiencing over the next decade or two, it is itself a good place to actually go retool and relaunch into ambitious career path. So I think the case for the value offered by an MBA is as strong as it has ever been and will continue to be strong.

Separately what we do here is we try to make an effort to control the cost of an MBA degree, either by keeping the costs down for our students. And I want to mention that at our school and some other schools as well, tuition right now is 5% lower than it was three years ago in real terms, right?

So we're bringing tuition down. Separately, we're increasing financial aid that we're giving to our students to make education affordable, and simultaneously we're trying to make sure the value of the degree continues to be as strong as possible.

ANDY SERWER: Maybe jumping off that point and this is sort of a flip side question, and forgive me if this is sort of like, you know, Costis, can't win for trying here, our MBAs too successful. In other words, you look at the starting salaries of people coming out of business school and I think that-- what was it? Columbia in excess of 170, is that correct? That's a lot of money. And are you concerned that MBAs exacerbate inequality in our society even?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Well, no. But I do think that MBA students that come through our programs and other programs need to become socially responsible leaders. And that's an emphasis in our curriculum while people are here in the school, but also in emphasis when we're talking to our alumni.

We have a role to play-- you, me, and certainly, our alums that sort of lead very successful professional lives to really think about the role of businesses within society and sort of try to alleviate the tensions that we are experiencing today. So I think I don't think MBA students or graduates amplify inequality, but I do think they should be part of the solution to that problem.

ANDY SERWER: You have I think kind of a nontraditional background when it comes to being the dean in a business school. You have a double E, a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford. How does that inform you when it comes to running a business school?

[LAUGHTER]

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Yeah. The joke that I used to say when I became dean three years ago is that 15 years ago or 10 years ago, it would have been too early for an engineer to run a business school. But the world has been changing through technology, through data, through algorithms, things that are sort of native to what I do. And I think it makes sense to attempt to transform education to really prepare students for the digital future. So I think in that sense, I'm very well prepared to do what we're trying to do.

In addition to having a PhD in electrical engineering, I have been on the faculty for about 25 years here at the business school, so I obviously understand what we do reasonably well to be able to marry the two things. But I do think that starting in the beautiful state of New Jersey in around the late 1940s with two inventions-- the invention of the transistor and the invention-- the blueprint of what we now call digital communication, these two things 75 years into the future have really transformed our lives.

They have changed every aspect how we work, how you and I communicate today, how businesses work, every industry, and in that sense they need and there have been transforming business education. And that's a little bit of the-- I would say the rationale of the nontraditional background as you mentioned.

ANDY SERWER: Right. And having said that, of course, you can't just have a pure say electrical engineering or technical background because it must be integrated with other processes and the other ways of running a business, correct?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, we're not here to train engineers, we're here to train professionals, managers, people that are sort of well equipped to be able to thrive within the digital future that you and I live in.

ANDY SERWER: And you don't have an MBA. Is that typical or atypical of a dean of a business school?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Most people don't have MBAs. I mean, most people have PhDs in their own discipline if they come through the sort of the faculty ranks, which is a majority of the people in the top schools, I would say. But depending on whether you studied economics or finance or management or marketing, you're closer to an MBA education than, let's say, the things that I was doing when I was a PhD student.

But, you know, you learn all the time and you adopt. And I think in some sense, it's not an impediment. It is important though to understand really business education, what do our students do, what they're interested to do when they're here, and to really move the school to best address these needs.

ANDY SERWER: I want to talk about that a little bit more of what they do, but first, another question or two about your background. Another thing that differentiates you from say most business school deans in the United States is your international background. You grew up in Greece and you studied in England, how does that inform your thinking?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Well, I think for us here at Columbia and for me personally, it's important to have a truly international look. This is also natural for us located in New York. Our alumni-- our students come from all sorts of corners in the world. Our alumni go and sort of become business leaders all around the world.

I think it's important for us to understand global business. I think it's important for us to understand things that have to do with globalization, right now about US-China. Like, I mean, in some sense, we need to be both open and continuously refining our understanding of the global economic world order.

And I think I'm trying to certainly to move the school in that direction. We've been doing a very good job for decades in that area but, you know, I think it's important for all of us to continue to do that.

ANDY SERWER: What is your thinking though about say anti-globalism which is sort of the real trend right now? I mean, we've seen of course globalism since World War II, but now we're seeing sliding back to nationalism, particularly when it comes to the US-China relationship and, of course, there are many fewer Chinese students right now at Columbia University. What's your take on that?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: I think within our business school, we haven't seen a reduction of students coming from mainland China, but we never had a disproportionate number of students coming from mainland China.

I think through COVID and through the political tension that has emerged in the last 4 or 5, 6 years between US and China, we have entered a sort of a new phase in that relationship. I do believe that relationship is gonna be one of the defining things that will continue to consume us over the next several decades.

You started with the second such topic, which is societal tension, inequality, and things of that sort. I think that's another topic that is gonna consume us for quite some time. And the third one in my view is gonna be climate change. But all of these things are gonna be center stage both for businesses, for business education, for our economy, and for our society over the next half a century.

ANDY SERWER: Let me pick up on that climate change point and ask you a little bit more about that because you have a climate change in business program at the school, what specifically is that and how does it tackle climate change?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Good. Great question and I'll try to keep it short. That's a passion of ours. I mentioned earlier that we have been 75 years into the trajectory of the digital future, so to speak. And if you ask me what's gonna change the world in the next 75 years, it's gonna be our collective response to climate change.

And it's gonna change the energy sector. Of course, transportation, food, agriculture, manufacturing, and supply chains. Every aspect of our lives is gonna be transformed, every industry, every business, et cetera. So we need to certainly train our students for that.

So our work I would say focuses on three areas. Curriculum. So build out the curriculum and scale it up. It used to be that there were only 50 students interested in that area, like, even half a decade ago. Right now there are hundreds.

So we're building up curriculum in areas of climate finance and asset pricing and risk, in the area of climate strategy. I think a lot of work will have to do with how do you transition to net zero if you're a company, if you're a state, if you're a country. And so we're working on strategy courses, we're working on consumer behavior, which is important about how you and I think about this issue and change our own decisions and actions. And then analytics, manufacturing, supply chains, efficiency-driven thinking.

So curriculum is one. The other thing is research. And we're investing in areas that we're good-- climate finance, strategy, consumer behavior again, and climate analytics and sustainable operations.

And the third thing that I think we have a role to play and we're investing quite a bit is create an initiative to disseminate information about the areas that we understand the most. And that has to do with developments again in asset pricing valuation and climate finance. You know, how do you help practitioners, business leaders, policymakers understand these questions? How do you curate information about solutions and technology? An area that we're importing from engineering.

We have a clean tech course for example where we bring people from engineering to teach about carbon capture and about solar and about battery and about wind. So in some ways, create an area where you come in to actually learn and learn about how technologies and how business models are changing companies and how companies are actually affecting this transition.

ANDY SERWER: I'm curious about what kinds of jobs students have been getting and will be getting with this type of education that pertains specifically to climate change.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: So if you step back and you ask yourself, where do our students go right now? A third of our students are going to consulting. Now, what do consulting firms do? I would say about half of what consulting firms do right now is what I call digital transformation projects. They go to every company in the world and try to tell them how to become more digital and more sophisticated in that area.

What will consulting firms do over the next several decades? I'm pretty sure they're gonna be helping companies, countries, states, municipalities transition to net zero. So most of our students will go into consulting. They will continue going into consulting and they will see that most of the work that they're doing over the next several decades is gonna be climate folks. So that's one.

We have a lot of students who are going into banking, they're going to asset management. A lot of that will end up being influenced by what's happening in the climate transition journey as it pertains into asset management and investments and risk and also banking.

Then we have people that are going to startups and a lot of them are gravitating towards clean tech solution-oriented companies. I don't know whether you know of a company called Beyond Meat that makes plant-based burgers. So Ethan Brown is one of our graduates that started that company right after he graduated from the business school. And there are many others. So there are several people that go into that space.

And then finally, if you and I go to work at GM or Ford or an apparel manufacturer, a Nike or what have you, the reality is that over time transitioning these companies to being net zero will be part of the toolkit that you need to bring to your job.

So I actually think that this education will not just be pertinent to the person that starts Beyond Meat or the next one. It will be pertinent to pretty much every single one of our graduates because either they will be investing in these companies or helping companies transition or they will work for these companies or it will be, you know, they will be helping their employer, GM, Tesla, what have you to sort of transition themselves.

So I think it's gonna be pervasive the same way technology and being trained to thrive in the digital future is itself pervasive to our students.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

ANDY SERWER: That's a great explanation in terms of how it's become fundamental and core to all these different types of jobs and careers. I want to ask you sort of an adjacent question, which is about enhancing students' skill sets so they're prepared for jobs of tomorrow. And I think some of that you just spoke to, but are there new business models and new forms of technologies and new ways of integrating both of those that you're keen on?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Yeah. I'll give you three examples-- one is personal but the other ones are not. So six or seven years ago, we decided to introduce a course for our students specifically designed for business school students to teach them how to program. And in particular, we selected Python.

We said we're gonna teach students to code in Python with the idea that they're not gonna become programmers, but they're gonna understand what programming is about and will understand algorithmic thinking and they will all understand how to collaborate with people that are programmers or data scientists that work in their teams.

At this point in time, about 2/3 of our students are taking this course. We have 500 students taking Python when they come through the business school program. So it's becoming sort of necessary skill not to be a programmer yourself, but to really know how to collaborate, manage, and then lead people that are data scientists or developers or user experience experts, UI/UX individuals, creative folks, and there's a whole suite of courses in that area.

The second thing, which is a course that a friend of mine developed, Daniel Ames, is to really train people how to behave in cross-functional teams. Had you finished the business school program 15 years ago and went to work in a consulting firm, you would find yourself in a room surrounded by people like you. There will be other MBA graduates-- some from Columbia, some from other schools, and will all work together to solve some kind of client question or problem.

If you go to the same consulting firm today and you look at the composition of the team around you, it will have a couple of data scientists, it will have a UI/UX expert, you may have a developer, and you may have two MBA types.

And so you need to be trained to work and collaborate in this cross-functional environment. So what we're doing is both through simulation exercises-- that's what Daniel is doing, and through mixing populations, bringing business school students together with engineering students and people from design try to sort of create this experiential learning framework to really prepare people for what's gonna happen when they leave the school.

The third thing is we try to bring import expertise from engineering, for example. So I'm gonna co-teach a class with the dean of the school of engineering, Shi-Fuh Chan. And we'll see through the idea here is we're gonna sort of take breakthrough technologies and we're gonna walk through our students, sort of we're gonna start with deep learning and neural networks and explain the basic, explain where they've been applied successfully, bring investors in to have a final conversation and talk about what's happening now, what do we think is gonna happen in 3, 5, 10 years from now.

And we're gonna do it for deep learning, we're gonna do it for AI and robotics, vision and imaging, photonics, blockchains, and also think about digital urban cities like ours, like New York,

So the third and last example is really try to sort of make our students cognizant of the sort of technological breakthroughs that are changing today. But in some sense, they may have the ability to really transform what's happening in the next 3, 5 10 years.

So tech and analytics, foundational skills, experiential learning to integrate it the way you would be exposed at work, and then the last thing also talk about the future.

ANDY SERWER: Great. Let me ask you a two-part question Dean Maglaras and that is about the economy and students and trends. Are you seeing any weakness given what's going on in the market, talk of recession, in terms of job offers, rescinded job offers, salaries, A. And then B, what about slightly longer-term trends, say with regard to students being wary of going to big tech firms given those conversations, or Wall Street? So they're kind of different questions, but I'm putting them together.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Yeah. So we haven't seen a significant sort of concern yet about the students who just graduated about offers being sort of pulled back or economics of the people that are getting offers right now being not as good as the people that got offers two months ago. But I do think we're gonna see more of that.

I think the startup space is the place where we're gonna see some of that happening. In some sense, companies that are not themselves yet significantly profitable will have to get into a mindset of conserving cash. So making whatever liquidity they have last longer in anticipation of, you know, what may be happening in the next, you know, 6, 12, 18, 24 months. And that may translate into a reduction of opportunities to join these companies.

So I think that's an area that we're gonna-- you hear about it and you read about it, but I think that's gonna play out over the next 3, 6, 12 months for sure.

I think switching to your question about big company recruiting-- tech firms, I imagine you were talking about Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google rather than startups. I believe there is continues to be strong appetite to join these companies the same way that there has always been and continues to be strong appetite to join big banks to do investment banking or asset management or careers of that sort.

I think that what we see in our students and we see more now than we used to see in the past is that they like to join what they call purpose-driven organizations. And I do believe that a lot of them will try to sort of put that in their calculation about whether do I want to go and work for company X if they engage in this type of activity versus I want to go somewhere else. And I think, you know, we're gonna see more of that in the future.

ANDY SERWER: Final question, Dean, and that is I've got to ask you to talk a little bit about your new campus. I know you're so proud of it in Manhattanville. You've committed on the building's unique designs, or commented, I should say, and particularly the amount of shared space for students. Why are those spaces so important and what else do you really like about this new facility?

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Well, it has been long in the making, so we love it. That is now over and done, but yeah, the space looks and functions like a modern-- if you go to a modern business building you see that work is much more social, it's much more collaborative. We don't all go to our unique offices and work by ourselves, but a lot of times the work happens in teams.

So this is something that is pervasive in these buildings. You see breakout rooms and study rooms for student, teams, and conference rooms. So in some sense, that's sort of embedded everywhere in the buildings. The other thing is that I think is new for us is flexible classrooms.

So we have classrooms that can be sort of like peer lectures. You can arrange things in a tiered form. But you can also rearrange things in a way that is as if people are working in groups of 4 or 6 or 8 people. So, you know, I can come into the class. I can lecture for 20 minutes and I can say, OK, let's not all work on idea X within your team, and let's try to do A and B, and let's regroup in 25 minutes and see where we're at. And then people sort of huddled together, working their teams.

And this is hard to do in an amphitheater, right? So we have also rooms that are conducive to this sort of experiential teaching. There's a lot of light, which is also something that is a staple of modern buildings, and there is room for expansion.

So in some sense, it's a wonderful change. And interestingly, I'm not an architect, but people talk about how design and architecture really changes how people feel and their level of ambition, and how they act. And you can see it like you see it in the students, you see it in our faculty, and on our staff.

So I think it's good to be here and we'll look forward to a bright and ambitious future.

ANDY SERWER: In a post-pandemic environment as well.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Of course.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: That's for sure.

ANDY SERWER: Yes. Costis Maglaras, Dean of the Business School at Columbia University. Thank you so much for joining us.

COSTIS MAGLARAS: Andy, thank you very much for having me.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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