University of Wisconsin – Madison, Ph.D., Marketing and Sociology
Colorado State University – M.S., Marketing
Boise State University – B.B.A., Marketing
Teaching and technology is what makes Regents Professor Jakki Mohr tick. A senior faculty member in the University of Montana School of Business Administration, she’s built her career on being at the forefront of marketing high tech products and services. In fact, she’s received international acclaim for her educational book also authored by Sanjit Sengupta and Stanley Slater, Marketing of High Technology Products and Innovations, which is currently in its third edition and used by universities around the world.
Jakki’s awards stack high. She’s a national award-winning researcher who has appeared in numerous marketing, management and retailing journals. In addition, she’s served as a guest teacher in universities spanning Switzerland and Finland to India and France; even teaching as a Fulbright Specialist at ORT University in Montevideo, Uruguay. You can also add the 2008 Outstanding Marketing Teacher Award and the 2005 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching “Montana Professor of the Year.” And her students agree on these accolades, deciding themselves to vote for her as the UM’s most Inspirational Teacher of the Year in 2002.
Currently, Jakki teaches anywhere between 80 and 120 students per semester, and focuses her research time on biomimicry — innovations inspired by nature, based on underlying biological mechanisms — to solve challenges in the tech and engineering fields.
I find that if you’re authentic, people respond to you because it’s what they want.
What were you like as a college student?
I grew up in Boise, Idaho and did my undergrad at Boise State University. When I graduated from college, I was in the paradoxical position of being one of the top 10 graduates at the university that year. I received a national award from the Wall Street Journal for being an outstanding business graduate, but the year I graduated, interest rates were at 14%, unemployment rates were skyrocketing and here I was, a top graduate, and I couldn’t find a job anywhere. It was devastating, but fortunately, I had decided that at some point in my future I wanted to get a Master’s degree.
So, rather than waitressing more tables or teaching swimming lessons another couple of years while looking for a job, I decided to go right on to graduate school.
Did you have an internship while you were in college?
During my senior year, I had an internship at the Hewlett-Packard plant in Boise. It was the plant where they make laser printers. I worked at the purchasing desk there and my line-up of products was wires, if you can believe it! I focused on all sorts of wires used in the fabrication process.
I loved working at HP and loved the culture, but I didn’t get a job there after my internship because there were no open positions. However, I chose the graduate program at Colorado State University, where there were two HP plants, and had my heart set on working at HP with my Master’s degree. When I graduated from CSU, I reached out to one of our class speakers who lived in Silicon Valley and worked at HP. (In those days we didn’t have email, so I sent him a letter with my resume.) I got two offers from HP. One came from Silicon Valley in the Cupertino plant, which had 14,000 employees on site. The other came from the Fort Collins, Colorado office. Even though I loved the Rocky Mountains, I thought it would be such a unique opportunity to go into the heart of where the tech industry was happening.
What was that experience like?
I lived and worked in Silicon Valley for a period of time and although I liked it, I always felt a bit like a fish out of water — I viewed myself as this rural farm girl. And while I really liked California, it just wasn’t who I was in terms of displays of ownership. For a marketing person, you would think that’s kind of hypocritical! But, it just wasn’t who I was.
I found my job interesting, but it wasn’t as intellectually challenging as I would have liked and I was very impatient. So, I went ahead and applied to a Ph.D. program, thinking more education would never hurt. Looking back, I think that no matter how great one thinks they are, they still have to pay their dues. But after a very short amount of time, I left to pursue my Ph.D. I just loved teaching, academic research and the college environment.
Now as a professor yourself, how do you organize your day and divide your time between teaching, research and other projects?
I divide my week into chunks. The first chunk is my teaching days. I teach two days a week, usually Tuesday and Thursday, and generally teach between three and six hours on those two days, depending on my course load.
On these days, I get up around 6:30 a.m. for a run or walk. I believe that the key to happiness in life is being outdoors every day. Then I typically arrive at my office to get organized for my class day. “Organized” is a relative statement for me, because if anyone looks in my office, they would say it’s the epitome of disorganization. I call it planned spontaneity.
I have a loose structure and agenda because I’m driven by current events and gauging the mood of the students. If the students aren’t eager to be doing something, then I have to find a way to hook them into learning or I’m not being effective. So, I have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, which sounds crazy, but it does work, because you must be authentic in the classroom. Just as I gauge their interest, if I’m having a bad day, I know it’s okay to say to my students, “You guys, I’m having a bad day and today I’m just going to need you to humor me.” I find that if you’re authentic, people respond to you because it’s what they want.
On my non-teaching days, which are typically Monday and Wednesday, I make a point to block out my mornings from about 9 a.m. until noon to work from home. These days are spent grading and evaluating student work or reading and doing research so I can stay topical in my discipline. Also, to stay credible in the classroom requires a certain amount of interaction with businesses. So I also spend these mornings making sure I have my fingers in the business community to maintain my credibility and relevance, because that’s hard to maintain.
Then, I try to schedule the majority of my campus meetings on the afternoons these days. Again, getting university business done also is a people thing. It’s not like you send an email and magic happens. You cultivate relationships make sure people are informed, etc. I like playing a behind-the-scenes role where I’m cultivating and part of that work has been fundraising. I’ve raised the soft money for our sustainability certificate and our marketing analytics curriculum, so reaching out to donors is a sensitive and important part of my work.
That leaves Friday, which is my day to focus on academic research. My work days are very long, and if we have recruiting, commencement or advisory board meetings, then my workweek will go into the weekend as well. And I always have grading every Sunday before school starts. So, people who have this idealized notion of the life of a professor, realize it’s awesome and I get to travel a lot, but it’s also a constant battle of prioritization.
How did you balance advancing your career while also raising your kids when they were young?
I allocate one hour every single day for my own physical and mental health. I do have some people who say, “This is so extravagant of you.” But it’s not. An hour a day to myself is what I need to have sanity. Taking care of myself allows me to keep going. It was really hard to have this as a priority when my children were young. I think that women have a special kind of challenge in taking care of themselves, especially when they have young children.
When my kids were younger, I’d go running at noon and put them both in the baby jogger – rain or shine, 90-degrees or 60-degrees. I remember that they would kind of whine and say, “I don’t want to go.” But I made sure to tell them that this was Mom’s time and that they get a lot of things for themselves. I felt like I was a better mother for having that “me” time.
Also, when my kids were home, we always had a family sit-down dinner. I had a nanny who helped me get dinner things prepared so that when I walked in, I could actually enjoy my kids rather than be kind of not available to them.
What is the focus of your research right now?
One of the things I study in the tech world is helping communities be sustainable in the sense of lessening their environmental impacts. People think tech companies are clean companies. That might be true for software, but software runs on hardware and chip manufacturing. Machining, the e-waste associated with any sort of information technology product, is not as environmentally friendly as everyone thinks and a lot of chemicals are used, too.
On top of that, established tech companies have what some people call the “innovator’s dilemma” or “incumbent’s curse” where tech companies are often successful because they were leaders in one generation of technology, but then as new technology comes on the scene, it’s very difficult for those companies to switch gears quickly enough to also be a leader in the next generation. Intel, for example, is known for “Intel inside” or the chip inside your computers that make them run. As a society, we’ve all migrated to smart phones and Intel is far behind in making chips for smart phones. The leader in that space is Qualcomm, so this innovator’s dilemma is something that requires successful tech companies to always be open to creative inspiration without being overly invested in their initial tech success story.
Montana is home to the international headquarters of the Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry is essentially a protocol used by companies to both generate creative inspiration from nature, as well as create innovators who are in harmony with the environment. I learned about biomimicry five years ago while I was writing the third edition of my book. As the author of a book in tech marketing, it’s my job to ensure we’re always on the bleeding edge of technology, so my co-authors and I work to see what we think is going to be hot five years from when our book comes out. We’re essentially placing bets on the future.
I heard the founder of the Biomimicry Guild, Janine Benyus, speak at a wilderness and conservation lecture on campus and I was totally taken with this whole notion about how she was using this protocol to help companies innovate. I made a decision at the time that I was going to be the business academic who really understood this phenomenon inside out. So, since 2008 my research stream has focused on large Fortune 500 companies that use biomimicry in their product development and innovation process.
What qualities does it take for a student to stand out in your eyes?
I generally find that there are two types of students that stand out. One group that stands out is those students who really struggle with traditional academic learning. My son is a non-traditional academic learner. Watching him struggle with his schoolwork from the time he was five years old has made me so empathetic to kids who are working hard to succeed in a very rigid, one-dimensional academic environment. These students want to do well, but because they have a different learning need or style, the system just doesn’t allow them to flourish.
I frequently get tutors for those students either out of my own pocket, by partnering them with other students or by using my TA, because I find that sometimes they just need someone who can help them figure out what it is that they need to succeed. I find that those students go really far because all they want is someone to recognize them for their idiosyncrasies. It’s not that they’re dumb; it’s just that they need something different. Often times, I’ll go out on a limb for these students because I don’t think anyone else has.
On the other end of the spectrum are the real go-getters for whom things tend to come fairly easy, or they’re just so motivated about where they’re going in their lives that they’re a delight to work with. And for good or bad, I have a reputation on campus of being kind of a hard professor, so I think I tend to get some real go-getters who are willing to sign up for my classes. I joke that if someone takes classes from me two or three times, they must be masochists. But I think those students respond to high standards and expectations. I sometimes think we don’t set our standards high enough for our students and we don’t hold them accountable for those standards, either.
What type of student makes the type of impact that prompts you to open your personal network and thus ‘vouch’ for them in their job search?
I open my networks to students who I believe are going to reflect favorably on me. If they’re not at that point yet, I tell them what they need to do in order to allow me to make that introduction for them. Most students know that networks are a form of social capital and you have to treat them carefully, so I don’t think any of them feel bad when I say it’s not quite time yet. If there’s a student who I feel doesn’t have developed interpersonal skills and who may not listen to my feedback, then I’ll suggest that perhaps they have another professor they can reach out to. Sometimes I’m direct, but even when I am, I often feel these students really have potential and they just have to find the faculty member that connects with them.
How do you feel about serving as a mentor for many of your students?
I enjoy my office hours a lot. When students come in, they’re sometimes anxious about talking to a professor. For me, teaching is about relationships and you really only build those relationships in the office, where you can get to know them. Over the years, if I have a student who takes more than one class from me, I can become a mentor or role model to them. I’ve been invited to weddings. I receive birth announcements. It’s important to me to build those bonds at a vital, kind of vulnerable time in their lives. Being in college and trying to take that step into being a professional is daunting.
What is something our readers might not realize about working as a professor?
People have this idealized version of what it means to be a professor. You work very hard in this role. To me it’s just work I love and I’m excited about it. So, even though the hours, days — and the weekends — can be long, the only thing that really ever wears on me is the grading. And I always say that the day I stop giving my students written work is the day I should stop, because the only way to learn to write and think is by actually doing it!