“The most insightful and successful people are insightful and successful specifically because they are able to look at other disciplines besides their own and draw insights from other places”, Lee Huang, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and a senior vice president at Econsult Solutions, says as he sat down with me.
AA: Professor, how would you define ‘education’?
LH: It is about learning both the information as well as the context. In economics terms, education is defined as “positive externality” which means when people get educated, they provide a spillover benefit to society. That’s why it’s so important to support education.
AA: Since you mentioned education being the information as well as the context, can I say education is external but also internal at the same time?
LH: Education is information that needs to be internalized in terms of understanding the context. It is a tool that helps you to interpret the information. Therefore, there is always that storytelling side to education. And you have to learn to tell the story using the information.
For example, when we are hiring technically skilled interns and analysts at Econsult Solutions, we look for students who can draw out the story behind the data. Because what we do here at Econsult Solutions is not only to crunch data but to use the data to tell the story of what is happening and what is going to happen in finance, economics and to society.
So, technical skills and storytelling is one package. I say this because one of the things that many people in higher education are wrestling with right now is that “Pre-professional education vs liberal arts.”And that only happens when people think of education from a return on investment standpoint.
For example, a student pays to go to college, and the return is to get a job. And they realize that the best way to get a job is to take pre-professional tracks. So, the student is faced against the choice of “STEM vs Liberal Arts.” However, the return on investment that we receive from education should not be only to get a job. Because education is a lifetime investment. There are broader aspects of education that we need to address as well.
AA: When we address the issue of education, the topic of prestige also comes to the picture. What do you think about the interconnection between prestige and education? Where do they cross?
LH: Most of the times the entire education became less about educating yourself and more about status and signaling. Prestige is important in higher education because part of what people associate the degree with is the status that is confirmed upon that. There are many ongoing discussions on that.
AA: Since we are talking about education, what affected you to pursue business?
LH: I was fortunate to be able to afford to go to college. I knew I wanted to think like a businessman but I did not want to go into business for the sake of going into business. There was a blur spot between business and nonprofit which I was interested in. I started wondering if I can apply business language in a nonprofit setting and vice versa.
So, at Penn, I augmented the rigorous business curriculum with many liberal arts classes. As a result, I felt more informed as a person. My first job out of college was at a nonprofit. I used everything I learned in business school to help run that nonprofit.
AA: You wanted to think like a businessman but you did not want to go to business for the sake of it. How did you figure that out as a student? Because most times, career paths are often blurry.
LH: The notion of a career path is somewhat of a misleading analogy because career path connotes that there is a path that you can see and your job is to just go down that path.
And in reality, the world is a lot messier than that. I had a strong sense of direction of where I wanted to go. But I did not know where life was going to take me. So I made a decision to choose the general path where I felt comfortable in.
It is always better to know the general direction of where you want to go. And you can start by taking a step in that direction. Because that step helps you to clarify your next step.
AA: In the future, which academic field do you think will be more important?
LH: Firstly, we are swimming in data and we have an unprecedented thirst for understanding that data. We started asking harder questions and those questions require more substantial analysis in order to bring out insights. So in a variety of fields, being able to play the role of the translator is important.
A skill that can use data to provide insight on very complex interdisciplinary issues is going to be extremely valuable in the future in a variety of settings. In other words, having data analyst skills.
Another answer to your question is, I came to appreciate the importance of history. I firmly believe that history will help us to make better decisions.
For example, gentrification is a very explosive and controversial subject in cities all around the country. There is an economic and historical aspect to this issue. But if you don’t know the history of gentrification, you cannot participate in discussions in a broader way.
AA: Then why are a lot of universities and colleges are cutting history out of their programs?
LH: I think it is coming from a misread of the market place. The market wants a STEM-educated workforce so people think that they can strip away languages, history, and literature. But I believe that there is still room for a holistic approach to a college degree.
AA: What do you mean by a holistic approach to a college degree?
LH: For example, I went to undergraduate business school at Penn. It is a very pre-professional track. A lot of my classmates wanted to take as many business classes as possible during their four years. When I was studying there, my statistics professor was very much a renaissance man.
Even though he taught in Wharton Business school, he used to say “While you are in school, take as many nonbusiness classes as you can, take science, take literature, take history.” And my classmates would say, “I want to work in Wall Street, in investment banking, why should I take sociology or English?”
So, he told us that one of the most famous finance equations, the Black Scholes model for pricing assets is based on a physics calculation. And the people who won the noble prize for this equation came up with it because they had a physics background and knew the interplay between physics equations and their applicability to finance.
In other words, the most insightful, successful people in business are insightful and successful, specifically because they are able to look at other disciplines besides business, and draw insights from other places besides business.
That, for me, was a very powerful reminder. I realized I need to see other perspectives in order to be successful in business.
And that’s not only true for individuals, but it’s also true for groups. There is a notion of innovation as a singular work of a sole entrepreneur toddling away in a laboratory. That is an absolute myth. Innovation happens when a diversity of perspectives are working together in diverse settings. And higher education institutions provide that. Universities are an important part of a region’s innovation ecosystem in terms of providing an interdisciplinary mindset.
AA: When it comes to diversity, there is also a space for conflict. How do you manage those different perspectives?
LH: Often times we settle for surface diversity. It means that people make sure the group has diverse perspectives. But having it by itself does not accomplish anything.
Those diverse perspectives need to collide against each other and should be positively influencing each other. Diversity is powerful in a place where people feel safe articulating their perspectives and feel safe saying “I don’t agree or understand your perspective”. Then there is space for learning.
AA: What book currently are you reading?
LH: I am reading a book called “Weapons of Math Destruction”. Have you heard of weapons of mass destruction?
LH: It was a thing during the Iraq war. Anyway, “The Weapons of Math Destruction” is a book written by a data scientist who is cautioning us on how data analytics has been and can be weaponized in ways that are unjust or dehumanizing. I don't agree with everything in the book but I do think that it is a reminder of data not being an entirely objective thing, everything has a bias. So we have to be sure that we collect and crunch data in an informed matter, and that we present the results in an informed matter. People say “Data says this so it is not my opinion, therefore, it is the absolute truth.” But sometimes, even data is tainted by bias. All these things have a human touch.
That's how I am digesting this book.
AA: Thank you for your time, professor.
Lee Huang is a Senior Vice President at Econsult Solutions. Lee received his undergraduate degree in Economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and his Masters of Public Administration from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. He has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, state and local government, strategic planning, and tax policy, and is a sought-after speaker on these and other topics.
He also teaches Quantitative Tools for Consulting class at the University of Pennsylvania.