Harvard Professor Laura Huang shares about how to succeed despite the inequality that exists on the planet Earth, how she got her start as an author and how she became a professor at Harvard.
Learn more about Laura at: laurahuang.net
Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang about her forthcoming book, EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage (Portfolio; January 28, 2020). Named one of the 40 Best Business School Professors by Poets & Quants, Huang studies the role of bias and inequality in investor decisions. Her groundbreaking research shows that we all have biases—race, gender, age, ability, and many more—working for and against us.
EDGE is for anyone who has found themselves feeling underestimated and unequipped to deal with a tough situation—so, all of us. Huang melds her groundbreaking research with heartfelt stories to show how all of us can—and indeed, must—create our own advantage.” —Arlan Hamilton, founder, and managing partner of Backstage Capital
Through her deeply researched framework, Huang shows us how we can turn weaknesses into strengths and create an edge in any situation. You’ll lear
On today’s show, we’re joined by Harvard’s Laura Huang. Think about that for a second. Today’s guest is a professor at Harvard. I had to take my act three times just to get into college. I had to take algebra three times just to pass, and today’s guest has decided to take time out of her schedule to share with you and I about how to turn adversity into advantage. She shares with us about how to achieve despite the inequality that exists on the planet earth. She shares with us how she became an author and how she became a professor at Harvard. If you have ever struggled to push through adversity, this show is for you.
we have an incredible guest, Laura [inaudible]. Welcome onto the thrive time show. How are you ma’am, a pleasure to be here with you? Now you have written a new book called turning adversity into an advantage that has been endorsed by Daniel pink, who we’ve had on the show. Um, Seth Godin, who we’ve had on the show, a countless big deal thought leaders. Um, how did, how did these people hear about you? How did they, how did they learn about your book?
Yeah, so I mean the, so the book has entitled the edge turning adversity into advantage. And these are all folks that really themselves have, you know, not naturally had an advantage but have had to create and find their own edge. And so the book is really about, you know, when you’re, you know, some people naturally have an advantage and other people have to create one for themselves. And these are all folks that, um, you know, at one point or another have had to create one for themselves. And so, you know, it’s really, um, there, there are people who adhere to and also kind of feel the same way that I do in terms of, you know, we’re taught from this very young age that success is about hard work. You know, we keep getting pounded into our heads that, you know, work hard, work hard, work hard, and hard work is really critical.
Right? We’re not denying that, but you know, sometimes hard work alone is not enough. Right? Sometimes putting in the hard work still leaves us frustrated. Um, and so, you know, that’s, that’s really something that I wanted to write about that I’ve been doing that I’ve been studying in my research. Um, you know, why is it that hard work sometimes leaves us frustrated and it’s because it’s often about, you know, the signals, the perception, the stereotypes of other people. Um, but we can actually sometimes flip those stereotypes to work in our favor. And that’s how we really find and create our own edge.
So with the hard work thing, I think a lot of people don’t maybe know your background. Could you explain maybe, um, where are you, you started your career, cause obviously you’re having success now you’re having books endorsed by Daniel pink and Seth code and I mean, where did your career start out?
Well, you know what I mean? My career kind of, I was, it started out very, very sort of, you know, um, small scale and, and you know, um, and you know, I’ve had to, I’ve had to actually put in a lot of the hard work, but I’ve also had to put in a lot of the other things that I talk about in the book, right, in terms of having to guide people’s, um, perceptions and, and having to really, um, engage in lots of things that made that helps me have my hard work, work harder for me in, in some sort of ways. So, you know, I was an engineer by training. Um, you know, it was one of those things where I was, I was good at math growing up, um, and didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And so, you know, people in my family said, well, if you’re good at math, you know, maybe you should go into engineering.
And so I did to kind of make them, you know, made them very happy. Um, but I found out pretty quickly that I actually wasn’t very, very good engineer. Um, but I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else. And so, um, was pulled into a technical marketing team, um, got my MBA. Um, you know, somewhere along the line I realized that I really loved to do research and wanted to be a professor, but I had so many student loans to pay off that I actually couldn’t become a professor. And so, um, you know, had to, had to sort of, well, in fact, I, I asked a bunch of people in my MBA program, I said, what’s the quickest way to pay off student loans? And they all said, you know, go into iBanking, go into iBanking. And I remember turning to one of my friends and saying, wow, this internet banking thing is a really big deal these days.
Not knowing that the, I of iBanking stood for investment banking. Um, yeah. And so, you know, but, but I did, I went into investment banking, work there for about two years, um, paid off student loans and then, um, went into a PhD program. But even in the PhD program, right. I realized that I was at a relatively low-status school and that lots of things in academia were dominated by status. And so again, had to do a lot of the sort of things that I ended up writing about in my book, um, to try and gain that edge. So, um, so some of it’s been a personal journey, but a lot of it has also been just stories from people that I’ve, I’ve talked to along the, and you know, I’ve purposely tried to include lots of stories from people who aren’t these super famous super successful people, but people who have had to kind of fight and work hard and try and figure out how their hard work can work harder for them.
In your, in your book you talk about, uh, Coldplay, the band Coldplay and the director of the crazy rich Asians, uh, movie. Can you, can you teach us about, um, there to give us a little sneak peek about these stories then that the readers could find it in your book?
Yeah. So, um, so one kind of story, um, that I, I mentioned is, is that story that, you know, um, around how the director, um, John Shu, um, had a song that he really wanted to include in his movie. Um, and it was a song called yellow. And, um, you know, the, the song sort of had this, this, um, you know, connotation to it, which could have been this very negative, stereotypical, um, connotation. Um, you know, this, this linkage between Asians and, and the color, the color yellow. Um, but he saw it as this really beautiful rich sort of thing, this, and um, he asked Coldplay, um, if they would allow him to include the song in it and understandably they were very hesitant cause they had already had a bunch of sort of issues where, um, you know, in terms of how they were being perceived.
Um, and so I talked about how John Shu wrote this letter to Coldplay and really guided and, and, and tried to change the narrative around around how that song was sort of seen. And, and so a lot of the stories in the book are around, you know, how do you think about, um, the perceptions that are out there and the attributions that are made and how do you sort of think about, um, delighting people so that you can, um, gain some, some of that, that opportunity that would never have been available to you? Right. A lot of times we don’t get the opportunities to show the value we provide or how we can enrich because we don’t belong or because we are not part of that, that natural group. Right. You know, another story I tell is about this, this, um, this entrepreneur who, um, you know, as all entrepreneurs do or at some point, many entrepreneurs, right, have to go into fundraising mode, right?
So they’re in product mode trying to develop their product or service. And so they have to raise money for their startups. And there was an entrepreneur that I, um, was working with and he, um, was telling me how he would be, had been trying to get the attention of this investor for months, right? This investor that he knew would be perfect because of his, his network and his connections and the technology and the things that he knew and he’d been trying to get his attention for months and just kept getting rejected. Um, and then one day his fiance came home, um, from came home from work and was like, Oh, and I met this and it was, you know, almost sort of just, you know, trying to be honest and saying this guy. And he was hitting on me and it was so, it was super awkward, you know, and, and, and this entrepreneur was like, Oh, who was he? And she’s like, Oh, well he gave me his card, this is the guy. And she was sorta just like, you know, trying to be very transparent. He looks at the card and he realizes that it was the very investor that he had been trying to get the attention of. Right. And so most people would be like, wow, this guy who like was hitting on my fiance
Bora. Is that a move? Is that a movie teaching the book to get to meet the dream investor? Make sure that your fiance hits it gets hit on by your [inaudible].
Yeah. Wow. So what happened was he realized that he’s like, Oh, this is the guy. And, and so he says just Beyonce. And he says, call them and invite him to dinner. And so he invites this investor to dinner. The investors shows up. It is his doorstep with flowers thinking that he’s going to have a date with his fiance and he answers the door. The entrepreneur answers this door and this could have been disastrous, but what ended, they hit it off. Uh, they ended up becoming great friends. This guy invested in this company and it’s a very great sort of outbreak. So there’s lots of things we can take constraints, we can take these, these sort of things that we’re faced with and we can think of a way to flip them in our favor. And that’s exactly what he was able to do. And that’s exactly what John M two is able to do with Coldplay as well. So, you know, lots of different ways that we can think about constraint obstacles and adversity, um, and how we can actually turn things, um, to be, to be advantages.
Well, you know, Laura Huang, I w I’m not sure, I’m sure how familiar you are with Oklahoma. Have you been to Oklahoma a lot? Have you come to Oklahoma a lot?
Did you know I’ve been there once, but I can’t say that I’m super familiar. Is this an invitation?
Well, you should come out here. We have great sod, farm, sod farm tours this time of the year. It’s truly impressive. But also we have a wonderful, uh, person joining me on the show today by the name of Jill Donovan. And, uh, Jill, um, I think is an expert on turning your adversity into advantage of this. This woman decided to, uh, she committed to the universe, to herself, to God, whatever, that she’s going to be on the Oprah show. And she did it. And, uh, she’s also grown her company rustic cuff from no employees to 127 employees. Things are going well. Jill, welcome onto the show. I can’t wait to hear what questions you have for Laura. Laura Huang, I love your book, but I have, I have one question for, I have a lot of questions, but I’m gonna ask you this one question. Yeah, great people, uh, great interviews. Was there somebody that you wanted to include in your book that you didn’t, that if you wrote this, the followup or another one that you would do a part two, uh, who didn’t get in there that you really had wanted or thought was going to be in there?
Well, I have to tell you, I included a quote from Oprah, but I did not include any stories of Oprah, but she is certainly someone, right who was told no and was you can’t do this and, and all of those sorts of things multiple times, right? So she’s certainly somebody who I think has been able to cultivate her own advantage. Um, I think, you know, in the same genre, Ellen is somebody that I absolutely would have also loved to sort of include. Um, she really, in terms of when I talk about sort of guiding and, and having the self-awareness, um, and putting yourself in the, the eyes of what other people are seeing, right. She really took lots of chances. Um, and, and, and you know, a lot of what she did could have backfired. And in fact, it did backfire for quite a long time, but she was able to kind of persevere and really create an edge for herself as well.
And so I think both of those two, um, both of those two are, are definitely, um, are, are people that, that I think really personify what I’m talking about. And I think a third person, um, I have a student and her name is nix and, um, she grew up in, um, in Africa and she was in the book, but actually it was edited out of the book because of length. Um, and so she’s someone whose story I absolutely would love to include in, in sort of suture. Um, you know, when I talk about, I talk about her often, I talk about her story and you know, one of the things that she, um, that what was really powerful about, about her story was that she had been through so much, and, um, at the end of the semester, what she said to me was, you’re solid.
And that was the greatest compliment she said she could ever give to somebody being saying your solid. Because you know, in her world and the things that she had experienced, someone being dependable, somebody that she could say was solid was a better compliment than she could ever give to anybody else. And I, and I think those kinds of stories are the ones that, that also need to be told. Um, the um, you know, rather than, you know, some of the stories that we typically hear of people who, who have been able to, to do this. So I think all three of those,
Jill, thank you for stopping by the studio here to it to interview ms Laura Huang here. I know you, I know you have other things on your schedule, but thank you. Because I figured you are an expert on turning adversity into advantage and that’s what her book edge is all about. So I appreciate you so much.
What you’re doing. Don’t stop. I can’t wait to, to read the next one. Thanks. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much. It would be great to, you know, you should definitely be in the book as well, so that’s very good. I come to Oklahoma and we’ll show you more than sod farms. Oh, nice. Yeah. Laura, now
Laura Huang, I wanted to ask you about being a professor at Harvard. Um, uh, my understanding is you’ve been named as one of the 40 best business school professors and you’ve, you’ve, you’ve obviously established yourself and you’ve, you’ve ha you have a good career there at Harvard. I took my act three times. I did not go to Harvard. Uh, I’m, I’ve read, I read, read a Harvard case studies like the service profit chain or the value profit chain by Heskett and that kind of thing. And I’ve had a professor Clayton Christensen on the show, that kind of thing. But what’s it like being a professor at Harvard?
Well, you know, it’s funny actually, so I’ve actually gotten rejected from Harvard three times before they hired me to be a professor there. So, you know, so, so that’s sort of a, um, you know, a little bit of a backstory is that I applied there once for um, two for their MBA program. Um, was rejected. I applied once to um, you know, be in their PhD program, was rejected. And then early on in my career I also applied to be a professor there and was rejected. And I actually started my, um, my career out at the Wharton school. Um, so university of Pennsylvania’s business school, um, and it was only much later that I ended up, um, getting poached and, and moved to, to Harvard business school. Um, and there’s a number of reasons for that and it’s just been such a fabulous, um, experience both, um, you know, just in terms of how grateful I am to to Wharton for having given me that chance.
You know, they really, um, they really took a chance on me. And, and, um, and also, you know, what I’ve been able to, um, to experience at Harvard and one of the things that I just think is so special about Harvard is, um, this, this emphasis that they have based on, um, this emphasis they have on the research that we do, but also really making that research accessible and practical and real for, um, how we apply it and how we think about it in entrepreneurship in the workplace, um, out in society. Um, and, and so it’s, it’s, it’s sort of seen in, um, in how we teach it, seeing how we engage with the outside world. Um, and so that has been, um, really what I have loved the most. Um, and I have to say like, the students are phenomenal. It’s, it’s just a really special, really special place. So, um, did that answer your question?
Yeah, no, this is, this is, I just, I, I have, um, one of my, uh, good friends, mr Braxton fears. He and I did real estate together for years and at one point, if you can believe it, we represented 23% of all of downtown Tulsa’s real estate. So we had a huge, uh, portfolio we were working on there and I got a chance to meet Braxton’s father and spend a lot of time with him who was a CFO for a big company. And Doug went to Harvard later in life. He went to Harvard, I want to say in his like early forties, you know, and he just really benefited from it. And so when you, somebody like you, uh, takes the time to write a book, I know there is going to be a ton of research that goes into the process. I, I know, I mean, I just know the standards they have from uh, from the outside. What I’ve heard from people who’ve gone to Harvard firsthand. So I know there had to have been a ton of research that went into the writing of your new book edge turning adversity into advantage. Can you walk us through the process, what that process was like for writing this book and researching this book?
Yeah, I mean, so there’s a couple of things that, that, you know, that led to the, the origin of this book. I mean, one of them you sort of alluded to, which is that, you know, even though, um, even though I am a professor at Harvard, I’ve always sort of been that, um, you know, I don’t know if it’s like the outsider’s insider or the insider’s outsider or you know, the best way to describe it, but being able to kind of see what it’s like to be that outsider, um, and understanding kind of that grind and the path along with, um, trying to gain an edge, um, and what it means to sort of be in a position where you can, um, where you can do this kind of work, but also understand the perspective. Um, you know, um, my mother is a single mother.
Um, I um, have, you know, like I said, had student loans that I was paying off. Um, all through college. You know, I was working 20 hours a week as I was trying to get a degree. You said your, your mom, your mom was a single mom. She is. Yeah. So, um, not for, so my, so my father passed away. Um, and so for a portion of my childhood, she, um, she was a single mom and really was sort of the inspiration for lots of lots of the things that I’ve been trying to, to kind of accomplish. And, and so, you know, just sort of understanding, I think those perspectives really gives an empathy. It gives you empathy for the, for what other people are trying to accomplish. And so a lot of my research has all been, has been about, you know, how do we try to understand disadvantage?
How do we try and understand those who are underestimated? How do we understand, you know, sort of the inequality that that exists. Even when, even a lot of my research where I look at entrepreneurship, I look at people who went into entrepreneurship because they had no other options because they other either faced some sort of, um, glass ceiling or some sort of barriers, um, but yet then they go into entrepreneurship and still face, um, you know, bias and disadvantage and those sorts of things. So how do they grapple with, with, with all of those sorts of things. And so, um, that’s where a lot of my research has been, is looking at disadvantage and how do we kind of inoculate and empower ourselves, um, in the face of this advanced disadvantage even when we know that systems are trying to change, but we can’t change systems quick enough or we can’t necessarily rely on those systems.
Um, and so we need to empower ourselves within. Um, but that actually wasn’t how I, um, got to, um, write the book to be honest. And this is sort of part of the, part of this sort of my own kind of story is, um, I had wanted to write a book, um, about this for a really long time. And in fact, I was dissuaded a lot. People were saying, no, you’re not, you’re too early in your career to be writing a book. Um, but I really wanted to get this message out that people could empower themselves and turn adversity into advantage. And so I had reached out to some folks and asked for introductions to agents and ask for introductions to lots of, you know, publishers and that sort of thing. And, um, and no one would make an introduction for me. People just said no.
And so then I did some cold calling and reached out to some of the, the agents out there that published some of the big business trade books, um, and got no responses. And so, um, you know, we sort of like, okay, I guess this isn’t gonna really work out. Um, and at the same time I had started writing, um, just for fun, a children’s book, um, for my daughter. Um, it was a book, um, it’s called the, it was, it was a series. And the reason why we started writing this was because, um, my daughter, we, my husband and I really wanted to sort of empower her that she could do, you know, what anything that she wanted to do and she could be whoever she wanted to be. And so, you know, every night she would, she would ask for a bedtime story and she’d be like, can I go story about a princess or can I have a story?
And my husband would be like, what about a story about an engineer or what about a story about a doctor or what about a story about an astronaut. And she would be like, no, I want a story about a princess. And so my husband would be like, okay. And so he would tell these stories and he would say, and then there was Prince says, engineer, you know, Jennifer or princess, Dr. Ashley, or princess, you know, um, architect Elizabeth. And so he would tell these stories where the protagonist or the heroin was a princess, but she was also an engineer and she would face some sort of, you know, mishap or some sort of challenge. And she would be this, this engineer, but she was also a princess. And it was, you know, you know, you are, uh, like tonight, today you were a great, you know, princess engineer.
And so I decided that I would write all these stories down, like I would sort of ease job stories and I started writing these stories down that he would tell and um, created this series. Um, that was just sort of for us. Um, and then I sort of started sending them to children’s book agents. Again, just kind of cold emailing children’s books, um, and again, got lots of nos and lots of people who sort of just ignored all of these sorts of things. And then one agent responded to me and she said, you know, this is interesting. It’s not something that we could publish but I’m actually in you. Would you be interested in writing a book? And so, and so she actually is, she was the agent that I ended up working with for edge, um, turning adversity into advantage. And, um, you know, at the same time there was a publisher.
And so, you know, that that was really the origin of, of this book was that I had always wanted to write this book but never really had the opportunity to, um, and, um, my agent and then sort of was writing this children’s book and the children’s book became, um, what this book is, right? So sort of this motivational and aspirational, um, kind of message and, and so I think that’s also sort of this message of turning adversity or turning something that you think is not going to happen, but turning it to your advantage and, and, and, and creating that edge for yourself. And so that’s really the origin of how this book came to be.
Now you look at, you know, looking you up here online, people going to Google, search your name here, and then when they, they did Google search, you, you know, uh, uh, you know, you’re, you’re, you, you obviously are Asian. Um, were you, were your parents first generation immigrants? Were they here, uh, for, is this many generations, I mean T talk to you about your, your, how your parents raised you and what your life was like growing up.
Yeah. So they are immigrants from Taiwan. Um, my dad was born in China, my mom was born in Taiwan. Um, and I have dual citizenship, so I’m actually both Taiwanese as ma as well as, uh, yeah. And so spent a lot of time going back and forth between, um, between the two countries. Um, uh, Mander actually Taiwanese, which is a local, you know, it was actually my first language. Um, and so I’m, do kind of have that sort of multiple back and forth kind of thing. Yeah.
Well, you know, in your, in your book, you, you, you discuss this and I know you’re an expert at this. You talk about regardless of your, your race, your gender, your age, your ability, um, you know, all these factors, this inequality that maybe, uh, exists out there. Um, you know, anybody out there can have success or anybody out there can learn to find that edge needed to turn their adversity into advantage. Growing up as an Asian American in a family that, uh, you know, first-generation immigrants, what kind of adversity did you face growing up or, or do you feel like you faced any adversity growing up as an Asian American?
Yeah, I mean there’s, there’s mold I did for sure. Um, you know, I mean I tell a story in the book about how, you know, in terms of, um, test scores I had placed, you know, the, I had qualified to be in like the school’s gifted and talented, um, you know, program. And they were like, they didn’t believe it. And so they made me take another battery of tests and finally they said, okay, well I guess, yeah, I guess you qualify. Um, but you’re gonna only qualify for math. Um, and it was the first time that they had split it up. Usually it was sort of, if you’re in the gifted and talented program, you’re in the gifted and talent program. And even though I had scored even higher on sort of reading comprehension and language than I did in math, they were like, yeah, it just doesn’t make sense.
And so they put me in the math, gifted and talented, and then anytime they were doing something that was language arts or reading related, they made me go back to the normal classroom. So there’s, it was that sort of thing. Um, it was also, you know, I was at a very early age, you know, pretending to be my mother and like calling and trying to figure out bills, um, you know, doing taxes, um, writing notes to my teachers that were, you know, filling out permission slips. All of those sorts of things were things that I was doing from a very young age. Um, and then just sort of the adversity that I saw my parents face in their careers. Right. I saw my dad, um, when I was young get, you know, people get promoted over him multiple times and then he would continue doing the job of his manager and of his boss, even though he was, um, you know, not the ones sort of promoted.
Um, you know, and I also saw my parents really fighting to try and give me an advantage by doing other things. And I see that a lot now as well. And really what I kind of learned was, you know, parents to some extent can stop fighting to give their kids an edge when they teach their kids how to create their own edge. Right? So we see these sort of stories around, um, you know, people who are, um, paying to have their kids have more test time or paying to have their kids have higher sat scores or paying, you know, to, or even, you know, if we don’t take those extreme examples, but you know, trying to have their kids do more volunteer activities or private coaches or private tutors, you know, they’re really trying to fight to kind of give their kids that advantage. But instead, if you teach them how to create their own edge in any situation that they’re going to be in, they’re going to be much better off. Um, so sort of understanding, um, how, how the kids can do that authentically and teaching them how, how to really overcome the biases that the others are going to create for themselves. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes because of implicit bias. But while staying true to themselves, they’re, they’re going to be much better off.
You know, I, I, uh, uh, thank you so much for, for being on the show today and I, and I know the listeners out there, um, a lot of listeners, you know, we’re, we’re not there on a tight budget. They’re only going to spend about $6 to $7 per day on Starbucks beverages they don’t need. So I’m asking the listeners out there to see if they can, uh, forego going to Starbucks. Uh, for the next, uh, let’s say two days and to invest in a copy of your book edge, the book edge, everybody, Google search it right now. Go to Amazon edge, turning adversity into advantage. Um, this book, I, I really do believe everybody out there. If you’ve ever struggled to fight through adversity, you maybe struggled to find that right mindset and nobody, nobody does the kind of research that the professors at Harvard, uh, do.
And, and, and for, to get the endorsements that your book has from Seth Goden. Seth Godin says, edge is fun to read, beautifully written and resident a worthy addition to every entrepreneur’s tool book. Wow. I mean, Daniel pink says we’re all looking for an edge, but where does it come from? And this insightful and accessible book Laura Huang provides the answers. I mean, this is, this is, these are great endorsements here, and so I’m maybe not over, I’m not selling it enough. I’m not, I’m not. I want to just over-communicate everybody out there. This is a great investment for you. Pick up the book. Laura, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it. And now, without any further ed too.