Interview with Dean Noam Wasserman, Dean of Sy Syms School of Business

By: shaina levin  |  September 30, 2020

By Shaina Levin

Dean Noam Wasserman began serving as dean of YU’s Sy Syms School of Business in May 2019. Before joining the Sy Syms faculty, he was involved in the business and academic worlds in many different aspects. Since his time at Yeshiva University, he has provided students with a wealth of opportunities, serving as a mentor in both the business and secular industries. I had the honor and opportunity to interview Dean Wasserman about his past experiences, current and upcoming initiatives at YU, and hearing advice he has for the current students.

YU Observer: What was your background before you came to YU, and what led you to YU?

Dean Noam Wasserman: I started life as an engineer, then added business when I was an undergraduate and have continued that combination since then. After college, I first worked as a techie, then as a project manager, then as an entrepreneur before going back to school to get my MBA. While I was in the MBA program, I got experience as a venture capitalist and as an equity analyst (working with two mutual-fund managers) before a couple of key mentors pushed me to think about becoming a professor. Doing that as a career required me to get a PhD, so after having a difficult conversation with my wife about this change in plans, I walked out the MBA graduation door and in the PhD orientation door.

During the PhD program, I started delving into the early decisions founders make that tend to come back to haunt them, their teams, and their startups. (I had personally experienced many of those issues when I was a pre-MBA entrepreneur.) While publishing that research, I developed an MBA course based on the results and based on two dozen Harvard Business School case studies and exercises I developed. That “Founder’s Dilemmas” course debuted in 2009, started spreading around the world, and sparked the first of my books (see below).

A few years later, I got a chance to go back home to Los Angeles to start a new center at USC  based on my founder work. I was in the midst of growing that center when Rabbi Berman and Provost Botman approached me about the Sy Syms position. The initial attraction for me was the chance to have a dean-level impact on the most important Jewish university in the world. However, when I visited campus to interview for the position, the stellar faculty, the delightful students and alumni, and the other deans I met were also strong attractions to come to YU.

O: What was it like switching from a secular college (Harvard) to a religious one (YU)?

W: In some ways, switching was a big deal. Instead of having to drive off campus in mid-afternoon for half an hour in each direction to get to a mincha minyan [afternoon prayer service], I have a wide range of wonderful choices within steps of my office. I feel like a kid in a candy store when it comes to all of the wonderful shiurim [Torah Lectures] I can attend any day and almost any time, and when it comes to just walking across the street to attend Night Seder [evening Torah study]. I don’t have to go out of my way to make sure that every meal I provide visitors or at faculty meetings is kosher.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that are quite similar: the striving for academic excellence, the way in which there is a wide range of student interests and capabilities we want to help, and the way in which there is huge untapped potential in the alumni base.

O: A highlight of this year definitely has been the Siyum Hashas [completion of the Talmud] you made at the 2019 YU Chanukah [Hanukkah] Concert. How has your Gemara [Talmud] and Torah learning influenced your views in the business world?

W: When I first started researching and teaching about entrepreneurship challenges, I realized that Torah and Chazal [rabbis] had a lot of insights to add about the “modern day” issues we were studying. For instance, the first morning of my Founder’s Dilemmas course at Harvard, in response to a student question, I described the concept of “eizer kenegdo” [partner] as applied to the founding team of the world, Adam and Chava [Eve], and showed how it captured the best practices for creating founding teams today. When we were looking at the best sizes and composition for boards of directors, we drew insights from the first mishna in Masechet [tractate] Sanhedrin, which covered the sizes of Jewish courts. Insights from the Gemara [Talmud] about incentive structures and conflict resolution are also extremely applicable to today’s business world. Tapping those timeless insights can give us a real advantage today.

Since then, I have seen how Chazal’s lessons about Jewish values are also applicable to a wide range of business issues. R’ Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu teach us how to recover from – and even gain strength from – apparent setbacks. Chazal teach us how to develop our Hakarat Hatov [gratitude] muscles, how to develop our drive to go m’chayil el chayil (striving for continuous improvement), and the importance of seeking feedback on how we can improve rather than continuing on auto-pilot. We have begun tapping those insights in our new Jewish Values curriculum and in other courses within Sy Syms.

Before coming to YU, I used to talk about some of those topics in the classroom. For instance, the last day of the semester I would talk about R’ Akiva and Gam Zu L’Tova [the belief that everything will turn out for the best], and would end by thanking my students after citing R’ Chanina’s statement (Taanit 7a) that he had learned the most of all from his students. At YU, though, we can and are making those lessons and values an integral part of what we are doing both in class and outside of it. I was even able to touch on some of those themes during my Siyum HaShas at the Chanukah Concert — another uniquely-YU experience.

O: Can you tell us what we could expect and learn as students when reading your books, “The Founder’s Dilemmas” and “Life Is a Startup”, and what made you decide you wanted to become an author?

W: At first, I was able to have an impact on a couple of hundred MBA students per year, having them experience the early decisions founders make that tend to come back to haunt them, and developing better approaches to make those decisions. However, there are thousands of people who start companies each year who would never enter my classroom. Writing The Founder’s Dilemmas book was my effort to extend the lessons to those people, and also to provide professors from around the world with another type of material with which to educate their future founders. With about 100,000 copies of the book out there, Hashem [God] has helped me spread those lessons to the people who can most benefit from them.

Almost a decade later, after thinking about the broader applicability of those founding best practices, my Life Is a Startup book was my effort to bring many of those lessons to non-founders who could apply them to their career decisions, to their personal relationships, and to their work in large companies. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from people who have reached out to tell me how they applied the concepts to their specific challenges to find new solutions that would not have occurred to them otherwise.

O: This summer you helped many students, including myself, through providing different summer initiatives. Can you tell us more about how you went about creating these programs and making sure every student has the best and most educational summer possible?

W: I am delighted that you were able to take advantage of the new summer initiatives!

Back in March, our initial focus was on moving YU courses fully online in record time. Once that was accomplished, my focus turned to what might be the next crisis facing our students. Namely, the summer is a key building block for students to explore career options, build new skills, and gain credibility with potential employers. However, due to Covid, there seemed to be a good chance that the usual summer-internship opportunities might disappear. In addition, we realized that we would have to defer our brand-new YU Israel Summer Internship program, which we had put in place in January.

So we started brainstorming about new summer initiatives we might be able to create and develop for our students, enabling them to turn the summer of crisis for all college students into a summer of opportunity for YU students. By taking advantage of these opportunities, our students would get stronger just as everyone else was in the midst of a “woe is me” summer.

As with many things, it was key for us to understand from the students what would be most interesting and useful to them. We came up with 7 or 8 possible initiatives and sent a survey to the student body to see which ones would be of most interest to them. We then took the four highest-ranked possibilities and developed them further.

As a result, we created YU’s first-ever research assistantships program, converted the YU Israel Summer Internships program into a virtual-internship program (and grew it to three times its originally-planned size), added the first-ever summer cohort of Innovation Lab startups with which student teams could do projects, and worked with esteemed alumni from consulting firms to create the YU Consulting Force / Innovation Lab internships initiative.

More than 120 students took advantage of these initiatives to get substantive experiences.  Dozens of Israeli companies were able to tap YU interns, and a dozen Jewish non-profits tapped YU Consulting Force teams to have a real impact on their organizations. Many of the students found new talents, developed new skills, and explored new options for their career focuses.

O: What was behind Sy Syms’ decision to have a fully online fall semester as opposed to blended learning?

W: Our initial inclination – and that of many of our faculty members – was to offer as much as possible in person.  After all, Syms faculty have excelled at that mode of teaching for decades.  At the same time, we wanted to maximize students’ choice of courses. Given that many students might not be able to attend in-person classes (e.g., international students who might not be able to get to New York, students for whom there would be medical reasons not to attend in person), holding classes online would enable all students to choose any class.

Early in the summer, we analyzed every Sy Syms course and section that would be offered in the Fall semester. Our analyses took into account the following factors:

  • the class size (most centrally, sections too large to be held in existing classrooms while adhering to social-distancing guidelines, which is particularly relevant to Syms given that on average our courses are significantly larger than those in the other YU undergrad schools),
  • the faculty ability and preference to teach in person vs. online,
  • the percentage of students in each section who indicated in-person vs. remote preferences in the provost’s early-summer survey, and
  • the best pedagogical approach for the specific material. (Sy Syms courses tend to be more Socratic and dynamic than lecture classes, making it hard to conduct them with students being split between in-person and remote participation. Research has shown that focusing on doing either in-person or online well is better than trying to accomplish both within the same class session.)

If any of the factors indicated that a course should be online, that determined the course’s status.  In addition, should there be a second wave during the Fall semester, our having focused on developing and teaching online courses would enable the students to smoothly continue having the best education in any scenario.

The analysis showed that the vast majority of Sy Syms courses should be online. For the remaining courses, faculty surveyed their specific students to find out how many would be coming in person. Every professor found that too many students would be remote and thus decided to hold their classes online.

At the same time, we realized that if conditions permit, our professors could also hold optional, socially-distanced enrichment sessions with any students who want to attend in person on campus, and similar enrichment sessions online for students who are not on campus. A majority of our professors expressed an interest in doing so, and many have already discussed that option with their students. Those sessions promise to further enable the development of the close student-professor relationships that are a hallmark of a YU education.

At the time we were developing these plans in early summer, several universities very prominently declared that they would be conducting classes in person. Recently, many of them have retracted those plans in favor of fully-online teaching. Unfortunately, as a result, their faculty have had very little time to develop their online courses. In contrast, because our faculty used the last three months to develop sophisticated online versions of their courses by tapping the new online-teaching skills we helped them develop over the summer, we will be able to excel at online teaching while other schools are hoping only to survive online this semester.

O: What are some new initiatives Sy Syms students can look forward to in the near future?

W: A major new initiative this semester is the launching of the Sy Syms Jewish Values curriculum.  The core of the curriculum is the fact that difficult dilemmas emerge when we transition from college into the workplace. How can we excel professionally while adhering to our Torah Values? How can we resolve conflicts between our work demands and our priorities as religious Jews?

We typically are not prepared for these dilemmas. As a first step to helping our students prepare, last year on the Beren campus we approved our students attending Rabbi Aaron Cohen’s new course on Halachic Challenges in the Workplace. Last month for the Fall 2020 semester, we introduced at Wilf three courses, including a parallel course on Practical Workplace Halacha.

This Jewish Values curriculum will give our students deep grounding in the challenges typically faced when entering the broader post-graduation world, practice with dealing with those challenges, and knowledge of how best to interact with others in the workplace and society.

So far, the student appetite for these courses has been impressive, with very strong demand for every course. As a third stage of development of this curriculum, we are exploring bringing the remaining new courses to the Beren campus as well.

We have also continued to strengthen new initiatives from last year. For instance, working with our student-led Honors Program Committee, we have created a student-to-student mentoring program, are continuing the strong growth in Honors course offerings, and are putting in place a new Book Club in addition to Honors fireside chats. 

Last year, we also introduced an undergrad Real Estate minor. This year, with the launch of our Mitzner MS program in Real Estate, our undergraduate Real Estate seniors will be able to start taking MS courses. In addition, our undergraduate Accounting students will be able to take advantage of our new BS/MS program where they can take up to four graduate courses while they are seniors. 

In short, when our graduate programs get stronger, our undergraduates benefit. This will also be true of our MBA program; a completely redesigned version of the program will be debuting in Fall 2021, and should have further impacts on our undergraduate business students.

O: What advice can you give Syms students who are entering the workforce during COVID?

W: Solidify your foundation, embody professionalism, and be patient. 

Regarding your foundation, make sure you aren’t short-changing yourself by taking shortcuts with your education, rushing through college, and only developing expertise in a single area.  Instead, prepare for each day of class as if you will be having a business meeting where your boss will be calling on you to get your insights. Take your time to get firm grounding in the key parts of business rather than rushing through YU too quickly. Develop more than one “pillar” on which to build your career, possibly by adding on a minor (either within Syms or in YC/SCW) or even a second major within Sy Syms. 

Regarding professionalism, learn how to write an excellent business email, practice for your interviews, and make sure to embody professional midos like showing hakarat hatov to everyone who helped arrange your interview.

Be patient even more than usual, given the challenging job environment. Pre-Covid the YU Class of 2019 had the best job placement of any recent class, and the hiring landscape will iy”H [may God will it] rebound soon. Until it does, though, it will take extra effort and persistence to find your first post-graduation job and start your career. The people who are most likely to succeed at their job searches are the ones who used the current environment to get stronger rather than being defeated by the pandemic, and who see new opportunities now to build skills that will be even more valuable post-Covid. Those include the students who turned what was a summer of crisis for most college students into a summer of opportunity via YU’s new summer initiatives. It includes students who found a “dual” major or minor to add to their initial focus. It includes students who are using YU’s Pathways programs to strengthen their knowledge and qualifications further before going on the job market, by graduating with a graduate degree when their peers are just achieving their college graduations. 

We are in a time of reinvention, and employers want to see resilience and that you made the most out of this time of challenge. This can come in your classes, in communal activities, in stepping up to lead others through the challenges, or in other ways in which you can get stronger by facing these challenges productively.

O: What advice can you give students as we begin this semester online?

W: Adopt a Preparation Mindset, be ready to make adjustments along with your professors, and take advantage of the full range of new activities YU will be conducting for you. And, act with integrity in everything you do, including taking exams in class.

First, start the semester with a Preparation Mindset in which you’re prepared for class each day.  Applying that mindset early in the semester will make it increasingly easy to excel at your work as the semester progresses, will make it easier for you at midterms and finals times, will enhance your long-term learning, and will strengthen your Day 1 Job Readiness.

The resilience of YU students was impressive in the Spring. As one indication, surprisingly few students availed themselves of the broadened P/N “safety net,” and almost all who did use the P/N policy did so for fewer classes than they could have. Compared to the intense and unexpected adjustments they had to make in the middle of the Spring, the adjustments for this Fall semester should be far less dramatic, giving me strong confidence that our students will succeed. At the same time, students should be ready to make some adjustments, and to have heightened communication with their professors about how well those adjustments are going.

In addition, the university and student leaders have developed and are developing a wide range of great activities for students to help students gain a fuller YU experience despite being mostly online.  Find at least one new great activity in which to participate, meet new people, and gain new experiences. Although the rhythms and opportunities will be different than usual, they are still extremely rich and valuable, if you take advantage of them.

Finally, and most importantly, maintaining the highest level of integrity is critical for our creating a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] rather than a Chillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]. This is critical to do when we’re working after college, but the foundation for it is developed in every assignment and every exam we complete during college, and in every interaction that we have with others now. The first question we will each be asked at the end of days is whether we acted with integrity in all of our dealings (Shabbos 31a), and right now, we are developing our answer to that question. If you prepare for class each day, use that preparation to be ready for every midterm and final, and practice creating a Kiddush Hashem in and out of class, you will be able to do it when you get to the workplace and throughout your upcoming decades of life.