Meet Mary Tripsas
A leading management scholar whose research and teaching focus on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, Mary Tripsas studies how organizations can best adapt to new technologies that disrupt industries and ecosystems, with an emphasis on how the interplay of organizational capabilities, organizational identity, and managerial mental models shape strategic responses to technological shifts. She has studied the evolution of technology and competition in a diverse range of both established and nascent industries, including photography/digital imaging, typesetters, air taxis, music synthesizers, and publishing. Prior to joining UC Santa Barbara, Tripsas served on the faculties of the Wharton School for four years, the Harvard Business School for thirteen years, and Boston College for eight years. At BC, she was founding director of the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship and led the creation of a new undergraduate concentration in Entrepreneurship.
Ph.D., MIT Sloan School of Management
MBA, Harvard Business School
B.S., Computer Science, and Accountancy, University of Illinois at Urbana
Certified as a CPA in the State of Illinois
Honors and Awards
Strategic Management Journal Schendel Best Paper Award
Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal Best Paper Award
Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Thought Leader Award
Emerald Publishing Citation for Excellence Award
Journal of Product Innovation Management Best Paper Award
MIT Sloan Zannetos best Ph.D. Thesis Prize
Previously served as Senior Editor at Organization Science.
Currently serving on editorial boards of the Strategic Management Journal and the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal.
Published multiple teaching cases related to her research, with over 150,000 copies of Harvard Business School teaching cases sold to students at academic institutions around the world.
Welcome to UCSB! What inspired your path?
From a very young age, I became interested in technology and technical change. My father was an electrical engineer. He designed telephone central office switches. His original training was in electromechanical switches based on relay logic. As the technology behind the telephone switching system moved from this electromechanical relay logic to electronic to, eventually, completely digital systems, he had to retrain himself along the way. He was born in Greece and didn't even have the opportunity to finish high school. He is pretty much self-educated. I remember our basement was like a laboratory. As kids, we would go downstairs and play with some of the stuff he had sitting around. That was my first exposure to the phenomenon that a lot of my research has been about: How do organizations deal with these major shifts in technology?
And then add my mom to the family dynamic. She was a math major at UCLA, and once we kids were in high school, she rejoined the workforce doing software development for the same company as my dad. In her case, software had changed a lot from when she finished college. Again, this issue of how you accommodate new technology was uppermost in my mind. Incidentally, I studied computer science and accounting in college, and while I got my CPA, my first job out of college was doing software engineering.
Your first job was with IBM, correct?
Yes. I worked in software development at IBM on an internal shop floor control system at a manufacturing facility. Even though we were the software engineers writing the code, we could also go to the plant floor and interact with the users of the system to better understand what they wanted. Oftentimes as a software engineer, all you do is just write the code; you don't actually get to see who's using it or what they're doing with it. And so, there was a lot of interactive prototyping. And that was also a very interesting time for me in terms of understanding the challenges of what's easy, technically, versus what people want to use.
You also had a stint on the business side of IBM and then attended business school?
Yes, I started as a software engineer at IBM, but in order to progress anywhere, you really had to spend time on the sales force. So, I moved out to California to a sales office. IBM had just announced its first PC, and the democratization of technology within organizations was starting to happen, so it was an interesting time. Ultimately, I missed the intellectual stimulation that came with software engineering. At that point in time, an MBA seemed like a good path that could open up more doors for me. So, I went and got my MBA at Harvard. It was there that I started to consider something more academic.
The MBA program was transformational for me. I thought I understood business from my CPA, but what a Harvard MBA does through case method discussions over two years is to really elevate you in terms of thinking broadly about problem-solving and integration within a broader business setting. When I graduated from HBS, I considered the doctoral program within the Harvard Business School but I wanted to get some more real-world experience.
I understand that you worked with Michael Porter?
I spent time at what you could argue was a very academically oriented consulting firm, the Monitor Group.
Michael Porter, who was a professor at Harvard Business School at the time, was one of the founders. I worked on a number of super interesting projects there. I also had the opportunity to help grow a new office in Milan, Italy. On one of my trips between Milan and Cambridge, where Monitor's headquarters were, I ended up meeting with one of the faculty members in the Management of Technological Innovation Group at the MIT Sloan School. I had always been interested in the management of technology from when I was very young, and there weren't very many doctoral programs that allowed you to focus on that specific phenomenon. MIT was on the leading edge of research in this area. So, I left Monitor, and I started this program.
Tell me about your early research.
So, as I said, I had seen this phenomenon related to how difficult it is for people and organizations to deal with radical changes in technology. I was super interested in what we now call ecosystems or the interdependencies of different firms that come together to create new systems of products. I was especially interested in what Adobe Systems was doing. Adobe democratized publishing; they created the very first desktop publishing system that had any commercial success. The founders, who had left Xerox PARC, did something that was incredibly innovative at the time. They enlisted other firms to develop certain pieces of their solution. As part of this system, they wanted to have real typographic-level fonts that could be used. So they licensed a bunch of fonts from a company called Mergenthaler Linotype. As I was discussing this with my advisor at the time, we realized that Mergenthaler Linotype had been licensing fonts that had been around since the 1800s. Based on that conversation, I ended up switching gears and writing my thesis about the typesetter industry. That landed me on a theme that I think has continued through much of my work. When you're looking at making a technical transition, developing the new technical capability can often be the least challenging part of making these transitions.
In the typesetter industry, it turned out that what protected these typesetter firms over generations of technology were the fonts. They had these large font libraries, and it was difficult for other firms to come in and replicate the 1000s and 1000s of font designs. This provided a buffer for these firms to go ahead and develop the new technology.
Since then, the work I've done - which is probably the most highly cited of my work - looks at the transition of photography firms from analog photography to digital imaging. And in that transition, the same thing was very much true. It wasn't the technology itself that was the problem. If you look at firms like Polaroid and Kodak, they have some of the most highly cited patents in digital imaging. They developed digital imaging technologies early, and they did it really well. So if that's true, then why did they fail so miserably? One of the answers has to do with the mental models of the management and the inability, despite having the technical capability, to shift their thinking about what the appropriate business models would be to commercialize that technology. At Polaroid, for instance, management was very much stuck on this belief that the "razor blade" model was the only way to make money. And so they had digital cameras that they could have released very early in the development of the market that the technical people had developed. But management wouldn't commercialize the digital camera until it could produce an instant Polaroid print. Because they thought they needed the print to be able to make money. And that certainly had been true for years for Polaroid. But with digital photography, people don't want to print; they can look at their pictures on a screen. And so, overcoming the sort of mental or cognitive biases, I think, in the end, is one of the more difficult things to accomplish.
How does your research relate to your teaching?
During my doctoral training, I looked exclusively at large established firms and how they deal with managing technical transitions. And then, I got my first job at Wharton, where I was asked to teach entrepreneurship. I didn't know much about entrepreneurship, but I had an MBA and an understanding of business,
so I managed to do okay, although some of my students might have said that my first entrepreneurship class felt more like a technology strategy class... which was probably true at the time. I taught entrepreneurship the whole time I was at Wharton but evolved the course to focus on technology entrepreneurship, which was more related to my expertise. I started working with the folks from other parts of Penn, in particular the technology transfer office. I started having my student teams do projects where they would evaluate the commercial potential of university technologies. And so again, this intersection of deep understanding of technology with the business side is sort of a common theme.
When I moved to the Harvard Business School, I initially taught entrepreneurship but then took over a joint course with the MIT Media Lab where Media Lab technologists, together with Harvard MBAs, worked on projects. Some of the lectures were at MIT, where a Media Lab professor would talk about what nanotechnology is and kind of give a very high-level overview for the business students, and then the Media Lab students would participate in case method discussions.
By the time I moved to Boston College, I had started publishing research in the area of entrepreneurship, for instance, with some of the earliest work on the role of experimentation and the importance of user innovators as firm founders. I brought that research perspective and rigor to BC. When I arrived, there was a mishmash of non-academic activities related to entrepreneurship. There was a business plan contest, which was sort of the focal point of most of it. But beyond that, there wasn't a lot of formal coursework and no faculty doing research. There also wasn't an Entrepreneurship Center. And so I helped both get the Entrepreneurship Center established, and then I also spearheaded the development of an undergraduate concentration in entrepreneurship. I developed some courses myself and brought in outside experts for other courses, such as Venture Capital. There was huge pent-up demand for the concentration, such that we had to take applications and limit enrollment in the early years.
Have any of your students started successful companies?
When I was at Harvard, we used to quote a statistic that, while not that many students start firms directly out of the MBA program, something like half of the students does something entrepreneurial by ten years out. So I imagine - or hope - that many of my students have started firms that I don’t necessarily know about. But of the students who worked on start-up projects in my classes, probably the two most successful are Rent the Runway and Birchbox. Both of those firms have female founders, which raises another important issue. Women are way underrepresented in both venture capital and as start-up founders, something that I hope I can help with as a mentor and advocate.
How has your past work influenced your current research?
Over time, I became more interested in entrepreneurship as a research setting. Some of my more current research has been about entrepreneurial firms taking advantage of new technologies, such as the air taxi industry. I have also been looking at how developing or participating in platforms or ecosystems is challenging not only for organizations that have typically thought of themselves as technology-oriented but for organizations that have not traditionally been digital technology experts. Right now, I'm doing some work on the use of blockchain in the food safety supply ecosystem. If you look at the companies that have been involved in food processing historically, you have farmers, the truckers, the equipment that processes the food that comes from the farm, and all the other things that go into the production of food that ultimately lands on your shelf. The folks involved in that process might have read a few articles about blockchain, but it's certainly not something they view themselves as experts in. And yet, it might end up being super important for them to develop an understanding of how that affects their business. It could affect them in a way that makes their products no longer standalone. Because they're all putting information on to this blockchain, whether
it's the farmer recording what happened when they picked the crop, to the trucking companies that are moving the product, to the companies that are using the equipment to process it. And so, all of a sudden, what used to be very non-technical, separate things have become very interconnected.
I'm excited to be at UC Santa Barbara to further my research interests and collaborate with the outstanding team of scholars dedicated to the field. I'm also looking forward to contributing to the curriculum to support students in their quest to understand technology within the context of the current business world. The Technology Management program, operating out of UCSB's world-renowned engineering school, is positioned well to support this mission. I'm also excited about contributing to the Technology Management doctoral program. As I said previously, my doctorate was from an interdisciplinary department at MIT focused on the management of technology. There aren't many programs in the country or even the world that have that kind of a focus. Students still need a deep understanding of some underlying theoretical discipline, whether it's sociology or psychology, or economics. Still, in this type of program, a deep understanding of the empirical phenomenon is equally important. So I am excited about having a doctoral program with students focused on the management of technology, whether it's how technology affects the operations of organizations and the way that people work together in companies or how you commercialize those technologies.
I’ve played the oboe since I was ten and still enjoy playing the oboe to this day. I’m currently a member of a community orchestra in Boston. A few years ago -- in the fall of 2018 -- we had the opportunity to perform as the backup orchestra for the Indigo Girls when they performed in Boston’s Symphony Hall. That was the highlight of my career as an oboist!