Think of it as Professors in Cars Having Coffee

Has the art of civil debate returned? In the new Harvard Business School podcast series After Hours, professors Youngme Moon, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, and Mihir Desai discuss issues ranging from gun control to voice-activated digital assistants.
by Sean Silverthorne

I’ve heard many ideas for reducing gun violence in the United States, but this was a new one on me. Mihir Desai, a finance professor at Harvard Business School, noted in a recent podcast that stock prices of gun manufacturers are severely depressed, and at least one firm, Remington, just last month emerged from bankruptcy.

“I did the quick calculation that you could buy and control all the US (gun) capacity for about $2 billion,” he said. His colleague sitting nearby, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, chimed in. “As the owner, you could do really interesting things. You could start thinking about the product portfolio. Maybe we are no longer going to produce assault weapons. Or maybe we will make a really interesting effort into producing smart weapons.”

Unique ideas and insights are common on the podcast Harvard Business School After Hours. Each week, professor Youngme Moon, who conceived of the series, gathers in a basement studio at HBS with Desai and Oberholzer-Gee, as well as the occasional guest, to talk about current events, pop culture, and pet peeves. Desai is the Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance; Moon is the Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration; and Oberholzer-Gee is the Andreas Andresen Professor of Business Administration.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Youngme Moon, and Mihir Desai.

For HBS, which perhaps is seen by some as fastidious, high-brow, and inside the lines, After Hours is decidedly unplanned, hair-down, and off-the-cuff.

Recent conversations have included divergent takes on such topics as:

Ep 16: Is the Job of the Presidency Too Big for One Person to Lead effectively?

Moon: “A corporation is designed to enable the company to be led, whereas when you look at the presidency, we've set up a system of checks and balances which is essentially designed to make sure the executive office doesn’t have too much power.”

Ep 15: Brainstorming the Affordable Housing Dilemma

Desai: “There is a very real, genuine market failure. I think the answer is the government provides housing because supply will not respond.”

Ep 10: The Future of Newspapers

Oberholzer-Gee: “One of the fascinating things about newspaper economics is that, if you could magically jump into an all-digital future, you actually don’t need that big of an audience in order to survive.”

Working Knowledge sat down with Moon recently to learn more about After Hours.

Sean Silverthorne: Talk a little bit about the origins of the series.

Youngme Moon: First of all, I'm a listener of podcasts, and when I started listening to them, I was delighted by how they sort of seamlessly fit into these little nooks and crannies of my life. You know, when I'm driving to work, or when I'm going for a walk.

I started thinking about how at HBS so much of the content we produce—we produce an extraordinary amount of content—is perfectly and beautifully polished, which in general is great. On the other hand, I found it interesting to consider doing something a little more informal, a little rougher around the edges. I thought a podcast might be able to do all of those things.

And I'd say, the thing that excited me about the prospect of doing a podcast was doing something for the HBS community. It's this notion that we have all these students and faculty on campus, but also alumni, who have gone on. The podcast gives them a bit of a reminder of what it's like to be engaged in a conversation at HBS.

Silverthorne: In terms of the style, it kind of reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Have you seen that?

Moon: I have seen that. You know what I love about it? They don't try too hard. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's less funny, but it's always authentic, and I love that.

Silverthorne: There are a lot of podcasts out there about current events. What makes yours different for the listener?

Moon: The reason I wanted to do the podcast with Felix and Mihir is, first of all, they're dear friends, but secondly, I know they think about the world in a very different way than I do. Mihir’s a finance expert, and he views the world through that prism. I'm someone who thinks about consumer trends and consumer behavior. Felix is someone who thinks about competitive strategy.

One of the things I enjoy about having conversations with these two is I always learn something. One of the things I dislike about current events shows is when they bring different people together, there's a tone of dogmatism, and there's a shrillness to how they communicate. If you turn on CNN or MSNBC or Fox, you find people "debating" but really what they're doing is just shouting at each other.

"When we engage in conversation, when we disagree, we do it to learn"

This is not about that. When we engage in conversation, when we disagree, we do it to learn. We do it to push ourselves to think harder about the things that we care about. In our classrooms, we encourage debate, but we don't encourage people to just shout at each other. We encourage debate in the spirit of learning, so there is a civility with which we interact with each other in our classrooms, a fundamental collegiality.

The best reaction we've gotten from the podcast is when people say, “Oh, I wanted to jump into the conversation.” We want to whet people's appetite for engaging in conversations with other people who care about the world but might come at it with a different viewpoint.

Silverthorne: It’s sometimes difficult for academics to talk about their ideas and research in ways that are easily understandable to the general public. I wonder if this is part of what you are trying to do here, allowing academics at HBS to really convey their ideas in a way that's more accessible?

Moon: We're hoping for multiple byproducts. One is that we hope that … people will feel a connection to HBS. It's a way to bring the community together in conversation a little bit, but it's also absolutely a way to begin to share with the community pearls of research. To be clear, this isn’t a show about research. But we do want to talk about ideas and why they are meaningful.

Silverthorne: One of the engaging aspects of your discussions on current topics is that you, Mihir, and Felix have to talk through your ideas in real-time.

Moon: As professors, when we walk into the classroom, we're supposed to have all the answers. The truth is, of course, we don't have all the answers. I think that's what comes through more than anything in the podcasts. We're just trying to make sense of the world, just like everybody else.

On top of that, we want the podcast to be about anything on our minds, whether it's Kanye West, or Netflix, or gun control.

It's interesting, we love doing it. We'll have a conversation and then we'll be done and turn around and say, that was fun! How often do you get to schedule time to talk to people you like about topics you care about? We enjoy each other, too, so it's a great friendship, and it does not feel like a heavy lift.

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