Faculty Impact Story: Professor Ian “Mac” MacMillan

Known for his “tough love approach” to educating would-be social entrepreneurs, Wharton professor Ian McMillan — or Mac, as he is commonly known on campus — is dedicated to training the next generation of scholars and change-makers. And thanks to the recently published “Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook” (co-authored with Dr. James Thompson), and a social entrepreneurship MOOC on Coursera, he’s reaching more students than ever. 

In this interview with Wharton Entrepreneurship, McMillan shares insights into his teaching career, his passion for entrepreneurship, and why field research is so exciting.

Tell us about your your professional background.

I’m a chemical engineer by training and I worked in the industry for many years before I got into academia. I started in academia in Africa. In the US, I went to Northwestern University as a Visiting Professor, then to Columbia University as an Associate Professor, then to NYU as a tenured full Professor, and finally I came here as a tenured full Professor.

I joined Wharton in 1986, as the Director of the entrepreneurship center. After I’d been at it a few years, we decided we needed to get some new blood in, and that’s when we recruited Raffi Amit, and he took over running the entrepreneurial program and I focused on the Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center.

What is your field of expertise?

Entrepreneurship and innovation. At the moment, my particular interests are in social entrepreneurship.

What classes do you teach?

I teach a course on Social Entrepreneurship (MGMT 810) and another course with the complicated name of Change, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (MGMT 802), which looks at how large companies can continuously innovate.

Describe a recent exciting teaching moment.

One of the concepts I present to my class is market busting, which is how you change the rules of the game in a market. It’s based on research we did in the field. One of my students latched onto it and decided to implement market busting and discovery-driven planning with MasterCard. He’s now in charge of building a multi-billion dollar business for MasterCard, and he feels that the material he learned in my program was fundamental in determining how he was going to proceed.

We were recently able to entice him to come down to present to my class, and then we took some of my top students back to do a workshop with his people to help them come up with new business ideas.

Why is your research important?

In 1999 I underwent quadruple bypass surgery. When I mercifully woke up, I asked the doctor, “How long have I got?” He gave me about 10 years. If you run the arithmetic, I’m about six years overdue for the boneyard.

At the time, it was a very sobering thought. I asked myself what I had done that was worthwhile, and I came to the conclusion that a few articles and a few books was not much of a contribution. So I started to think about how we could use entrepreneurship as a weapon for social good. I’ve spent a good part of the last eight years looking at how we can solve social problems using entrepreneurship as a weapon.

How is your recent research relevant to the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

We work to create a particular type of ecosystem, one that includes all of the institutions and processes that are needed in order to solve a problem that has not been solvable before. We are trying to answer the question: “Can we create self-sufficiency on the part of beneficiaries, as opposed to dependencies?”

Where we are successful, we can see the creation of enterprises that help thousands if not tens of thousands of people.

How have you seen students or alumni take action based on your research or teaching?

One of the outcomes of this is that people in fact begin to go down the path of trying to create businesses that solve social problems. We have a whole bunch of students out there who are really keen to do more than just make money. They want to get out there and help people.

What made you choose an academic career?

I was doing a part-time MBA in Africa, and the dean of the program came to me one day and suggested that I could play a big role in helping him teach his operations research classes. So I abandoned my engineering life and I did the academic life. I think the most important thing about the academic life is that your official duties are six hours a week. The real work we do is research, not teaching. You can choose your research, and you can choose how to spend your time doing it.

What do you like most about your career as an academic?

Field research. Being out in the field and looking at how people tackle problems, weaving and dodging to make things happen.

What do you like least?

Grading. I hate grading passionately. I hate being in a situation where I’m looking at a pretty smart person’s work and making a grading decision that could influence their career—not mine, but theirs.

Tell us one surprising thing about you.

I was an entrepreneur with a travel business. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, I spent a lot of time thinking up cool ways for people to give me money to go to exotic places and do things they’d never done before.