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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Helping students and startups find their potential

From startups to students, Mahka Moeen associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, helps all kinds of people innovate towards potential.

photo of Mahka Moeen
Mahka Moeen

Mahka Moeen is an expert at helping others to creatively adapt. From startups to students, she helps all kinds of people innovate towards potential.

Moeen, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, is known for her empathetic and inspiring approach to teaching.

The key, she says, is to take a holistic approach.

“When I think about what we do as university professors, there are three pillars of our work: You should be able to blend your research, teaching and community,” she says.

Innovative research

Moeen joined the faculty at UNC Kenan-Flagler after getting her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. The research activity of her prospective colleagues and Ph.D. students was a strong draw.

She specializes in firm strategy around emerging technologies – in particular, the point when a new technology is transformed into a marketable product.

“A question that has always excited me is ‘What is that process?’” Moeen says. “How do these high-tech designs come to be products on the market that thousands of customers can appreciate?”

She has looked at emerging technologies in life sciences and robotics for answers.

Her most recent project is about commercial drones, a collaborative work with her doctoral student Anavir Shermon. Drones are known most for video and photography: snapping photos of your vacation or making a marketing video.

But did you know that farmers can use drones to monitor crop growth? Or geologists to scan land for minerals? They even can be used to eliminate dangers, like inspecting wind turbines in the place of a human inspector. In addition, Amazon has using them in warehouses to transport goods.

Moeen’s work focuses on the specific strategies that firms use to tailor their products to the differing demands of the market, such as the different customer groups using drones.

Her research, she hopes, will do good not just for businesses, but also for wider society. How should firms make sure their products provide maximum service and advance the economy? And how should they limit their negative potential – privacy and security issues in the case of drones? Moeen asks these questions and more in her research.

“I’m interested in what we call ‘inventing for legitimacy,’” she says, “which is about making sure that as you make your product better technologically, you also make it better to resolve some of the concerns around it.”

It’s a subject she is very passionate about and feels is vital to moving society forward.

Her work in this area has been well-recognized by the research community. She was named the Schulze Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship by the Schulze Family Foundation. She earned the 2017 Emerging Scholar Award in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Industry Studies Association, and her doctoral dissertation received recognition from numerous associations. She also received the prestigious Kauffman Junior Faculty Fellowship in Entrepreneurship Research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The biggest thrills come not from publication and accolades, but from late evenings when she finally figures out a problem she’s been struggling with all day. It’s this feeling she tries to spark for her students.

Adaptive teaching

“The hallmark of success in every classroom is the moment you see students’ eyes open up – those moments are the ones that give me energy,” says Moeen, who teaches business strategy.

Coming from an engineering background – she received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tehran – she was familiar with a static kind of teaching, where learning is passed in one direction: from the lecturer writing formulas on a blackboard to the student. But Moeen knew straight away that she didn’t want to be that kind of teacher.

“When teaching basic business concepts, all my students will have read the same pages in the textbook,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to just restate that information.”

Instead, Moeen’s priority is to understand her students’ expectations, their needs and their aspirations, and use that understanding to bring the topics alive. She adapts her style from class to class, switching up her methods depending on whether she’s talking to Undergraduate Business students or working professionals in her Evening MBA class.

“I enjoy that aspect of it,” she says, “because you have to learn about your students first and make every class special to them.” Outside of the classroom, she often meets interested students in what she calls “Strategy Café,” as an informal forum to get to know students and learn about their aspirations so she can adjust the class to their needs.

It’s served her well during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she had only a few days to prep for the switch to fully online classes. Students praised Moeen’s agility in making her classes engaging in stressful times.

But it’s not just in class that students get to benefit from Moeen’s expertise.

Community building for the School and startups

As well as teaching classes on innovation and entrepreneurship across a number of cohorts within the Business School, Moeen is a supportive presence at the Frontiers of Entrepreneurship initiative, a consortium of thought leaders and researchers studying entrepreneurship and emerging technologies, through the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

The initiative is a touchpoint for research experts, business leaders, students and entrepreneurs to share knowledge and propel business forward, and her extensive expertise contributes to an environment in which student startups can thrive.

This kind of activity is part of her overall commitment to be a positive force within the UNC Kenan-Flagler community, which she describes as collegial and highly supportive.

Whether seeing her younger self in her doctoral students as they reach landmarks in their research, propelling a student startup to success or simply helping a student develop and grow in the classes she teaches, Moeen finds being part of well-rounded development at UNC Kenan-Flagler fulfilling.

“Our Undergraduate Business Program is just amazing in its emphasis on students’ holistic development as individuals,” she says.

“The School doesn’t view students as individuals who just came to learn the business foundations and then leave. Instead, we help them become better global citizens and develop the skills that they need to better know themselves and put their goals into action.”