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New Business Prof. Excited About Latest Platform

Former Motorola Mobile VP Ready to Share Industry Experience with Grad Students

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Asst. Professor of Strategic Management Elizabeth Altman was sold on the Manning School after talking with students.

By Ed Brennen

After spending the first half of her career “majoring in industry and minoring in academia,” Elizabeth Altman has flipped the script.

In her new role as assistant professor of Strategic Management in the Manning School of Business, the former vice president of business development for Motorola Mobile Devices is leveraging her 25 years of industry experience and research to give graduate students in the management program an unparalleled perspective on the future of the global economy.

“I think the research I’ve been doing on platform businesses, like Apple with the App Store, is more and more relevant to students today. Everybody is being touched by the Facebooks, Instagrams, Amazons, Googles of the world,” says Altman, who earned her doctorate in business administration from Harvard Business School in May. 

“The economy continues to become much more interdependent and networked, and my research is about those dependencies and how people and organizations respond to them. I’m excited to be able to bring that into the classroom.”

Altman was convinced to join the Manning School faculty after visiting one of Interim Dean Scott Latham’s business strategy classes last spring.

“I had a chance to talk with the students and that was really what convinced me to come. They seemed engaged and excited to be here, and I just liked the energy and the vibe,” says Altman, who remembers one student’s comments in particular. “As he was leaving, one of the students quietly came up to me and said, ‘I really hope you come here,’ and I thought, ‘You know, I want to go somewhere where people are psyched to have me and where they’re psyched to be there.’ That sealed the deal.”

Altman was equally as psyched after meeting her future colleagues.

“I gave a talk about my research on innovation and strategy, and the questions from the other faculty members and the comments afterward were excellent and thought-provoking.  I was really pleased that they were as excited as they were,” says Altman, who only had to look across the street at the $41.5 million Pulichino Tong Business Building under construction for a glimpse of the Manning School’s future. “I think it’s an amazing opportunity for new faculty to come in and be part of such growth and renewal.”

Finding her calling

A native of Connecticut, Altman earned her mechanical engineering degree from Cornell University in 1988. Her first job out of college was at Polaroid in Cambridge, where she spent two years doing research and development in what was then the cutting-edge field of electronic imaging.

“This was before digital cameras were as prevalent, but you could see that people would be carrying them and would want ways to print and send things,” says Altman, who could also see that she was better at looking at the industry from a business perspective than a technical one. “It was clear to me then that I wasn’t going to make my mark as the world’s best engineer.”

So in 1990 Altman applied for a fellowship with MIT’s Leaders for Manufacturing program (now Leaders for Global Operations), which allowed her to earn dual master’s degrees in business and mechanical engineering in just two years. The fellowship also included a six-month industry internship at one of the corporations sponsoring the program. 

“I thought it was a really good model of corporate and university interaction,” Altman says of the program, which lined her up for a mechanical engineering job at Motorola upon graduation in 1992. “My theory at the time was that I’d go for two years because I’d had two years of education provided for me by my fellowship.”

Those two years at Motorola turned into 18 years for Altman, whose career took her from Florida to Japan and back to Boston, from designing and testing the plastic parts for pagers to manufacturing strategy to technology licensing.

Upward mobility

Then in 2001, just as the cellular phone industry was beginning to revolutionize our day-to-day lives, Altman moved to Motorola’s mobile device division, where she became vice president of strategy/business development. She held five different VP roles over the next 10 years at one of the largest cell phone companies on Earth.

“I feel incredibly fortunate that I was there through the development of mobile communications,” says Altman, who in 2003 was named one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Women in Boston” by Boston Magazine. “It just turns out that mobile is an industry that touches everybody and everybody can relate to it. So if I can bring examples from my experience into the classroom, I’m happy to do so.”

While Altman climbed the ladder at Motorola, she also stayed connected to the world of academia by guest lecturing, serving on Cornell’s board of trustees and co-authoring the book “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work.” In 2010, she left Motorola to pursue her doctorate.

Altman will continue as a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School for at least another year, giving her access to Harvard’s library system and enabling her to easily continue to collaborate on her research with Prof. Clayton Christensen and other colleagues. “But my primary appointment is here. When I publish, I’ll publish under UMass Lowell,” says Altman, who also plans to stay engrossed with business strategy through her consulting work.

“My short-term goal is to learn all my students’ names as quickly as I can,” Altman says with a smile. “Beyond teaching, my goal is to have my research published in the best journals I can. My guess is, for any professor, the goal is to have your research have as wide an impact as possible. I think if I do it right, I should be able to have my research activities, my teaching activities, and my outside consulting and advising activities all synergistic and aligned. They should all inform each other. If I do that, life will be good for me and my students.”