An Interview With Dean Wasserman
Appointed as Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business in May 2019, Dr. Noam Wasserman brings an impressive academic and business background to the school accounting for over half of all male undergraduate students. On Sept. 4, the business editors of The Commentator were privileged to sit down with Dr. Wasserman.
Originally from Los Angeles, Dr. Wasserman attended YULA for high school followed by a year at Yeshivat Shaalvim in Israel. Although he had initially intended to enter college following his senior year, the high school’s Rosh Yeshiva persuaded him otherwise. Dr. Wasserman credits his year in Yeshiva for instilling within him an appreciation for doing things correctly rather than quickly.
An early tech enthusiast, Dr. Wasserman recounts that when he would get bored in high school class he would “be daydreaming about programming.” His interest in technology took him to the University of Pennsylvania to study engineering. Penn’s strong philosophy of dual degrees encouraged Dr. Wasserman to pursue an area of study to complement engineering, and he graduated with degrees from both the engineering and business schools there.
Upon graduating, Dr. Wasserman began working for American Management Systems, a firm that re-engineered business processes and then implemented the systems needed to fix them. Dr. Wasserman then went on to found the Groupware Practice, one of the earliest online collaboration services businesses.
After growing the Groupware Practice to 19 employees in three years, Dr. Wasserman decided to return to school and enter the MBA program at Harvard University while working in venture capital during the summers. Although Dr. Wasserman originally planned to either continue to work in venture capital or to found again, his “professors were mashpia on [him] to consider academia as a full-time career” — pursuing a Ph.D. in an area of business that academics hadn’t tackled rigorously yet: startups.
According to Dr. Wasserman, “Since academics had not experienced startups firsthand, they did not even know what questions were fundamental to ask. They assumed that startups were just smaller versions of Fortune 500 companies. Also, since startups are private companies, there was no data, so even if they did know what questions to ask they couldn’t go and answer them.” Dr. Wasserman credits his experiences with founding and in venture capital for enabling him to “see that there were recurring decisions startups were facing that had real implications for whether a team is going to blow up, whether growth is going to happen, and even whether a founder is going to get fired as CEO.” Dr. Wasserman decided to make startups his domain “and change the trajectory of their growth and success.”
For the next twenty years, Dr. Wasserman researched startups and collected data on 20,000 founders, becoming a professor at Harvard Business School and founding his own course titled the Founder’s Dilemmas — and publishing a bestselling book by the same name. An opportunity in his hometown at the University of Southern California opened where Dr. Wasserman was able to found a center around his research. His decision to return to LA was largely influenced by his ability to perform daily acts of kibbud av vi eim, relishing the opportunities to have dinner with his parents and accompanying his father to minyan every day.
Although Dr. Wasserman was able to raise over $8 million for the center and grow it to a dozen people in its first year, it was the “prospect of having a dean-level impact on the most important Jewish University in the country” that brought him to YU.
Dr. Wassermann’s initial experiences at YU have been incredibly productive. Dr. Wasserman has hosted roundtables and “meet the dean” chats at both campuses, taught two teaching workshops to the Sy Syms faculty, created bootcamps with business leaders and Roshei Yeshiva from RIETS, and has made plans to add new graduate programs and continuing education bootcamps. He’s enjoyed shiurim by various Judaic Studies faculty members, and learns Daf Yomi each day.
Additionally, Dr. Wasserman has taken steps to bolster the Syms Honors program, which unlike the YC and Stern Honors programs, has not been endowed. Together with a number of honors students, Dr. Wasserman created a three-page wishlist and secured funding commitments from two multi-year donors. With the funding secured, Dr. Wasserman hopes to increase the number of honors classes by at least 40 percent next semester and have various offsite activities, the first of which will be Sept. 24 hosted at WeWork Corporate Headquarters.
Impressed with the faculty, staff, and students at YU, Dr. Wasserman is however dismayed about hearing instances of academic-integrity violations committed by a handful of students. According to him, on a practical level such cases create perceptions that cause “problems for YU students getting jobs or accepted into graduate school” and on a philosophical level “imperiling all of Klal Yisroel by causing an absolute Chillul Hashem.” Dr. Wasserman considers punishments such as failing a class as a result of an academic violation to be both a critical part of that student’s educational experience and to be a far lighter punishment compared to having these issues confront them in their business careers, where the consequences will be far more drastic.
A strong proponent of students pursuing dual degrees, Dr. Wasserman encourages students to take the necessary time and acquire skills that could increase their overall value to companies. According to Dr. Wasserman, “If it takes students an extra year to do things right, building the foundation for a meaningful career that will last for decades, that is an investment that students should be willing to make. I saw the power of that personally, having spent 5 years in college after gaining the insight from Yeshiva about building a great foundation rather than rushing through that stage of life.”
Photo Caption: Dr. Wasserman Brings Bold Initiatives to Sy Syms
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University