Dr. Justin W. Webb, Belk Endowed Scholar of Business Innovation
To produce ideas and processes that add value to business, customers and society, innovation is an integral part of business. As part of a $5 million gift to the Belk College of Business, Dr. Justin W. Webb joined the College as the Belk Endowed Scholar of Business Innovation. In addition to creating curriculum and teaching courses on innovation, Webb is conducting research on the entrepreneurship process, market-based solutions to poverty and family firm dynamics. A founding member of the Social Impact Research Lab, Webb is dedicated to working with nonprofit and for-profit organizations to improve the implementation of poverty solutions.
Why UNC Charlotte and the Belk College of Business?
Individuals create their own success. But, as you’ll see from my specific research interests, I believe too that the institutional environment in which an individual works provides important incentives, constraints, and mechanisms of support that positively or negatively enhance one’s potential for success. The leading factor that attracted me to UNC Charlotte was the strong, burgeoning interest in the development of new knowledge. This is particularly important to me because there is so much new, cool stuff constantly emerging in the world of entrepreneurship. Look at crowdfunding – these are platforms through which entrepreneurs solicit funding from the general public. These platforms did not exist five to ten years ago, and so there is so much that we don’t know. For example, we don’t know how entrepreneurs communicate on these platforms to more effectively attract funding. Given that it is the general public providing funding and not an expert venture capitalist, we don’t know how the general public might respond in different ways to the entrepreneur’s request for funding.
Similarly, nonprofit organizations’ use of more market-based solutions – that is, more entrepreneurial solutions – to address poverty in developing markets of Africa, Asia, and Latin America is a relatively new phenomenon that stems from the realization that charity alone is not going to be sufficient or lasting to address global needs. This shift in thinking raises so many new questions in terms of how to implement these entrepreneurial solutions when there is a lack of transportation infrastructure, inefficient contract enforcement, limited educational institutions, and extreme poverty where individuals live on income of only $1-2 per day, among other challenges. So, the support of research and development of new knowledge at UNC Charlotte is highly attractive for me and will be key to teaching our students about the latest innovations in the business world. That’s pretty cool.
Another factor attracting me to UNC Charlotte was the people. The faculty and the administration have achieved that nice but sometimes tricky balance of being a collegial group, yet a group that aspires and works hard to be better and to reach the challenging goals that they set. When you’re working with a group of folks closely on a daily basis, collegiality plays a large role in your productivity, so I was very pleased to have such a warm welcome. And, the university and the Belk College’s desire to be better is something that certainly was evident and motivating for me as well.
Finally, last but certainly not least, being the Belk Endowed Scholar of Business Innovation is a very nice honor and is a resource that provides the flexibility to do more in terms of research and engaging the community.
What are the opportunities to utilize your expertise at UNCC Charlotte and beyond?
I’m a founding member of the Social Impact Research Lab. This is an organization of scholars from around the world whose interests are aimed at helping nongovernmental organizations provide more effective solutions to address poverty in developing contexts. We are in the planning stages of our first few initiatives in Ghana. To give you an example of what we’re doing, one organization with which we’re working wants to implement a group-lending arrangement to local shea producers. This organization is unsure, however, of how to organize these groups and enact the appropriate incentives to ensure timely repayment while facilitating the development of these groups. Our approach, which is fairly unique among scholars, is to undertake field experiments to compare and contrast the effectiveness of different group-lending arrangements. This approach helps us to better understand the nuanced challenges of these contexts while also being able to provide the nongovernmental organizations with immediate feedback for their poverty solutions.
What are you teaching?
I’ll start out teaching a general entrepreneurship course for undergrads and strategy for MBAs. But, I look forward to exploring how we might be able to expand the portfolio of entrepreneurship and innovation-related courses here at UNC Charlotte.
What is your area of research?
In a broad sense, I want to understand how institutional environments create incentives, constraints, and otherwise support or hinder entrepreneurship, and in turn, how entrepreneurs interact with their institutional environments to increase the value of opportunities available to them. Within this overarching theme, I see four categories of research.
As I’ve discussed, understanding market-based solutions to poverty is a primary topic of research.
I also study the informal economy, which includes activities that are technically illegal yet also socially acceptable in many ways. The informal economy includes things like entrepreneurs operating without the appropriate registration, counterfeit products, and skirting of labor laws or pollution regulations. These are types of entrepreneurial activities that we want to understand how to better control and transition to the formal, legal economy. In developing regions of the world, the poverty of the context forces individuals to pursue entrepreneurial activities in the informal economy. So the question is not always about control but rather can be very much about providing the appropriate support and safety net to encourage formalization. At the same time, other quite innovative firms are also skirting various regulations but are leveraging technologies to provide more efficient solutions to everyday problems in developed regions, such as the United States. This is a complicated issue, surfacing questions as to whether the activities of these firms are illegal or perhaps whether the regulations are outdated. I try to understand the conditions of the institutional environment that motivates these activities and how entrepreneurs organize themselves in the informal economy.
Crowdfunding is a recent emerging stream of research for me. Here, I try to understand how crowdfunding is different from more traditional funding contexts, such as banks, venture capital, IPO, and business angel contexts, and what these differences imply for how entrepreneurs in attracting funding. We have a few studies that show that how entrepreneurs communicate and how funders respond to entrepreneurs’ pitches can be very different that we know works in traditional investment contexts.
My fourth research stream seeks to understand how entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial organizations negotiate their regulatory boundaries to increase the attractiveness of opportunities available. For example, you think about how banks operate in highly regulated contexts, and you might think that all banks have similar risk profiles and are limited in the types of actions they can take. But banks can be quite diverse, and our research has sought to uncover how some banks build capabilities internally that allow them to more effectively negotiate their regulatory environments.
How do you plan to engage the Charlotte community?
Lunches! Lots of lunches. Entrepreneurs recognize needs and figure out a way to address those needs. As an entrepreneurship scholar, I too want to understand needs – particularly the needs of current and prospective entrepreneurs as well as the broader entrepreneurship community – to learn how I might be able to help address those needs. Lunch seems to be a healthy way to achieve this!
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovations are the essence of entrepreneurship and are the key to economic development and improved quality of life. If you look back just a few hundred years, in general, societies throughout the world were on a fairly level economic foundation. Through innovation, some societies such as the U.S. and Western Europe have experienced significant economic development and improvements in the quality of living. This significant potential for development that is spurred by innovation and entrepreneurship is what motivates my scholarly activities to improve our understanding of how some institutional environments support more and higher quality entrepreneurship, and how entrepreneurs interact with their environments to improve the attractiveness of opportunities available.