SMS Emerging Scholar Award

Inaugurated in 2007, the prize is awarded to a relatively young or new scholar, who displays exemplary scholarship that promises to have an impact on future strategic management practice.

Award Criteria and Details

This award recognizes a portfolio of work that suggests the candidate will make fundamental contributions to the way we think about knowledge essential to achieving durable organizational success. Contributions that complement existing strategic management theory with ideas from other fields and disciplines will be considered. Eligible to be nominated are members of the SMS. The likely winner of the award will:

  • Have completed his/her PhD no more than 10 years and no less than 5 years ago
  • Have a record of publication and professional activity that has demonstrated their work to be significant and with impact

Award Details: 

The recipient of this award is selected by a sub-committee appointed by the SMS Awards & Honors Committee.

The recipient of the SMS Emerging Scholar Award will be recognized at an appropriate, significant event at the SMS Annual Conference and receives prize money of US$ 5,000. In addition, the recipient is invited to participate in the SMS Awards & Honors Webinar Series and will be recognized and featured in one of the SMS journals.

Nomination Details: 

Materials for the SMS Emerging Scholar Award should include the below pieces and be submitted to the SMS Executive Office through the Submittable form. The applicant themselves should complete this submission after collecting the nomination materials from their nominators. If you are a nominator interested in nominating someone for this award, please reach out to them directly and provide them with this information and a nomination letter so that they can complete the application form.

  • A nomination letter by another SMS member, who is not a faculty member at the same university as the nominated individual
  • Two additional letters of recommendation for the nominated individual
  • A full current CV for the nominated individual

The deadline for this award is April 15. To submt a nomination, please submit the materials listed above to the SMS Executive Office through the Submittable form.

2022 Award Recipient: Eric Zhao

We are honored to present this year’s SMS Emerging Scholar Award to Eric Zhao of the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University.

Eric Zhao is the Samuel and Pauline Glaubinger Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. Eric’s research is cross-disciplinary in nature and sits at the intersection of strategic management, organization theory, and entrepreneurship. His 2017 SMJ article “Optimal Distinctiveness: Broadening the Interface between Institutional Theory and Strategic Management” and his solo-authored book “Optimal Distinctiveness: A New Agenda for the Study of Competitive Positioning of Organizations and Markets” are widely regarded as foundational contributions to the burgeoning literature on optimal distinctiveness. His second stream of research focuses on how societal-level institutions, such as patriarchy, racial and ethnic segregation, religious diversity, and social class, shape entrepreneurial actions and performance, with broader implications for organizations’ role in addressing grand social challenges.

Eric’s research has been published in leading management and entrepreneurship journals and has accumulated more than 2,300 citations. He is devoted to an ongoing effort to bridge conversations between strategy, organization theory, and entrepreneurship scholars. Eric won the Academy of Management Emerging Scholar Award in Entrepreneurship in 2019 and the Strategic Management Society Emerging Scholar Award in 2022, making him the first scholar who has been recognized by top early career awards in both strategy and entrepreneurship.

Eric will be recognized at the SMS Annual Conference in London and during the SMS Awards Webinar Series in the fall of 2022.

Eric participated in a written interview for the SMS Awards & Honors Committee. In this interview he shares many insights on his career and research. 

My journey to become a strategy scholar was more emergent than planned. I was broadly interested in business-related issues but did my undergraduate and master-level training in economics and sociology. It was when I worked on my master’s thesis, I started developing my interest in strategic management and organization theory. I was fortunate to have Mike Lounsbury as the external chair of my master thesis and was fascinated by his research. Also thanks to his support, I got into the PhD program at the University of Alberta; Mike went on to serve as my PhD advisor. At Alberta, I got the chance to connect with and learn from David Deephouse, Royston Greenwood, Joel Gehman, Dev Jennings, Danny Miller and the whole Alberta crew. My four years at Alberta as a doctoral student were highly productive and intellectually enriching and played a major role in shaping me into who I am today. My colleagues and students at my current institution Indiana University continue to inspire me and enable me to grow as a scholar.

My research has been very focused from the very beginning. If you look at my published work to date, you can classify them into two major research streams. The first stream of research is on optimal distinctiveness, examining how organizations wrestle with the competing pressures of conformity and differentiation. The idea of optimal distinctiveness is intuitively appealing, and at the same time, it is very powerful and generalizable. Therefore, research on optimal distinctiveness has grown rapidly in the past few years since the publication of my 2017 SMJ article. Scholars have applied the notion of optimal distinctiveness to various research domains such as platform markets, family firms, cybersecurity, corporate social responsibility, entrepreneurship, and sociology of culture etc. I continue working in this space and have recently examined organizations’ challenges of and approaches to becoming optimally distinct in a variety of different settings, such as Airbnb, the automobile industry, and the video game markets.

Optimal distinctiveness does not just offer a novel perspective for addressing conceptual issues in other research domains, it also provides a unique platform for scholars to engage some contemporary methodological approaches including qualitative comparative analysis, morphing technology, and machine learning. For example, there is a growing interest in engaging machine learning techniques in studying organizations’ optimal positioning strategies. Among the different machine learning techniques, topic modeling is perhaps the most commonly used method by management scholars to date. Studies using other methods such as neural networks have started to emerge but remain quite rare. One method that has yet to be introduced to optimal distinctiveness research, and to the strategy and management research in general, is recommender systems. Recommender systems are very prevalent in our everyday life. Think about Netflix using recommender systems to push movies to consumers based on their viewing history; Spotify recommending songs similar to the ones you have repeatedly listened to; Amazon using recommendations to suggest products to various users; the list goes on. The logic underpinning recommender systems is to gather a large amount of data about consumers’ past behavior to infer their tastes and preferences.

From firms’ perspective, the power of recommender systems lies in its ability to go beyond classifying consumers into rough categories to have a more precise understanding of individual consumers’ preferences and tastes. With this more nuanced knowledge regarding consumers, firms can better position their products and services to target certain consumers who have a positive predisposition and avoid those consumers who have a negative predisposition towards them. In this case, simply being exposed to different audiences (e.g., potential investors, evaluators, consumers etc.) and gaining more attention from them may not necessarily benefit the firm. Instead, the question becomes whose attention to gain and how the firm can be positioned such that it attracts more attention from those audiences who tend to evaluate them more positively. I am actively working on a project addressing these issues and will look forward to sharing more as we make progress.

My second stream of research examines how societal-level institutions shape entrepreneurial actions and performance. Entrepreneurship is a powerful means for creating wealth and addressing important social problems. At the same time, however, entrepreneurs are deeply embedded in and influenced by some strongly entrenched institutions, which may contribute to social ills and disparities and impose strong constraints on entrepreneurial actions. A lot of my past research has been dedicated to understanding these institutions. For example, I have done work examining how patriarchy, i.e., gender inequality beliefs and practices in various social domains, strongly influence microfinance organizations’ recruitment of women employees and the support they gain from local governments, which in turn affect their dedication to serving women clients. I have also studied how gender inequality beliefs have contributed to the persistent gender gap in venture performance among Chinese entrepreneurs, by shaping women entrepreneurs’ career choices and work-life balance. In addition, I have studied how racial, ethnic, and religious diversity can increase the operating costs and risks of social ventures and intensify the challenges they face in fulfilling social missions while maintaining financial sustainability. Most recently, I am working on a project with colleagues where we trace entrepreneurs’ social class backgrounds before entering entrepreneurship and see how social classes of entrepreneurs may have some profound impact on their subsequent actions and performance. This project is a continuation of my earlier work on how various types of societal institutions impact entrepreneurs’ founding efforts, their resource acquisition, and their financial and social performances.

One common theme across the two streams of research is their cross-disciplinary nature. In studying optimal distinctiveness, I aim to advance an important platform for bridging research by strategy and organization theory scholars and carrying forward conversations between the two communities. In advancing an institutional approach to social entrepreneurship, my work similarly serves as a bridge connecting the organization theory and entrepreneurship communities. I strongly believe this cross-disciplinary engagement is a hallmark of my research agenda and a powerful approach as we address the increasingly complex challenges we face today.

There is no lack of interesting questions in strategy research. Every time I browse through the articles published in an SMJ issue, I am amazed by the diversity of research topics, the variety of theoretical perspectives, and the richness of methodological innovations reflected in those articles.

I personally have closely followed research done in two major areas. First, there is increasing attention paid to grand social challenges. This increasing attention is not just reflected in the growing number of editorials reviewing the literature and calling for actions as well as articles addressing specific social problems; it is also reflected in the broad range of perspectives taken as well as levels of analysis engaged in studying those problems. Research in the past years has examined various internal and external drivers of strategic actions in addressing chronic social problems. Internal drivers include pro-social identity and motivation of entrepreneurs, and external drivers include various enablers such as development aid, market incentives, and digital technologies. There is also research focusing on different organizational forms and entrepreneurial processes in acquiring necessary resources, managing competing demands, and building collaborative partnerships. More broadly, there are studies looking at some fundamental societal institutions such as patriarchy, racial and ethnic segregation, religious diversity which underpin the grand social challenges and shape the opportunities and constraints social ventures face in addressing those challenges. Therefore, scholars have collectively made tremendous progress in this conversation around grand social challenges and have generated important theoretical insights as well as important practical and policy implications. Since we are living in an increasingly complex and challenging world, I continue to view grand social challenges as an open space and believe strategy scholars can add tremendous value to this conversation.

The second area I want to highlight is machine learning and artificial intelligence. Compared with studies on grand social challenges, research on machine learning and artificial intelligence is fewer in number, but interest in this topic is rapidly growing. There’s a great opportunity for strategy scholars to lead the conversation by engaging this topic and embracing contemporary machine learning techniques. Doing so will not only enrich the methodological toolkit of strategy scholars, but also provide opportunities to challenge some taken-for-granted assumptions and help us make significant theoretical progress. For example, the increasingly available amount and depth of data can enable us to relax some assumptions we typically make on information asymmetry and cognitive constraints. Accordingly, we may be able to revisit some of the fundamental questions we study in the domain of strategic management, such as organizations’ strategic positioning in light of a better understanding of audiences’ preferences and tastes, so on and so forth.

Be open-minded and be willing to engage different ideas and converse with people from different communities. Such cross-boundary conversations are not easy and need some courage and initiative to make them happen. However, such conversations are also likely to be most eye-opening and generative. Truly novel insights often come out of such cross-fertilization and cross-boundary integration.

In addition, I would also encourage PhD students and junior faculty to dare to carve out a space for themselves early on and make sure to take on projects that contribute to their focused and distinct scholarly identity. Early in our career, we might be tempted to jump on different projects, hoping to generate a higher number of publications as soon as we can. The downside of doing this is that we might spread our effort too thin across too many projects, compromising the quality of each and missing the opportunity to make a strong identity statement. It is a tough balance to strike indeed!