28 Sep 2022

New Faculty Profiles: Carolyn J. Fu


HBS faculty comprises more than 300 scholars and practitioners who bring leading-edge research, extensive experience, and deep insights into the classroom, to organizations, and to leaders across the globe. We asked new faculty at HBS about their background, their new roles, and their interests.

Carolyn J. Fu, post-doctoral fellow, Strategy

What is your educational background?
I pursued mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania for my bachelor’s, and at Stanford University for my master’s. I was passionate about biomechanics, and so I embarked on an exhilarating career in defense research in Singapore—building exoskeletons one day and jumping out of planes the next.

However, my exposure to design thinking at Stanford planted a powerful seed that made me see not just the mechanics of the products I was developing, but the mechanics of the people, organizations, and institutions surrounding them. I became obsessed with how new ideas made their way into the world, and founded a nonprofit to raise entrepreneurial intention to that end. But my questions far outpaced the answers I had, leading directly to my PhD in economic sociology at MIT Sloan.

What’s your area of research and what led you to it?
I am fascinated by how different actors in an ecosystem coordinate towards an innovation—especially when the value of an innovation is hard to objectively determine (e.g. a faster car), and must instead be socially constructed by the actors involved (e.g. a more beautiful work of art). I currently study this in the opera and ballet, examining how an ecosystem of firms, artists, critics, and audiences all converge in developing and evaluating a new piece.

I came to this from my perspective as a former ballet dancer, but also from the challenges I faced in defense research, where terms such as security or resilience could become loaded with conflicting interpretations. My research explores how firms in these settings must simultaneously adapt to and shape the direction others take, and the implications this has for innovation strategy.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an academic?
Astrophysics! What lurks beneath the icy surface of Europa?

Where are you from?

What is something you like to do outside of your academic work?
I love creating 3D visualizations—an incredibly random activity of turning data into a beautiful structure. My favorite thing I ever created was a set of 3D printed flowers of a dancer’s biomechanics in Swan Lake. I wrote a program to back-calculate 3D joint angles from 2D videos, and translated these into spherical coordinates, that plot the shape of petals around a stem. I made one flower for the black swan, one for the white. Each flower was beautifully unique despite stemming from the same choreography, owing to the dancer’s interpretation of each role.

What’s your favorite book, movie, or piece of art?
Ender’s Game, because, “…it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

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