15 Dec 2023

Behind the Research: Ebehi Iyoha


By Shona Simkin

Ebehi Iyoha, an assistant professor in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit, became interested in firm networks in grad school and hasn’t looked back. We talked with Iyoha about her research, how she hopes to apply it, and her love of writing and reading fiction.

What is your area of research?
I work in industrial organization, which is a subfield of economics that deals with how firms interact in markets. I look at firm networks—firm-to-firm connections: how they are formed, sustained or rewired, and how they affect firm performance.

One example is trade relationships—who individual companies trade with. Recent events, like COVID and supply chain shocks, have made it very clear that a lot of firm-to-firm trade isn’t just spot market transactions, where there’s a thick market and whoever you trade with doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting the goods or services. There are relationships that create value beyond just the transactions involved, so we want to think carefully about how government policy or managerial decisions might affect that. Similar insights extend to other kinds of firm-to-firm interactions, like parent-subsidiary relationships or strategic alliances.

How did you get interested in firm-to-firm networks?
I went to grad school thinking I was going to do development economics. Then I took a trade class and there was a section on firm networks that I found absolutely fascinating—the idea that it’s the actual structure of the individual relationships, and where firms are positioned within a broader network, that can generate unexpected impacts. It’s about understanding the systemic importance of individual firms in aggregate outcomes.

I’m generally invested in growth and what makes countries grow. Economists don’t agree on a lot, but we generally agree that trade is good. We always think of countries as trading but really, it’s companies. So, to the extent that they’re able to find each other, how do they achieve that? Isn’t it wild that a company here is selling to a company in Chile and they might not even speak the same language? How are they able to trust each other across borders? How much of a firm’s success is due to the number and quality of companies to which it has access?

What do you hope comes from this research?
From a managerial perspective, it’s valuable to understand and help the people—maybe some of our students—who will be making decisions in companies about how to expand internationally, or which partnerships to pursue. And from a policy perspective, it’s important to say something meaningful about which industries we should focus on to remove barriers to forming new trade relationships, or what policies could create an ecosystem where productive interactions are more likely.

I’m from Nigeria, and trade is a path to growth that a lot of African countries are missing out on—Africa’s position in global trade is negligible. Unlocking some of these questions around how firms are able to find each other, which firms matter for whom, and how those trade relationships generate additional value, will ultimately matter for long-term growth.

What are you working on right now?
A project I’m currently excited about is one I started in grad school with my advisor, who taught the trade class that I loved. We’re looking at which companies in bystander countries benefited from the US-China trade war, and why. Is it because they’re subsidiaries of US or Chinese companies, or are they domestic companies that capitalized on the opportunity? Now that I’m here-–HBS is like the Candyland of data—we've been able to link customs transactions across multiple countries to ownership information to figure out the characteristics of these companies.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I really like reading, mostly fiction, across a wide range of genres. I also like writing fiction. For many years I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, you challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel within 30 days. Some years I finished it, many I haven’t. It’s fun because it’s great way to turn your inner editor off and just explore ideas by free writing. There are online forums and local library events with all the others who are also doing the challenge, so you meet other people who are interested in writing. I also like playing board games and solving puzzles. Last year, for the first time, I joined a team competing in the MIT Mystery Hunt. It was quite the challenge but also very fun.

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