Staff Q&A with Denise Dahlhoff

Denise Dahlhoff is originally from a small village in Germany—but she says it’s not a big stretch that she’s a fan of Philadelphia.

“Philly feels almost like a village because people are connected in so many ways,” says Dahlhoff, the research director at Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center. “Also, on my walks across the city, I run into familiar people randomly all the time. It makes it feel like a small world.”

Whether it’s a stroll around her neighborhood or a lecture in a Penn classroom, Dahlhoff strives to seek out new experiences, broadening her knowledge and learning fresh ideas.

She first came to Penn to work with Wharton Executive Education, left to do consulting full-time, and then returned to Wharton about four years ago for her current position at the Baker Retailing Center. Along the way, she pursued two master’s degrees in Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies—first, a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA), and then a Master of Philosophy in Liberal Arts (M.Phil.).

“I enjoy learning and research so I just continued studying here, and that’s also why I’m working at a university,” says Dahlhoff, who also has a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Jena in Germany.

Dahlhoff has a little teaching experience herself. She taught marketing classes at Cornell University and co-taught a pricing course at the Indian School of Business. She has also been a teaching assistant at Wharton for pricing and branding classes.

“Being a student again gave me a different perspective of teaching and made me think of what I liked as a student,” she says of the Penn programs.

The Current recently met with Dahlhoff to talk about her path to Penn, her work at the Baker Retailing Center, her courses of study in her Penn master’s programs, and why she has enjoyed her time at Penn.

Q: You have a Ph.D. in marketing. What led you down that path?
A: I’m originally from Germany and graduated there with a diploma, which is pretty much like a master’s degree. When I finished, I went into consulting because my marketing professor had a consultancy that applied statistical techniques to determine optimal pricing for products and services, which I found interesting. I joined that consulting company thinking that I would be interested in getting my Ph.D. at some point, but first I wanted to gain some business experience. After about three years, I decided to pursue my Ph.D.

Q: Do you think that real-world experience helped your academic career?
A: It definitely helped me understand the business world better. I think it also helped me to define what I was interested in, which was branding at the time. In my consulting life, at that point, I didn’t focus as much on consumer goods; it was more pharmaceutical, automotive, and banking, and so for my Ph.D., I wanted to focus on consumer brands.

Q: After your Ph.D., did you go back into consulting?
A: My research on my dissertation brought me to Cornell University and I meant to stay there for only 10 weeks, but extended my stay because I liked it so much. I got involved in other research and started teaching there. While I liked some of the academic work, you were mostly working pretty much on your own and projects and feedback are much longer term. That’s why I wanted to leave academia but still stay in an area that had academic rigor or an application of something academic to the real world. I ended up at Nielsen, the market research company, in their marketing analytics group. That was a great combination of analytics and real-world business questions. That job brought me to this area from Cornell. But I realized very quickly that I was missing an academic environment. I missed the energy of a university campus and the exposure to a lot of new ideas—and also, a more international community. At the time, I was living in Philly and thought, this is so ironic, you live two miles from one of the world’s leading business schools. Through a friend, I contacted a Wharton professor and told him that I wanted to work for Wharton, essentially. He was very nice to email me two weeks later when he had learned of a new position that was created at Wharton Executive Education. I applied and got that job.

Q: What was your role in Wharton Executive Education?
A: It was a new position. The idea was that the programs were using the same awesome faculty that were very popular, but the business was growing and we needed more faculty to teach in the programs. Also, there is so much excellent research at Wharton but at the time nobody was systematically keeping track of faculty research and thinking about what kind of new content could be leveraged for executive education. That was essentially my charge: To help expand the bandwidth of the available faculty and also discover new content. I was essentially a facilitator between the faculty and my colleagues that would develop programs.

Q: It seems like combining the real world and academia is a common theme.
A: I find it very interesting because leveraging what academia produces for the real world is just a smart approach to tackle business issues. And it goes in both directions. The faculty are also very interested in learning what’s going on in the real world to inspire their research and do something that has an impact on businesses.

Q: How did you make the transition to the Baker Retailing Center?
A: In the meantime, I had started my MLA studies, which gave me a taste of doing small research projects again—something I didn’t have in my main job in Executive Education. So when I finished my MLA studies, I was looking for something to engage in on the side, and I told one of the marketing professors that if there was a project I could get involved in, I would be happy to do that. That brought up the teaching assistant position for a pricing course. I realized through my MLA studies that I still enjoyed doing research and was missing that in my day job, which is why I started thinking of doing something that involved research projects. For a couple of years, I did my own consulting and worked with various clients in Philadelphia on market research like pharmaceutical research, doing ethnographic studies in hospitals and physician’s offices, and interviewing physicians. I also had a retail project during that time and continued being a TA for the pricing course. When I left Executive Education, I knew that I would miss the environment, so from the day I quit, I kept an eye on the Wharton job postings. After two years, a position popped up, which is the one I’m in now.

Q: What’s your day-to-day role at Baker?
A: One of the missions of the Center is to create new knowledge and insight for the retail industry and we do that mainly by facilitating a dialogue and collaborations between the industry, faculty, and Ph.D. students. One of our signature events is our annual conference for academics and industry executives where they discuss a current retail topic. We are sort of a think tank for retail, and to have the leading people in academia and retail involved helps to generate ideas for the cutting-edge topics to discuss and new research to do. We also hope to spark research collaborations that way. I’m responsible for managing our effort to put together these conferences and to give out research grants to Wharton Ph.D. students. We ask Ph.D. students to give us their proposals, and we have a review committee of alumni who work in retail and give us their feedback on the proposals. Based on the feedback, we pick proposals to fund and share the feedback with all the applicants to help them understand the mindset of the industry. A third area is publications—we want to share the new insights, so we publish conference reports and white papers. We also are starting to collaborate on research with other organizations to produce original research and write case studies. Retail is an industry that moves so fast and is so related to consumer trends, to the economy, to technology, and companies are trying to keep up. Customers’ expectations change every day, and it’s just really interesting to not only observe it, but to think about how companies have to adjust to this new environment and about interesting topics to discuss.

Q: What is your involvement with the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator?
A: When the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator—a program for emerging local designers to grow their businesses into bigger brands—approached us before they launched in 2012, they needed a year-round business adviser and since we couldn’t provide that through a Wharton program, I started volunteering as an adviser for marketing questions. Since then, I’ve met with the designers on a monthly basis to discuss their questions and have coordinated Wharton’s contributions to the program—workshops by Barbara Kahn, our Center’s director and a Wharton marketing professor, business programs by Wharton’s Small Business Development Center, and student projects under the guidance of Keith Weigelt, a Wharton management professor. It has been fun to work with the designers. The last couple of years, I have also been on the incubator’s selection committee and I’m on several designers’ advisory committees. Given my interest in Philadelphia, it’s great that this is a local program benefiting people and businesses in the area.

Q: You have both a MLA and a M.Phil. from Penn. Why did you decide to pursue more schooling once you came here?
A: I really love learning and doing projects and thought this was a great opportunity. I applied for the first program but didn’t have a specific plan or objective as to what I wanted to study—just something that interested me, not necessarily anything that benefited my day job. Soon I got very interested in urban culture and social interaction, especially in cities and public places, and how new media influences our social interactions, so for example online dating or having cell phones and using them in public places, which can either connect you more or put you in a sort of cocoon. I found these questions really interesting, in addition to topics like life stories and arts and culture in cities. … My MLA thesis was about a potential advertising campaign for the arts and culture.

Q: For the M.Phil, did you continue your course of study about urban life?
A: I focused on sociology in cities. A lot of my studies involved ethnographies about urban places like Washington Square Park, Sarcone’s Bakery in the Italian Market, which is an institution. I also wrote ethnographies on a bar/restaurant, the Continental, the Tin Angel, Franklin Fountain, the ice cream parlor, on a coffee shop, and observed jaywalkers in Center City and shoppers at Ikea.

Q: Your course of study is different than what you do at Baker, but have you found that getting back to research did complement your day job?
A: I think the connection is that retail is a lot about social sciences and consumer behavior. Although I haven’t really applied the research techniques in my current job, I did use them in the two years when I was consulting to observe and shadow physicians and nurses in hospitals, interview physicians, and sit in on physician-patient conversations.

Q: Are you working on another degree now?
A: Actually, I just took a Coursera course and am thinking of taking a couple of other courses. In my job, there is so much still to learn about retail and there are so many changes and developments every day. That’s my daily learning and discovery right there.

Denise Dahlhoff