Stephen He’s childhood dream was to be a scientist and today, as an assistant professor of marketing at the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, he has made that dream come true. As a researcher with work in top marketing journals in the marketing field, He is pushing the boundaries of the field with his cutting-edge research and creating value for human knowledge.
He was born and raised in the metropolis of Shanghai, China. When he moved to the United States after earning an undergraduate degree in business administration at Fudan University in Shanghai, the digital marketing guru landed in another populous area, Atlanta, Georgia. And after earning his Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute for Technology, he took off for the Big Apple to start his career in academia at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.
He has now called Morgantown, West Virginia, his home for the past year, and while it is not the big city to which he is accustomed, he welcomed the change, saying he likes variety and the beauty of the University City.
Read more about He’s time here at WVU and his research and teaching endeavors in the following Q&A.
After earning your undergraduate degree in Shanghai, why did you decide to also pursue your doctorate here in the United States?
I didn’t realize I had the strong urge to see different things before I went to college. And afterwards, I thought, ‘I’ve been in the same city for twenty-something years. I’ve seen enough here [in Shanghai]. I want to try something different.’ So, I came to the United States, and I pursued a master’s degree at first, in Georgia as well. And then, I began working with a large auto parts distribution company in Georgia. I helped them with their online business. E-commerce was new at that time, and we did this eBay thing as a way to promote our products to see other people’s reviews. This became my research interest later.
After working for a while, I realized it was enough of a break from academia and my main goal was still to try to understand things, to create knowledge. And Georgia Tech is really big into high-tech stuff, like digital marketplaces, so it was a great place for me to pursue my Ph.D.
Your research touches on how consumers process information and make decisions on the digital marketplaces. What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
I’ve been working on a project for a really long time trying to understand what motivates people to post reviews online, and specifically, how existing reviews make you more or less motivated to post your own review. Maybe you see a lot of people have already expressed opinions, so you think, ‘I’m not adding any value. Maybe I shouldn’t post anymore.’ And also, I’m interested in how much you pay for a product affects your willingness to post a review. Maybe you’re more likely to spread word of mouth for a product that’s more expensive or less expensive, so I try to understand the mechanism behind it, the motivations. This project has been sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and the Marketing Science Institute.
How does your research impact the marketing and consumer industries?
I think the marketing industry is moving more toward digital. Unlike the traditional bricks and mortar, now we are seeing more online transactions, especially this year. I just shared with my class the statistics on back-to-college sales. The total market is about $50 billion this year. For all those school supplies and apparel, online sales account for 44 percent already. It’s just less than half of everything. You could not imagine that in the past. Everybody went to Office Depot or Walmart to buy things. But now people shop on Amazon, and one big advantage of these online stores is the more access you have to information with product reviews. We do not see these in the physical realm. And even nowadays when I do shop at Home Depot or Office Depot, I pull my cell phone out and look up Amazon reviews before I buy something. This has a huge impact on our life. So I try to see how people cope with the risk in their decisions and how these reviews help them with these as an external aid.
On top of your research, you also teach courses on distribution channels in the undergraduate marketing program. What do you like most about teaching?
I think everyone who is in the teaching industry loves teaching because teaching is this very fast way you get to create value. You feel like when you are delivering a course or giving a presentation, you become the expert. So, it is self-enhancing for your own identity, for your own good. Why do you feel really enriched? You make yourself a better person because you shared knowledge with others. So, teaching is the fast way of pumping out information and research is the long way of doing that.
At B&E, we find it important to have a global perspective from both the academic side and the business world. With your knowledge of the digital marketplace both here in the United States and China and as an international faculty member, why do you believe globalization is important?
I think the major advantage of diversity globalization is that you understand yourself better by seeing others who are different. I often reflect on myself, my decisions, why I do certain things. This view was often limited when I was in my home city because I see everybody as homogeneous. It is a city life and I did not get to see others and their different lifestyles. I never really saw the full picture. So, when I moved to the United States, I was able to see what other people were doing – the people in Atlanta, the people in New York City, the people in Morgantown. It enriches my knowledge. It helps me to create this more fine-tuned view of the world, every understanding in terms of people’s attitude, preferences and motivations. Sometimes you notice very interesting differences.