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Rice research: Do leaders with distinctive names run distinctive businesses?

A CEO with an unusual name is likely to be confident about creating a unique strategy, this Rice University researcher finds. Photo via Pexels

You probably know the names Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Bob Johnson. But how about DeShuna Spencer? She's the founder and CEO of the online streaming platform KweliTV. The platform's broad array of movies, news and other programming features are all created by people of African descent. KweliTV (Kweli means "Truth" in Kiswahili) was recently ranked one of the 16 best movie streaming services of 2020 by PC Magazine.

This achievement is all the more distinctive considering Spencer competes in the same territory as billion dollar brands such as Hulu, Disney, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — and has managed to do so without securing a single full seed investment. Today, 60 percent of KweliTV's revenue returns to the pockets of its Black creators, who typically have limited distribution access.

What enabled Spencer to break out of the pack? Part of the answer could lie in her unusual first name, according to research by Rice Business professor Yan "Anthea" Zhang and David H. Zhu and Yungu Kang of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. In a recently published paper, the team explored the startling role a first name can play in CEO strategies.

While companies direct considerable resources — and lip service — toward innovation and better products, the team writes, they should also give special consideration to CEO candidates with unusual names. According to their findings, a CEO with a distinctive name is more likely to lead a distinctive company.

Past research has shown many links between organizations' success and their leaders' personal traits: temperaments, life experiences, personal values and demographic profiles. CEO names should be included in this list of variables, Zhang's team argues.

That's because people with unusual names see themselves as being different from their peers, studies suggest. The dynamic is unsurprising: others often see the holders of unusual names as different. As a result, people with uncommon names internalize these impressions.

The feeling of difference can be excruciating, as anyone who has spent time in a schoolyard knows. CEO types, however, don't have that problem. "Many people may not have the confidence to exhibit how unique they believe themselves to be," Zhang's team writes. "CEOs do — they are generally confident individuals."

Armed with self-assurance, CEOs with rare names are at ease differentiating themselves in the workplace. Their leadership strategies, the researchers found, reflect that impulse. In other words, a CEO with a striking name is likely to build a striking business strategy.

To study these links, the team analyzed business strategies and other data from 1,172 companies between 1998 and 2016. Industries in the sample included mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance, service companies and real estate.

Then, to measure how common — or uncommon — a CEO's name was, the researchers looked at naming records from the United States Social Security Administration between 1880 and 2016, controlling for ethnicity, gender and country of birth. James, John and Robert were among the predictable greatest hits. The most uncommon names included Phaneesh, Frits and Jure.

Among the researchers' findings:

  • The more uncommon a CEO's name, the greater her firm's strategic distinctiveness is likely to be.
  • The more confident a CEO is, the stronger the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and that of her company strategy.
  • A CEO's power also affects the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and her likelihood of having a distinctive strategy. The greater the power, the stronger the correlation.

Overall, the researchers concluded, a CEO with an odd first name may be more likely to help a business rise from mediocre to revolutionary. Boards looking for this kind of transformation should consider CEOs with names that suit.

Recruiters are notorious for ignoring resumes and applications headed with ethnic names. Not only is this linguistic tunnel vision an engine of systemic racism, Zhang's team found, it's a strategic mistake.

Gravitating to a familiar face, race or name is human nature. It can also weaken a company's talent base — and ultimately its own quest to be outstanding.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan "Anthea" Zhang is the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management — Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Optellum, which has its United States operations based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has raised fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Oxford-based health tech startup that has its United States headquarters in Houston has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Optellum, which has created a breakthrough AI platform to diagnose and treat early-stage lung cancer, has raised $14 million in a series A funding round. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Mercia, with additional investors California-based Intuitive Ventures and New York-based Black Opal Ventures. Existing investors, including St John's College in the University of Oxford, IQ Capital, and the family office of Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood, also participated in the round, per a news release.

"Lung cancer is an urgent public health crisis and Optellum's groundbreaking approach utilizing AI to accelerate early detection and intervention may fundamentally alter the healthcare community's approach to combating this disease," says Dr. Oliver Keown, managing director of Intuitive Ventures, in the release. "Optellum is uniquely positioned to align and provide considerable value to patients, providers, and payers alike. Intuitive Ventures is thrilled to provide our full arsenal of financial and strategic support to Optellum as we work towards a world of better outcomes for cancer patients."

The fresh funding will go toward scaling Optellum's operations and commercial launches in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Additionally, the company plans to expand its platform, including providing personalized therapy support using imaging data with molecular data, robotics, and liquid biopsies.

"With this strong support and commitment of highly specialized investors, we are positioned to accelerate commercial deployment in both the UK and the United States to expand our installed base," says Jason Pesterfield, CEO at Optellum, in the release. "Following years of research and clinical trials that have shown the impact of our software on the diagnosis of at-risk lung nodules, we're focused on expanding patient access to this crucial technology and identifying deadly lung cancer faster in more at-risk people. The funding will also boost our research and development with world-leading institutions and partners to progress further innovation."

Optellum's software provides support for physicians making decisions in early lung cancer diagnosis and treatment. The company was launched to provide better diagnostics and early-stage treatment to increase survival rates and improve health outcomes.

Last year, Optellum — whose U.S. headquarters is at Houston's TMC Innovation Institute — announced it would be included in J&J's Lung Cancer Initiative. The startup was a 2019 graduate of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator and its software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic, received FDA clearance, CE-MDR in the EU, and UKCA in the UK.

"Optellum is the latest in a series of companies to channel research from the UK's world-leading universities into commercially viable products that can make a difference to the provision of medical care," says Mercia Investment Director Stephen Johnson in the release. "Having observed Optellum achieve great milestones over the years, we are now excited to become part of their success and apply our experience with scaling up software and deep-tech companies to help accelerate Optellum's impact on patient lives across the world."

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