Depending on who you ask, the AI revolution is either miraculous or catastrophic, and Genevieve Betancourt fell somewhere in the middle.

“I felt it would render humans useless, and that idea made me angry, especially when it came to art,” she said.   

But what if Betancourt, a newly graduated international business major, could not only find comfort with a formidable technology like AI but also wield it as a tool in her professional future?

For rising business leaders like Betancourt, powerful technologies like AI are changing the game and keeping businesses nimble, so when D'Amore-McKim School of Business Associate Teaching Professor Loredana Padurean was ruminating over the summer about her upcoming INNO4504: Integrated Studies in Corporate Innovation class, she thought: “How stupid and how anti-innovation would be for me to teach a class in corporate innovation without incorporating AI?”

Loredana Padurean

AI was a jungle for me as well. But if you want to learn something, teach it. That's what they say.

Loredana Padurean, Associate Teaching Professor

The only snag? She'd already emailed the students her syllabus, and it mentioned zip about AI.

“This is a really important point—technology is moving faster than the administrative part of education,” she says. “So, you have to allow a lot of flexibility in syllabi (if it is appropriate for the specific course).”

When that September rolled around, Betancourt and 13 other classmates were welcomed to the AI jungle along with Padurean, who had some familiarity with AI, but was by no means an expert.

“AI was a jungle for me as well,” she says. “But if you want to learn something, teach it. That's what they say.”

Welcome to the AI jungle

The jungle metaphor is no accident here. It's all by Padurean's design.

Her course is divided into two parts, the first of which is an introduction to Padurean's “Nail it, Scale it, Sail it” (NSS) framework, an exploration of corporate innovation models she co-developed with MIT Sloan School of Business Professor Charles Fine.

“Using the metaphor of a journey, I likened startups to navigating a dense jungle, scaling companies to mountain hikes, and large corporations to steering vast oceanic tankers,” says Padurean. “I could give students an exam and ask them to define the different typologies of innovation, or I could try to represent the stages in a creative way.”

Creativity fueled the second section of the class, and that's also where AI came into play. And play was important—Padurean asked the students to design a comic book capturing the essence of the NSS lifecycle framework.

“You want to bring a playfulness to a new idea,” says Padurean. “So, every time you bring a disruption, you must bring a playful element to it, too, because otherwise people get scared. There's a lot of psychology in teaching something that is very disruptive.”

“You have to take the initiative on your own to embrace the fear,” says Siyuan Zhang, a business administration major with a concentration in corporate innovation, who admitted some hesitancy around creating the comic book.

Using the AI-powered imagine.ART tool, students created their own unique comic book-style images. Through repeated trial and error, the students' prompts became more specific and detailed as they learned to direct the technology to create the results they were after. Working in groups, each team created unique styles, anywhere from Indiana Jones-esque adventures to children's stories.  

While this exercise may seem superfluous at first, for Padurean, it connects back to the future of work.

“As a leader, you need to know how to ask questions. You don't need to answer these questions, you just need to find the people who can answer these questions for you. So, if you're a banker and I'm the CEO of the bank, I need to ask, ‘Is there a way to skip 16 steps in the process of getting a loan using AI?'” she says. “It's more important to develop digital literacy with a goal of asking questions that can lead us to much better solutions and then hiring the right people to do it. Our students will now graduate as experts in coding or experts in algorithm development, but they need to learn how to develop prompt skills.”

Connor McCarthy, a business and economics major with a concentration in finance and corporate venture and innovation, admits he was unsure about using AI on the project since he didn't have any experience with it. “This was a project unlike any I had done before,” he says.

That's exactly why Padurean's class was recently awarded a D'Amore-McKim Teaching Innovation & Excellence Award. The awards are selected annually by a committee of faculty peers.

“I felt so validated,” says Padurean. “It was one of those days where everything was full of joy.”

From Romania to Northeastern—by accident

Padurean was born in Transylvania, Romania, and has lived and worked all over the world. 

“I had 19 different professions before I became a professor—anywhere from media to insurance, agriculture, sales, hospitality, fashion, TV. You name it, I've probably done it,” she says with a laugh.

She also discovered teaching later in life, by accident.

After pursuing a master's degree in business management in Switzerland, Padurean found herself running the program as a student, then becoming one of the school's first Ph.D. students.

“I was a bit of a troublemaker, to be honest, but the program was very poorly run,” she says. “It was a brand-new school.”

As part of the Ph.D. program, she was required to study abroad, and Padurean landed at MIT. There, she met MIT Sloan Professor of Applied Economics Roberto Rigobon, who “was jumping on tables and telling jokes and acting like a stand-up comic,” she recalls.

“And I was like, ‘Wow, professors can be like that, too?' Because that's much more my personality than everything else I'd seen prior to that. I love to talk; I love to tell stories. I love to be the subject of attention. Make me an accountant, and I'm going to be very annoying, but put me on the stage? That's the skill that I need to be successful.”

Inspired by Rigobon's approach to teaching, she imagined herself at the helm of a classroom, doing things her way. “When I tell students that representation matters, it doesn't just matter because you want to see somebody like you; it matters because you want to see behavior that you never thought would be acceptable in the conditions you've seen prior to this engagement,” she says.

Nowadays, Padurean's students call her the unconventional professor, a moniker she's embraced and emblazoned on her website.

“I knew from the first day when we spent an hour talking about bodily homeostasis that this was not a conventional class, and because of this, it is one of my absolute favorite classes I have taken at Northeastern,” says McCarthy. “Through the class, I realized that AI could never replace humans, it only augments us—AI is only as powerful as the human using it. My biggest takeaway was AI won't replace humans, but humans that use AI will.”

Thanks to the success of her class, Padurean is now considering incorporating AI imagery into her next book. Outside of class, Padurean has also leaned into Instagram, where her nearly 17,000 followers go for everything from leadership lessons to a breakdown of her skincare routine.

“Every third day of class, someone says to me, ‘Why are you not a stand-up comic?'” she says. “But I'm not very good on social media because I don't have a physical audience. My audience is my classroom.”