Back to Class: Pathfinder

A new program opens Stanford GSB to undergraduates for the first time.

April 22, 2024

| by Dave Gilson

“They’re learning content and ideas from a fresh start,” Darrell Duffie says of his Pathfinder students. | Elena Zhukova

On a recent afternoon, Darrell Duffie handed the reins of America’s monetary infrastructure to Generation Z. “If you were a policymaker and you had to set the course of the future of the U.S. payment system, what kind of money would you use?” the finance professor asked the 35 Stanford undergraduates seated inside a lecture hall at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “You can’t give a wrong answer,” he assured them. “These are ideas for policy options.”

Back to Class

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His reassurance was unnecessary. The students jumped right in, confidently discussing the pros and cons of dollar-backed stablecoins, blockchain-based payment systems, and federally issued digital currency. One made the case for sticking with the way things are. “Obviously, there are flaws with our current system,” he noted. “But if I’m the U.S. government, I’m in favor of maintaining the status quo, especially as a policymaker who’s up for reelection.”

This sophisticated discussion kicked off the third week of The Future of Money and Payments, one of the first undergraduate-level courses ever taught at Stanford GSB. It’s part of Pathfinder, a pilot program offering classes to juniors, seniors, and undergraduates in coterminal master’s programs.

Stanford does not offer an undergraduate business major, and Pathfinder isn’t meant as a substitute. Instead, explains Jesper Sørensen, Stanford GSB’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, the goal is to help students with a wide array of academic and professional interests “prepare themselves for what stands at the other side of graduation day.”


“It is heartening to see a group of people who want to make the world a better place,” says Joseph Piotroski. | Elena Zhukova

“That’s where the name Pathfinder came from,” he says. “The idea is to help students explore the world of organizations and markets and management so that they have a clear sense of where it is they might want to go.” The concept originated with Dean Jonathan Levin, who was “very interested in trying to find ways to create more connections between the business school and the rest of the university.”

The program launched last fall with two courses: From Founder to CEO: The Strategic Management of Startups and Established Firms, taught by former Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner; and Finance, Corporations, and Society, taught by finance professor Anat Admati.

The reviews have been positive. “I have enjoyed these classes more than any undergraduate classes thus far,” says Paolo Zocco, an economics major pursuing a coterminal master’s in management science and engineering. He says Saloner’s and Duffie’s courses have sparked his interest in business school.

Ayesha Dhall, a senior majoring in symbolic systems, says the “GSB-style” discussions in Saloner’s course were “a breath of fresh air in comparison to the large undergrad lectures I usually take.” The experience helped her envision her next step: “I realized through this class that success — whether in entrepreneurship or careers in general — is not a straight path from A to B.”

The idea is to help students explore the world of organizations and markets and management so that they have a clear sense of where it is they might want to go.
Jesper Sørensen

While Pathfinder students may not be as well versed in the workings of the business or financial world as MBA students, Duffie says this is not a disadvantage. “They’re learning content and ideas from a fresh start. And so the pace of learning is fast. That’s very rewarding as a teacher. In the course of one class meeting, you feel like a lot was taken in.” He adds that his digitally savvy students are well prepared for a class project in which they make payments on the Ethereum blockchain.

Professor of accounting Joseph Piotroski is teaching the winter quarter’s other Pathfinder course, Triple Bottom Line: Managing Sustainable Value Creation. Like Duffie, he hasn’t watered down his curriculum. He says that introducing high-level material to younger students has been refreshing. “Obviously, I need to make sure that basic concepts and first principles are well understood. With that said, these are Stanford undergrads,” he says. “They’re as sharp as they come.”

In a recent class, Piotroski led students through the finer points of decomposing corporate financial performance, illustrated with real data from Prada, The Gap, and a supermarket chain in Botswana. “I don’t expect you to become experts at financial analysis,” he told the students. “It’s more about understanding the consequences of a company’s business model and identifying the impact of strategic choices taken by its management team.” The course will culminate with teams doing a complete analysis of a company of their choice and then offering strategic recommendations on its financial, environmental, and social performance.

In the spring quarter, Pathfinder will offer courses taught by accounting professor Maureen McNichols and organizational behavior professors Nir Halevy and Amir Goldberg. The program will return in the fall with more courses and sessions designed to draw in students from all corners of campus. “Our hope is that the appeal of Pathfinder will broaden,” Sørensen says.

The program already seems to have connected with its participants’ sense of purpose. “It is heartening to see a group of people who want to make the world a better place,” Piotroski says of his students. “At the end of the day, they’ll have a toolkit that they can apply.”

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