CSMGEP Profiles: Larry Chavis, University of North Carolina

Coming Full Circle

Larry Chavis, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Portrait of Sheldon DanzigerIt was 1997 and the Asian financial crisis was cresting. Larry Chavis’s extended family on his wife’s side was visiting from Indonesia, where they had lived for decades. Violence was exploding on the streets of Jakarta, as the country’s political and economic forces collided.

“We’d come home from sightseeing with my in-laws to messages on the answering machine from family saying, ‘don’t worry we’ll be ok, we’re keeping our heads low, staying indoors.’ It was just so hard seeing a place you know falling apart.”

Chavis knew Indonesia well, having focused his doctoral work in anthropology on ethnicity and class in that country. He’d spent significant time studying the language, and he had devoted two years to “really being about Indonesia all the time.”

What he couldn’t understand at the time, however, was what he was reading in the papers. “I felt, wow, I don’t even have the skills to read the news to understand what exactly happened. What are these macroeconomic terms I’m reading? What are the forces that are driving this crisis?”

Always the student, he took a few classes in economics to better understand, and it became a turning point in his life, one that would lead him from anthropology and Asian studies at Johns Hopkins and Cornell to Stanford, where he received his doctorate in economics, and ultimately to his assistant professorship of entrepreneurship at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Along the way, he and his wife raised three children, now ages 15, 7 and 3 in three states. “It goes without saying, my wife has been very patient with me,” he says.

While he initially approached economics as a way to better understand the economic forces tragically unfolding in Asia, “the process also helped me to realize that if you have a heart for developing economies, it’s just as fulfilling to be an economist as an anthropologist. Economic forces can shape people’s lives in good and bad ways. In anthropology I was concerned with how things like race and class come together. I realized that being interested in economics wasn’t antagonistic to that.” He also realized that telling stories with numbers, which economics does, was very satisfying. “So much can be conveyed with statistics and mathematical models,” he says, “and I find this a very natural way of thinking.”

Today his anthropology roots are still evident in his own research on how government regulation, or lack of it, affects a firm’s access to financing. His research compares different approaches in 100 countries, both developed and developing. “In Canada or New Zealand, you can start a business quickly and at relatively low cost,” he says. “In developing countries, it can take months and months to start a new business, and it costs more than the average person makes in a year.” It is often a Catch-22 he finds, where only those older, more established firms in developing countries have easy access to the needed credit to grow, while entrepreneurs, who arguably need credit the most, are blocked.

“On the surface,” he says, “this is pretty far away from my economics thesis that focused on villages competing for public goods in Indonesia. But the common thread is the effect of poor governance on economic incentives and behavior.”

This interest also aligns with that of the late John McMillan of Stanford, whom Chavis deliberately sought out when applying to PhD programs and who would become an integral mentor in his scholarly life. McMillan’s bio on the business school’s website piqued Chavis’s interest, seeing in it a potential intersection of pursuits. He got on the phone and they talked. “We hit it off pretty well. He called me when they offered me admission, and then we met every week, even before I was working on research.”

This kind of intense mentorship was key to his success, he says. “I saw other folks go months and months without seeing their adviser, and then be dismayed when they realized that the things they were working on were not, in the adviser’s eyes, considered useful.”

He found similar guidance and encouragement through another mentoring program, the AEA’s Pipeline program (now known as the Mentoring program). In the difficult days of math course after math course that a doctorate in economics entails, “The Pipeline program really helped me feel a part of something bigger than myself and bigger than economics,” he says. “There were times when the only reason I did not leave the PhD program was because I wanted to return to the Pipeline program and continue to be a part of that community.”

Chavis understood the importance of mentoring and a connection to a larger community because of his own early life surrounded by a culture, the Lumbee Indians, that prized teaching and whose teachers in his tight-knit community were always there for him.

“Despite the countless negative statistics associated with my home town and with my tribe,” he says, “my background helped me get where I am today. For the Lumbee, teachers have always played a special role in our culture.” The nearby Pembroke branch of the University of North Carolina began as a school to train Native American teachers, and was the first public four-year college for Native Americans in the country. “Being around that really influenced my decision to be a professor,” he says.

“In many ways I am still a poor Indian kid from Robeson County—a county with the highest poverty rate in the state. In that sense sometimes I feel uncomfortable with how much my life has changed now that I am on the other end of the income spectrum. Being Native American from a poor area really pushed me toward studying poverty on a global scale, and since the day I got my first National Geographic magazine, I had an interest in world affairs, so my focus wasn’t a stretch. Now that I have returned to North Carolina, I hope to begin more research on Native Americans and how their lives have been changed by global economic forces.”

In the meantime, he can be found at Tar Heels games. “In North Carolina, the sign that you’ve really made it,” he says, “is when you can look out your window at work and see the Dean Dome.”

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust’s answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What is your idea of a perfect day?
I am crazy about my home state, so any day I wake up here is pretty great.

What’s on your nightstand?
A collection of picture books I picked up for the kids at the library. Right now we particularly like anything by Mo Willems.

How do you treat yourself? What’s your favorite indulgence?
Last week after arriving home from a conference I went by a local fast food chain and had a ham biscuit and a sweet tea. I get goose bumps just thinking about it! I also have North Carolina pulled pork barbecue whenever I get a chance.

What trait do you most deplore in others?

Whom do you most admire?
My parents for their willingness to sacrifice for education, mine and theirs.

What is your greatest regret?
I am an economist so it’s all sunk costs.

What’s your favorite sport?
Since I attended Duke and work at Carolina, college basketball is an obsession.

What’s your most annoying/bad habit?
You’d have to ask my wife, she has amassed quite a list over the years.

What’s your favorite movie?
Finding Nemo, it is still as funny the 100th time as it was the first.

For a vacation, beach or mountains?
Beach. We recently visited Charleston and when we got to the beach the children were absolutely ecstatic. They couldn’t have been happier if it were Christmas morning.

If you weren't in economics, what would you want to do?
I think in another life I would have been a Wiggle. Sounds silly but I would really love to sing and dance and make kids smile. Unfortunately I have no musical skills to speak of so I will settle for being an economist.

What’s your personal motto?
If I were to have one it would probably be our state motto: “To be, rather than to seem.”