Harvard Square, Boston
The food is hot, as in spicy hot and the weather outside is cold, as in freezing cold. My two dining companions are Harvard Business school students, class of 2006. Both are Indian, one is a former entrepreneur and the other, to be one.
Tamarind Bay, the restaurant we are seated in, is located bang in Harvard Square, Cambridge, a ten minute walk from most Harvard campuses in Boston, in Massachussets. There are two good Indian restaurants in Harvard Square, almost cheek by jowl. The other is Bombay Club. Despite being a chilly weekday night with most sidewalks covered with snow, this one is packed to the gills. Indian food is almost an incentive to fight the biting cold, it would seem.
Between roti, chana dal and succulent mutton roganjosh, I am trying to understand why Rohit Jain sold off his stake in a software business he co-founded to come and study at Harvard. As I am trying to figure, among other things, why Ganesh Rengaswamy would give up his job to come study at Harvard. Actually the part about giving up a job is okay but going back to to run a dot company, in 2005, could be termed a little unusual, if not downright suicidal.
The Learning Trail
These are young Indians from India. Their answers range from the mercenary; consulting job that could pay upto $400,000 per year to the more cerebral, I want to focus on public policy in the long term answer. They cherish the journey of learning. As old as all this sounds, there is a vital difference in what they are learning outside their curriculum right now. And understanding this is critical for India’s colleges, management institutes and the ambitious corporations they serve.
I spent the earlier part of the evening sitting in the vast Spangler Hall (also in the HBS campus) with its rich five-star lobby like seating (all for students) speaking with Abhi Shah, my constant companion for this trip. Abhi is more than just a student at Harvard. He is associated with two India lobby foundations in Washington, as founder & chairman of the US-India PAC Youth Committee, co-founder and vice president of the US-India Business Alliance. He is also the president of the HBS Globalisation Club.
Both Abhi and Rohit represent clarity of purpose in their own ways. Rohit, an IIT engineer, says he wanted to find out how “the other side was.” My question to him: why did he sell a start-up business that seemed to be doing fine to go back to studying. “Actually, this was my third business,” he says. “Before that I was involved in a small refractory business and then in starting up a restaurant in Delhi,” says Rohit who graduated from IIT Delhi in 2001.
Studying & Self Realisation !
Rohit admits the decision to study at this point did not come easy. “There is a huge opportunity cost in coming here. An MBA degree is not like an engineering degree that’s more tangible. There are no real hard skills and its more general management.” And yet, for someone like him who wanted to work in new places and see the world, notably raw American capitalism, this has been fruitful, he says.
Abhi who is roughly of the same vintage says he’s found the journey fascinating. Is studying a little later in life, having worked a few years, like a self-realisation process, I ask ? Yes, he says, most folks here are doing a lot of soul searching on what they want to do and where they want to go. He quotes a figure, “80% of students rethink what they wrote in their statement of purpose (SOP) during admission,” he says.
More importantly, he points out, its Harvard’s case study method of teaching that has hooked him. “You are talking of 500 case studies in two years, many of them protagonist studies, with the CEO sitting right there. You can’t even dream of replicating this experience on your own.” The interesting thing, Abhi says, is that many students actually want to become entrepreneurs in the first year but by the second year have had a rethink. Incidentally, many such studies end with the students concluding the CEO in question should be fired.
More Than Connections
Ganesh, also an engineer originally, is confident his website, www.travelguru.com will work. He is perhaps the second or third travel website company to hit India with some momentum and obviously venture capital. He says having worked in Infosys for a few years, he wanted to do something on his own. His co-founder at travelguru incidentally finished up from Harvard last year.
So, what were these guys learning here and what were they going to bring back home, if they did return ? The answer is perhaps none of this. Okay, they were sure to bring back fresh connections with the mighty Harvard Business School alumni network, with over 65,000 active alumni - another statistical insight from Abhi. And of course, a brand name they could strut around with.
The answer emerged over a sandwich lunch with a senior HBS professor at the vast Baker Library dining rooms. “A few years ago, the big debate was on ethics and corporate governance. Today, we are trying to understand how to talk about issues like global terror and doing business in a multi-cultural world,” he said. According to him, these were real issues that corporations today were grappling with, particularly those present in multiple markets.
Ganesh, Abhi and Rohit (among others) are unlikely to return visibly brighter and smarter. But they will return with a multi-cultural exposure and business experience that is invaluable in these times. I know Indian CEOs who will give an arm and leg for such managers. These youngsters will approach the Chinese threat the way it has to be approached, with respect and not bluster. And they will know how to better deal with a post 9/11 world.
Now, that’s very little to do with curriculum, how I see it. The challenge is now for our institutes, including the top rankers, to replicate similar learning environments. A few are attempting it but the desire to grapple with real world issues is limited, at least the sensitive ones. And its the sensitive stuff which really makes the minds work. Like, should General Motors continue to invest in Gujarat ? Just a case study.
The writer was visiting Harvard Business School as part of continuing research on a book on entrepreneurship. This article appeared in the Hindustan Times, Bombay, on Tuesday, December 20