Episode Title: Global Journey with Dr Chandru Rajam. Educator, Entrepreneur.
Episode summary introduction: A trip down memory lane with Dr Chandru Rajam, an educator and entrepreneur, as he shares his experiences and learnings studying, working and living in multiple countries.
In particular, we discuss the following with him:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Our Guest: Dr Chandru Rajam is an educator-turned-entrepreneur. Dr Rajam is currently the CEO of RichFeedback, a startup providing knowledge-intensive services to Colleges and Universities. Dr Rajam has served on the faculty of University of Colorado at Denver, National University of Singapore and George Washington University.
Memorable Quote: "Life has a way of taking you on detours”
Episode Transcript: Please visit almamatters.io/podcasts.
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
Hello, and welcome to today's podcast. We have an absolute treat for you in the form of Dr. Chandru Rajan educator, entrepreneur. Today he's going to talk to us about his experiences, living, studying and working on multiple continents.
With that, I'm going to let Dr. Chandru Rajan tell you his story.
Hi, how are you, Venkat?
Very good. Very good. Welcome to the podcast.
So thank you for having me here.
Sure thing. Thanks for making the time.
So what I wanted to do today is give you a chance to wander down memory lane a little bit and also look forward. And maybe we can break it out into two parts and start with a little bit about you know, your experiences, your background, you know what you've done over the years, which is very interesting. So maybe we can get started with, you know, all your experiences about, you know, both studying abroad and living abroad. And whatever you feel comfortable talking to us about.
Sure. Thank you again for inviting me to share my reflections about my journey. And I am obviously one can tell from my name, Indian by origin. I have been, depending on your perspective, fortunate and privileged or not, to have been born, initially, born in Malaysia, and actually raised there, until the age of 11. And then my family moved to India to the south of India to a small city by the name of Trichy. And that's where I finished up high school. So my primary education was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and my secondary education was in Trichy. I attended, for those who are from India, you will be familiar with the school system called the CBSE or the Central Board of Secondary Education.
And I attended a CBSE school in Trichy, and was fortunate enough to be able to go study Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, after which I got my MBA from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. So these were formative experiences, just as any, any alumnus of either of these institutions will, will attest to, and I think in many ways shaped me.
It became quite clear, fairly early on during my days as an engineering student that I was not particularly interested in matters technical. It was one of the few career choices that were very sought after in those days growing up in India. And, and so, that's where I ended up. But I think it became quite clear that I was much more interested in people issues, social issues, and toward the end of my engineering, I ended up taking electives that were more industrial management related.
And then the MBA kind of took that a step further. It was not quite atypical for people of my generation to follow that path. Often it was a sought after path, but it was also considered a safe bet from the perspective of employability. And so many of my classmates, even if they pursued the early careers in engineering would end up often doing an MBA or some kind of business or finance degree in order to improve their employment chances to make themselves more employable and marketable.
So many of my MBA classmates from IIM Calcutta ended up working for consumer products, companies working for commercial banks for investment banks, or for premium marketing companies. Some obviously went back to their roots in engineering management, production planning for some of the large industrial enterprises Of The Year of that era, like Tata Steel and Tata Motors, and Eicher tractors and ITC and whatnot. So that was my journey up to the end of a master's degree.
I ... came to the United States, I currently live in the US, that's why I say I came to the United States in 1985 to pursue a PhD in business. I hadn't entirely decided that I wanted to be an academic. But in those days, if you wanted to do something in the social sciences, or in business or law, there weren't opportunities to come to the United States except through education. And since I already had an MBA, and since I couldn't afford to study in the United States on my own, the PhD ended up being a logical step.
Like I said, I hadn't entirely decided to become an academic, but I thought that if I got a scholarship, it would give me an opportunity to come to the US and, and see where life took me. So I ended up pursuing a PhD in Business and, and I focused on corporate strategy and business strategy and international business. Those were the areas that most excited me even back in the school during my MBA days and eventually graduated with a PhD and went on to take up a teaching job at the University of Colorado, on its Denver campus and where I taught for four years.
So that's, that's my, and actually ended up spending my first eight years in the United States largely in academic settings, first as a PhD student at the Pennsylvania State University. And then for four years as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, in Denver.
Wow, that's quite a transition. And how did you like the academic world? How did you like the teaching world?
I thoroughly enjoyed my career as a, as a teacher, as a, as a as a university professor. I didn't realize how much I enjoyed teaching obviously, nobody does realize how much they enjoy something until they've given it a shot. So it's no different in that regard.
But, but I think I took quite naturally to teaching for a couple of reasons. So just in terms of my personality, I would describe myself as an, as an extrovert. I'm a people person, I enjoy conversations, I enjoy making relationships, making friends, I, I easily befriend people and I'm approachable. So I think those qualities served me well as a university professor in an academic setting. There was also the thrill of being able to impart what you know, to an audience of students. And that was always an exciting aspect of the profession. Now every profession has its pluses and minuses. And, and academia is no different. But I think I think it fits my personality quite well. And it allowed me to shine so much so that I actually look forward to teaching, And to this day, I have tried to be in that situation whenever possible.
I no longer teach at a university. But that's that's a whole nother story. But all those years when I did teach, I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom experience, the interaction, and the ability above all to be among young, young people. And they kept you honest, they kept your thinking they kept you on your toes. And, and students have a unique ability to ask you a question that even if you're teaching a course for the 10th time, you know, as always making you introspect and think about something from a different angle, and one that had never occurred to you before.
So what kind of courses did you teach?
So I, I taught courses on strategy, strategic management and corporate strategy, those are all synonyms for that body of knowledge. I also taught international business. That was the supporting discipline in my PhD program, and I built on that and, and, and after I left the United States, in, from Denver, I moved to the National University of Singapore, and I taught there for for nine years thereafter, from the early to, throughout the 90s, from about 1993 until 2002.
So in between my teaching in the United States and in Singapore, I taught variation different courses, core courses, electives around these two bodies of knowledge, strategic management and international business. Obviously, when I taught in Singapore, I taught it with an Asian slant. Because the economy of East Asia and Southeast Asia had been booming in those years. And so it's, it was incumbent upon us to try to adapt the material that we had largely inherited from a US perspective and teach it from an Asian perspective.
So why did you move to Singapore? What made you do that?
So, as I mentioned earlier, I was born and raised initially in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. So part of the decision to move to Singapore, was, was to be closer to my family. I'd been away from home from the age of 17, and coincidentally, returned to Asia when I was 34. So half my life had been at home and, and I was returning to the region after another 17 years. But more importantly, so part of it was obviously personal and my dad had just passed away the year before. And so this was a homecoming of sorts for me to be closer to the rest of the family.
But I think the other aspect of it was professional, in that I had in my research and my reading and my teaching, been very impressed with what was going on in East Asia, Japan being the first and industrializing Asian country, and thereafter followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and so on.
So it was a very dynamic region and as a professor of business strategy, and as a professor of international business, I found that region an exciting place to be. So it was a choice that was made easy by the fact that I had family there, and, and professionally, Singapore seemed like a perfect, you know, combination between East and West. It offered good professional opportunity for someone relocating halfway around the world. They also offered a, an interesting, natural experiment where the economies were booming. And, you know, the companies and entrepreneurs were thinking big, and, and thinking about exciting possibilities.
So I lived in Singapore for a total of 12 and a half years and the first nine of which were as a business school professor at the National University of Singapore.
And then I went into industry. My first job was not that far away from academia. I became [the] founding Dean of an online business school that had been funded by 16 universities from four continents on one side and publisher, a textbook publisher called Thomson Learning, it now is called Cengage. But in the old days, it was Thomson Learning and they put in half the money until there was a joint venture startup online business school that in the early days of online education, you know, we, we were making a valiant attempt to, to offer business education, but obviously infrastructure and other challenges. were quite steep to overcome.
For a variety of reasons, I left there after a year it was a it was a startup environment. I had burned myself out. I think I worked like 20 hour days. And it was a, it was an incredible opportunity. But I, I then got head hunted, recruited, I should say, by a, by The Economist group. I'm sure most of your listeners are familiar with The Economist magazine.
Didn't go work for the magazine. But it was a sister division, another division within the group called The Economist Intelligence Unit. And I had the opportunity to work up there as a regional director. And it was a, it was a very privileged opportunity because I got to interact with multinational company CEOs for the region. So these were people who worked for large, global multinational companies, often of Western origin, but they were managing all of the Asia Pacific or all of Southeast Asia.
And so that was a, that was a privileged opportunity where I got to interact with them, explain what was going on in the macro economy in Asia as well as globally, and then help them navigate the business as they operated in each of those markets in that region. So it was a good opportunity. I got to be on TV, a lot on CNBC and BBC on a regular basis. Because, again, I represented a fairly popular and influential brands The Economist should and and that was, it was really a privileged opportunity.
Some years prior to that, while I was still teaching at the National University of Singapore, I was invited to chair and moderate conferences for the US publisher called Business Week. It's now Bloomberg Businessweek in those days, it was part of McGraw Hill. Yeah. And, and that was another very unique and, and wonderful opportunity where I got to serve as moderator and chairman for 50 conferences for CEOs CIO CFOs. And in the region. And I learned a lot as a business school professor, you know, the theory is what you're trained within the Ph. D program, but then the conferences offered a practitioner perspective, which I was able to marry, when I when I came back to the classroom to deal with you know, to, to interact with my students.
[I] Want to add one more thing. So while I was teaching at the National University, Singapore I was called upon by the dean to launch a new brand new Executive MBA program. We had the regular MBA program, we didn't have an executive MBA program usually targeted at much more senior executives.
And so that was another very privileged opportunity, he could have chosen any one of the remaining hundred and 50 professors, but he trusted in a fairly young academic at the time and, and I, I was called upon to do that.
And that was a, that was another very powerful experience. I had to create the program from scratch, obviously, with input from colleagues and administrators. And then we launched the program in a record six months and had an initial batch of 24 students. They were they came from, I think, something like 10 or 12 countries.
These senior executives who had had a minimum of 10 years of work experience in order to be admissible to the program, many of them had 17 and 20 years experience. So more than half the class the first class That we brought in was older than I was. So you can imagine what that dynamic was like. And, and that was, that was quite a, I ran that program for four years. And I'm pretty pleased to say that it is still highly ranked globally by financial times.
And, and so I had a little legacy I left behind in, at the National University of Singapore.
Now, how different was it transitioning from the US to Singapore? And obviously, we're from the region, but how did it, how did it fee,l and what are the differences?
So I had left Malaysia when I was 11. So I was returning almost two decades later on as a as a professional. And so my perspective had been, had been quite had, had been different, came to be different, I should say.
When I returned to the region, I had never worked there ,never gone to school or even high school or college. So in that respect, I was a visitor, newcomer, I also understood the culture locally, I understood the dynamics between, you know, the various ethnic communities there. There was Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia and Brunei, the Chinese in, in as minority in many of the countries in Southeast Asia but also as the majority population and Singapore, understood at a visceral level, what these cultures will like it will interact with, but it was interesting, obviously coming that to work.
And to your specific question. I think in the United States, students tend to be much more vocal in their participation and their ability to ask questions or challenge the instructor. And that was always an exciting aspect of teaching in the United States, in that you're kept on your toes.
And there's always healthy debate and discussion in the classroom and as a student of business, anywhere in the social sciences like humanities, that's very important because because nobody has the all the answers, not even the professor, there is no one right answer in these disciplines. You discover perspectives. You look at something from another perspective, you, you critique, you debate your disgust. And out of that comes understanding.
So, you know, so the United States, the classroom environment tends to be much more vibrant, especially at the Masters level at the graduate level, and I taught MBAs as well as undergraduate classes in the US.
Now, when I moved to Singapore, I found that culturally, the vast majority of Singapore students tended to be more reticent. They were quieter. I think part of it is just cultural, as I alluded to a moment ago, the, the Singapore population is 75%, ethnic Chinese, immigrant. They tended to be quiet reticent and shy. And so it was a challenge to try to draw them out into class discussion. And you had to do, you have to try different strategies to make sure it was, it was a non threatening environment, one in which they felt comfortable expressing themselves.
So, here's, so very interesting that you went from academia to industry, what was that transition like?
So that was a, that was, that was a humbling experience in, in some ways, because you, when you are in business, and as a manager or an, as a, as an executive, you're always expected to deliver actual performance. You know, and I'm not suggesting that academics don't have to deliver, they to have to be held accountable for their research or their teaching, but it's a very different kind of set of deliverables that you're responsible for in business and industry. And, and so I think You know, as much as I had been a business school professor and knew the theory about how organizations are run our businesses are managed or led, it is quite another thing trying to do that and implement that.
So I think, you know, in my, in my 40s, I had, you know, finally an opportunity to actually put things into practice, and, and in other lots of lessons along the way, managing people, managing budgets, delivering on metrics and targets.
So it was a, it was an interesting experience. Obviously, it was easier for someone like me who had already been a student of business to make that transition, as opposed to let's say he had had I been a chemistry professor or a physics professor and astronomy professor. I think the transition might have been a little bit more steep, and difficult because I had already been familiar with the subject matter of business and management and leadership. At least I saw and could recognize the patterns as they unfolded in the workplace.
My journey, to answer your question, then I worked in Singapore for another two or three years after I left academia.
And then an, a completely different life changing opportunity came along for me to become an entrepreneur. I had been dabbling with the idea. Remember, the 19, late 1990s and early 2000s have been the era of the dotcom.
And I had seen many of my former colleagues, friends, associates go on to become entrepreneurs. And I always felt like I had missed that opportunity when it was unfolding in Silicon Valley and in the US as a whole.
I was away in Asia and you know, and so, in 2005, we, we wanted to learn to read a couple of colleagues and I wanted to launch a business, and we were fortunate enough to get funding from a prominent Indian industrial group. And that essentially meant moving back to the US in order to be serving clients.
So I relocated with my family. I had gotten married in Singapore, a year or two after I had moved there. So by then we had two children. So my wife and I, and our two children, or eight and five at the time, moved back to the United States in January of 2006.
It was primarily to launch this new business, and we moved to a suburb of Washington, DC, where we still currently live, and again, you know, talk about transition that was yet another transition in my life, where I went from, you know, dabbling in business and industry and media for Business Week and Economist to a startup environment where essentially, you have to create something from scratch.
It's a scary proposition when you have two young kids. And you move back halfway around the world. And just as an aside, this might be of interest to some of your international student audience. I had been a permanent resident of the US. I, when I moved to Singapore, eventually, I became a permanent resident of Singapore, and I let my permanent residency of the US lapse. I had no plans to return to the US.
But life has a way of taking you on detours. And here I was in 2006, having to return to the US now with no more green card, no more permanent residency and essentially starting from scratch. And so it wasn't just the business and my career that was starting from scratch, but, but also, you know, my immigration status. But, you know, we, we worked and we tried to make it work. And so it's been 14 years now since I returned to the US and I don't think I've lived anywhere for more than 14 years.
So it’s coming up!
14 years in India, that's right. That's exactly right. Yes.
So it was 11 years in Malaysia, 14 years in India in eight years in the US and then 12 and a half years in Singapore, and now another 14 years in the US so, I don't particularly know which place is home because I've had many homes.
But here I am, still a struggling entrepreneur. And that's been another humbling experience. Venkat, I know you've launched and, and sold companies before and so you, you will be able to relate to what I'm saying but as an entrepreneur, from a business standpoint, you are exposed, you're naked, right?
Because no matter what you've done before in life, no matter how smart or dumb you are, no matter exactly gotta see or fully who you are or brave you are, none of that matters because ultimately You've got to make a new concept work, new business work. And, and that takes work that takes smarts that takes a lot of risk. And so this, this has been a privilege journey of a different kind in which I've had to try to make my vision a reality and I still work in progress. Let me leave it at that.
It's fascinating. It's, you're blessed! And you still are blessed to have, you know, varied experiences, lots of transitions, I noted three of them, at least three big ones. And it's, I mean, it's very inspiring, and I guess, hard work and, you know, chance and grab opportunities. So that's, that's really fascinating and very exciting. Thanks for sharing that. So
Sure. I and if I could just go ahead, were you going to ask me that? I was gonna say that. I think as I reflect Then I probably spent way too much time talking about my background.
But I think, I think, as I reflect, and thank you for this opportunity to reflect on, you know, my journey, I think the biggest transformations for me came when I, when I had to move from one country to another earlier in life.
So obviously having been born in an immigrant family in Malaysia of Indian origin. When I moved to India, that was a big transition happened fairly early on in my life. My parents had been immigrants themselves. So I think it made our journey a little easier because of all the stories you've heard.
But but leaving India and coming to the US was a whole nother experience, you know, and and over the years, I've been asked by students looking to study abroad, often of Indian origin, or I've been asked by families and I say that if you can afford it, and you can send your child to, to the West, the UK, Canada US, Australia doesn't matter. The amount of learning they will go through in life outside the classroom far outpaces what they learn in the classroom. So transformative is the experience. If you just wanted to study history or engineering or math, there are fine institutions in most places in the world.
What makes the experience particularly powerful is the fact that you are you, you are choosing to be outside your comfort zone. You go through culture shock, and then you adjust and then that becomes the new normal. And then through all of this, you know, it's a test of the soul in some way because you leave the familiar behind, you embrace change, you embrace different, you try to fit in, you try to adapt, you hold on to the core of who you are, through all of the changes in your environment. Whether it's your your, your ethnic roots, or your religious beliefs or your familiar ways of doing things, your cuisine and so on. And so it really is something that traverses one's character traverses one spirituality, traverses one's mind stretches us, it allows us to see the commonality of human existence. And no matter which culture, what language people embrace. And so those were some of the biggest transformations for me, and I've been very blessed, and I borrowed the term that you used. I feel very blessed because I've had many personal transitions.
But I've also had many professional transitions. I could have coasted along doing a lot of things at various points in my career. But I chose to do, take the next big leap, not knowing where I will land. And you know, sometimes I landed with a thud and had to pay a price for it, and sometimes I landed a you know, with the gentle fall, but regardless, I think the human experience is one of trends transiting, transitioning, transcending boundaries. And and, I would, I would never turn any of this back. If I had to do it again, I think I would do them exactly the way I did simply because what you learn from, from crossing boundaries, whether it's geographic boundaries, cultural boundaries, career boundaries, professional boundaries, you learn a lot about yourself in the process of ups and downs transcending these boundaries.
Well said, it's very well put!
So let's talk about transit, transitions. Let's talk about today and, you know, the future or at least the immediate future. And I in particular, just wanted to talk about the current pandemic and the changes that it's bringing, and all kinds of discussions one can have.
But one in particular that I wanted to focus on is that, as a parent, your son is in college. He's currently going through semester, or doing a semester from home online. I am just curious to see now as a parent, how would you, how would you consider sending him back to campus and what would have to be in place? And this is a discussion that's raging right now. So I thought we get, you know, be very interesting to get a very personal sort of view or opinion. What does it take for him to go back to campus?
Sure. And our, our son is the 3rd year student at the University of Virginia. So he is at home. He was home for spring break, and then he got the email requiring students not to return to campus. And so he's been with us now for over a month.
And to your point about comfort level as a parent to return for a student returning to campus. I have a lot of faith in the leadership of most campuses. I mean, there are one or two institutions that I've read about, but they don't concern us now. But for the most part, I think leaders of education institutions are careful and deliberate and thoughtful. I think they're going to, as people have signs, they're going to listen to the scientists and the public health officials before they make a decision.
It's well known that most large university campuses in the US draw students from all over the country and often from many countries abroad. And so I think they are acutely aware of the fact that universities and campuses can become hotspots, [if] care is not given to to thinking about when to open up and went to have students come back to campus.
On any given weekend, students travel, they travel home, they might even go halfway around the country on a take a flight on a weekend. So universities can be huge transition points. So I have full faith in the leadership of this university where my son attends, but also of other campus leaders, that they will do the right thing.
And when and if and when they decide to open up, in, which it's a matter of when not whether that six months from now, a year from now or three months from now, I would be comfortable for our child to go back to campus. And I think we want one of the most comforting factors for me, like I said, these are leaders who are people of science. Sure, they understand data, they understand the science behind it, they understand the logic behind it. And so I'm quite comforted by the fact that universities are taking a cautious approach to this whole thing, even though you know economically and financially it has consequences for them in the, in the short run.
Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, the at the end of the day, they're answerable to a whole bunch of parents...
Unknown Speaker 34:06
..and you know, and if I, if I may persist with that for another moment, I think I think this is the moment of online education for for those of us who have been using it and, and and teaching through it and observing what's going on in terms of the digital technology on campus in the learning space. You know, the, this hasn't this, I wish more of it had happened we could have provided access to students at an earlier time.
But I think this pandemic has forced a lot of academics and academic institutions to accept, to invest in understand how the technology works and to and to embrace it and I think in a in a in a blessing in disguise kind of way. The pandemic has forced everyone to take note of the, of the enormous possibilities of online learning.
And I would say even if a student who is been accepted to study in the US, but who currently lives abroad and international students had the opportunity to study online and enroll in the university, I would still say it's a, it's an opportunity not to be missed, because what we will increasingly begin to see I think, as a result of this natural experiment is that more and more students will engage with their fellow students and their professors and the rest of the campus community through an online medium.
Now, obviously, the online cannot substitute for physical interaction. But, but I think we will see lots of innovation in terms of how to recreate some of the excitement of being on campus, through the online medium and, you know, online, will, I think begin to change and adapt and offer all kinds of opportunities in the months and years ahead.
You know, it's probably time to dust off the
business plan that you had with
Thomson Learning, Two decades ago
Unknown Speaker 35:58
was just ahead of your time. You know, timing is everything. And I totally agree with you, I think what what this has also done is brought the, you know, the virtual interaction technology, if you can call it that, to the forefront, and we are beginning to see so many things that can be done without, you know, without having to physically be present, I mean, and, and something like this, if it had happened like 10 years ago, would have been pretty hard to deal with. Considering all the advancements, and you know, whether it is Amazon's of the world, the delivery services, food, I mean, everything that is going on, a lot to be said for technology being where it is. So in some sense, it was, you know, great timing. If there is such a thing.
It is, it really is. I think you're absolutely right that 10 years ago, we would have struggled to even have the modicum of economic activity that we continue to see right now. But, but we're, we're in a different space. And to that extent, we're thankful that it wasn't a complete shutdown of economic activity. And so I think we'll, we'll, we'll, witnesses will learn to adapt, just as academic institutions will learn to adapt.
So fantastic! So Chandru, this was truly illuminating and inspiring, I'm sure the students of tomorrow and the leaders of tomorrow, if they are listening, they they are really likely, both global and your career changes as well. You know, the different parts of the world that you lived in, as well as what you've done. And I think, you know, hope to have more conversations with you, dig a little deeper on some different things. But thank you so much for taking the time today. This was truly great.
Sure. Thank you for the opportunity and the invitation to speak with with your audiences and again, I wish you luck at Alma Matters.
Thanks so much. Bye. Take care
Hope you enjoyed this wonderful conversation we had with Dr. Chandra Rajan. I also hope that you found it as inspiring and as insightful as I did.
Thank you so much for listening to today's podcast. These podcasts are brought to you by almamatters.io. Till we meet again, take care and be safe. Thank you.