Sri Zaheer still remembers vividly as a child watching her father making toothpaste in the kitchen one day. Another day it was soap. These sorts of experiments were common in the Zaheer household, as Sri grew up with a chemist father.
“My dad’s experiments weren’t always successful,” Zaheer recalls. “I remember mom being upset with a big burn mark in our roof from an experiment that went wrong, but watching my dad was a strong influence in getting me into science and business.”
Today, Zaheer is dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She also sits on the board of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
In a 2018 Poets&Quants survey of 88 of the best B-schools, Carlson came in 21st, providing students with an academic experience that was the 13th best in the country.
We spoke with Zaheer to learn more about the experiences that shaped her leadership, challenges she’s faced, and trends she’s noticed in business education since becoming an assistant professor in international management almost three decades ago.
What was growing up like for you?
I moved around quite a bit while growing up in a small company town in Durgapur, West Bengal, in India. There were about 150,000 people in this steel plant town that was set up by a firm running a steel plant and it was a safe childhood where I went to school and came home and played outside.
The school I attended was set up by the company and the interesting thing was it had girls from every social economic stratum, from the local vegetable seller’s daughter to the general manager’s daughter, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an equalizing experience that exposed me early on to the impact business can have on society, though of course at that time I didn’t think about it in those terms. In hindsight, it definitely helped me form a positive view of business.
As a chemist, my father had the opportunity to be trained in England and because there was not enough money to take the whole family along, I was sent off to live with my grandma in Chennai for a few years. When my parents came back, they waited to see if a school set up by the company was stable. In middle and high school, we moved back to the steel plant town. Durgapur is where most of my fondest memories are.
Though my mom was a stay-at-home mom, she was a classically trained singer who sang on the radio and was very active in the arts community. I have two older brothers who were much older than me. My oldest brother is now a retired major general of the army and lives in India, and the second is a consultant who followed our father into the steel industry and lives in the U.S.
How did you come to be in higher education?
I met my husband while we were doing our MBAs and we both went to work in the industry afterward. When he received a job offer in marketing with a cosmetics firm in Nigeria that he couldn’t refuse, I went along with our two-year-old to see if I could find a job there. I was working as an internal auditor for Sandoz and they didn’t have the right expat quota to transfer my job there.
In Nigeria, I got a job teaching business at a local university that had been diploma-granting the year before and I loved it. It had just become a university and the best students from the diploma program moved into the university. I was teaching the first group of sophomores managerial economics and because they had not been taught by someone who had worked in companies before, with a syllabus and one they stuck to, they lapped up all I had to teach and I enjoyed how much they were getting out of my classes. I loved it so much that I decided to do my Ph.D. My husband’s family had already been in academics quite a bit and so there was never an issue when we decided to go to MIT together. And when we graduated in ‘91, Carlson had two job openings where we were the top candidates and we both began as assistant professors. I haven’t regretted a minute of those 28 years.
With the newly established university, things were pretty disorganized and I learned so much from the experience. Though some of the students came from pretty poor and impoverished backgrounds, it drew the brightest kids from schools in the area who really wanted to learn. One of the biggest learning points was that there are gems everywhere in society.
What are some of the recent changes you’ve noticed in business education?
There are curriculum changes all the time but we’re seeing some new areas. Marketing today is very different from 20 years ago, with more focus on digital marketing. There’s also the growing field of management information systems and students now need to know analytics, machine learning, and as much as they can about data.
When I first started, faculty tended to be more unidimensional with most focused on research. Today, they’re more responsive to the market. For me, the perfect faculty member hits the trifecta of being an amazing scholar, a fabulous teacher who is able to communicate ideas to students, and can do things like present a keynote address to a managerial audience. They should be able to touch all those pieces, and fortunately, faculty today are more ready to do all this. They’re more ready to build their personal brands, blog, participate in social media, and engage. We’re definitely asking more of them.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as dean?
Nationally, MBA programs have been hit but our program has stayed strong. We chose to focus our program on recruiting veterans early on and we didn’t suffer as much and have stayed fairly healthy. We’ve also introduced several other masters programs and our undergrad program is growing at an amazing rate. The problem we have is keeping up with growing demand. This year, we wanted 600 freshmen and we’ve already had 630 people confirm. We’re lucky that we haven’t had the financial challenges that some other schools have had.
For me, the single challenge I’ve had is getting the message out on what a strong school we are. We have a strong faculty and an incredible business support community of over 17 Fortune 500 global firms and tech startups, and 30 boards in our school with corporations participating in helping us design our curriculum and programs. We’ve created incredible experiential learning opportunities including our Tracing the Global Supply Chain program where supply chain and operations students get to work with firms like Target to see loading and unloading in Los Angeles, manufacturing in Shenzhen, China, and even do mock audit of suppliers there. We’re bringing business to life but the world seems obsessed with private school brands and it’s tough to get the message out of all that we have to offer.