Dean’s Q&A: Sri Zaheer, Minnesota Carlson

University of Minnesota. Courtesy photo

Since becoming dean in 2012, you’ve launched a military veterans initiative and three additional focused masters program. Why else do you think needs to be done in the next few years?

We’ll be launching a fully online MBA this fall. The world of educating working professionals is changing and we need to provide more flexibility and convenience. They have great jobs they don’t want to leave to come and do a two-year MBA and they’d love to continue their education but they want it in the most convenient manner possible.

Alongside the idea of lifelong learning, there’s also a need to get the knowledge you need when you need it. We are rolling out a stack of certificates in the graduate space over the next couple of years. We are also starting to offer online courses to our large part-time MBA program of over 900 students to make education convenient for them. We’ve refined and honed how we deliver online programming to feel current and relevant and out students can move flexibly between online courses and offline courses, deciding their own scopes and works for them.

We’ve been doing online courses for four to five years and we’ve figured out how to structure online courses so they mimic and work just as well as offline courses. We have confidence we can deliver. Reluctant faculty members have also started making online versions so they teach both in-person and online and they’ve seen that there’s a demand. In one of our classes, all students had the opportunity to upload a 90-second video of themselves of who they are. All the videos were watched ardently by all the students so they knew a little about each other. We’ve also made sure that we upload what’s coming up next week in online classes and keep discussion groups alive. Every week, faculty members upload videos talking about what’s happening in the world this week that’s relevant to what they are studying. Instead of having students look at canned videos on autopilot, our faculty remains involved and hands-on even online.

What is one book you think everyone should read once in their life and why?

Go back into childhood and read The Little Prince. Learn the wonder and openness of childhood again and the optimism that leads to ideas and innovation. I re-read it a couple of years ago.

There’s a huge stack of books on my bedside table but I read one chapter and I go to sleep. What’s sitting on my table right now is Superbosses by Sydney Finkelstein and The Road to Character by David Brooks. One of the banes of my life is that as dean, it’s difficult to sit down and read a book cover to cover.

How do you take care of your health?

I try to work out two to three times a week with a trainer because I’m lazy and someone has to come and force me to do it. Mentally, I try to get absorbed in nature every day. The good thing about the University of Minnesota is that we can easily get immersed in nature and far from the world. I also love gardening, birdwatching, and wildlife and it’s wonderful to sit and enjoy the seasons around lakes.

One of my hobbies is gardening and I love doing it from April to September, but I’m glad when winter comes and I can take a break from gardening. I use garden analogies in my classrooms all the time and one of them is the analogy of perennials and annuals. In business, some things don’t change, and some case studies that happened 100 years ago are still relevant today because of the basic principles that apply. Then there are the annuals, things that come and go like business fads and fashion. The perennials die out in winter but spring up again every spring and the annuals are things that you put in there to have color. I teach international strategy and I tell the students to look at these perennial principles and remember them because five years from now you’ll still need them.

One of the perennial principles I teach comes from my own research – that foreign firms have a higher cost of doing business, and foreignness will never go away. Corollary to that, as a foreign firm trying to do business abroad, you’ll need deep pockets and lots of patience, just like it is when you’re growing perennials. They take years to grow but when it starts, it will be back again.

I also love the orchestra and theatre and am serving on the board of the Guthrie Theatre while my husband is on the board of the orchestra. I used to play the Veena (Indian plucked string instrument).

Your research focus is on international business. Which other economy do you think the world is neglecting but has real potential and promise?

I lived in Africa for about five years and I’ve seen incredibly strong talent. The continent is seeing rapid growth both in terms of economy and projected population growth over the next 20 years. China is seeing a declining growth rate, most of the developed world has close to no growth, and in India and Asia, it’s only growing a little and not as much as it used to. The real growth continent is Africa and we have to begin to learn to do business there.

There still exists the problematic image of poverty, violence, and lack of development that people hold an impression of. But there’s an enormous amount of entrepreneurial energy in places like Nigeria and Rwanda that needs to be harnessed and developed.

We were one of the first schools to insist that all our undergrads have to go abroad to graduate. To help that happen, we run a lot of global enrichment courses, and we have the support of an amazing corporate community around us. We also have a pilot that will run next year in spring I believe, where we’re partnering with the former Land O’Lakes executive to take a team of students to study the agricultural system in Africa.

What do you think is the most important thing a student can do for their careers?

Two things – be curious and be engaged. Put your hands up when there’s an opportunity, volunteer to take on the difficult projects, and keep learning.

What makes a good business person today and how is it different from five years ago?

There’s no difference between being a good business person and being a good person. I have a fundamental belief that I should always be thinking about how to make things better.

Today, you have to keep up with technology and analytics. You don’t have to write algorithms but you need to know what machine analytics is and what it can do for your business. But what hasn’t changed is a need for strong, ethical grounding and an awareness that there are ethical implications for every decision.

What current affairs topics are you most concerned about and how do you stay up to date on its developments?

I am concerned about the trade tensions between the U.S. and China. These are the two strongest economies in the world and these economies need each other.

I read everything that comes by, with any time I have. I don’t watch television and mostly get my news from The New York Times, local Star Tribune paper and other online sources. I tend to consume whenever I have an idle moment. I scroll through the news when I’m waiting for a meeting to start. I get my quick 15-second rundown at work from the Daily Skimm. I like the style – it’s funny, it’s to the point, it doesn’t waste time, and quickly communicates a point of view.

Share with us an experience you’ve had with failure and disappointment.

Personally, my biggest disappointment has been how we’ve made significant progress in diversity but it’s not happening fast enough. Moving the needle has been much slower than I wish.

We’ve made substantial progress in having tenure-track women faculty, increasing from 29 to 45. About 38% of our faculty are women. We had no African-American faculty members on the tenure track when I came in, and now we have two. Still, I don’t think that’s enough and it’s like pulling teeth.

On the MBA front, we’ve made some significant progress. We’ve also raised a lot of scholarships – $85 million of scholarship support over the last eight years to benefit students in undergrad and masters programs that we can use strategically to get more diversity into our classrooms and bring in the best talent out there. Even so, I realize it’s not enough to provide generous scholarships on the recruitment front, especially at the undergrad level.

We have since gone to work further down the pipeline and are going into middle schools to bring in students. We have a Business Innovation Academy camp that brings in 150 students a year in batches of 50 students each time for two weeks over the summer. The aim is to expose them to business, get them excited, tell them what courses they need to take in high school, and create experiential learning opportunities to show them the exciting things they can do with a business degree.

We also have a high school emerging leaders program where 50 students come in once a month on Saturdays. Ideally, they’ll stay with us for 10 months as we expose them to leadership concepts and show them that business can be exciting, help them with college readiness, applications, and how to fill those out.

The problem is that even after we put measures in places, it takes a while to figure out if it’s successful. Our middle school program will need seven years to see if it works in bringing in more diversity to our undergrad program and it’s frustrating for me as I continue to put in a lot of resources. The middle school program is still in its second year but we’ve had several other iterations and approaches before that we’ve tweaked to make better.

What is one belief you try to lead your life by?

How can I help you? How can I help someone else? How can I make something better?

I had a serious health crisis in 2008 where I had a lung collapse and I was in a coma. People were not sure if I would come out of it and it was a turning point for me and my family. At that point when you come out of something like that, it changes you and you begin to think about what’s really important. You also realize that it’s not about you and that you can help make things better, you should make anything better, even the small things. I can improve the lives of students and create learning opportunities for the community. It’s about the small ways you can help people and how you make them better.

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