The Fascinating Journey Of A Homeless Drug Dealer Into Business School

Srinivas Rao with his wife and son.

Srinivas Rao with his wife and son.

Why do you think your rebellion was so extreme?

There wasn’t any intention of sticking it to my parents or anything like that. I just wanted to experience life to the fullest. I was coming of age and trying to make sense of being Indian-American, of the pressures of college, of all these kinds of things. Most people drink at college, and maybe they try weed, or maybe they try cocaine or whatever.

They go through their little experimentation phases and then get back to their studies. But there are some people for whom these substances are just anathema. Is my story any different from other peoples’ rebellion stories? I think the fundamental roots of it aren’t necessarily any different. It’s just that in my case, gasoline was thrown onto the fire, and the effects led to me getting kicked out of school.

What made you decide to go back to college?

I was working at the halfway house, and the guys in the house were saying that I shouldn’t settle for where I was at. I wasn’t really confident about going far away again, so my plan was to continue living in the halfway house and commute.

The University of Chicago sparked me the most. When I had my interview with them, I was honest from the beginning about where I was coming from and what my plan was. One of the lines we’d always say is that ‘the University of Chicago is where fun comes to die.’ I didn’t get the sense that this was going to be a party college. I got the sense that this was where you could come if you really wanted to learn something. That really appealed to me, because I was at a point in my life where I was hungry for the opportunity to learn as much as I could. You can call it hunger or you can call it passion, but when people have that, nothing stops them. People who don’t know why they’re there—they fall out.

Most MBA students haven’t been homeless. How have your experiences shaped your perspective of business school?  

I’ve noticed that when I’m working with a team and we hit an obstacle that just knocks the project completely out of the water, I’m able to rally people and bring them back. I think I have a better understanding of how close failure and success can be in terms of outcomes. Little decisions can lead one way or the other.

When I encounter somebody who’s had a failed business, I actually appreciate what they have to say, because they tend to come at the challenges with a clearer view of all the variables. If you are accustomed to failure and have come back from that, you can handle tough situations without the same level of fear, because you know you can work through them, and you know which steps are necessary. When I encounter people who’ve never experienced that kind of failure, it’s always in the back of my mind: ‘What’s going to happen when things don’t go the right way for them? If all they’ve ever experienced is things working out like clockwork, what’ll happen when reality hits?’

What advice do you have for non-traditional MBA students?

I’ve had conversations with other non-traditional students, and I’ve noticed that sometimes, there’s a part of them that’s thinking, ‘I’ve got to try to shape my narrative so it’s more conventional.’ They gloss over or try to minimize their non-traditional experiences. But I know that in my case, highlighting those elements and talking about how they make me a better fit for whatever the position is has been very beneficial. For example, a ghostwriting job is ultimately product development.

You have to figure out how to create this product that’s going to have a market, that’s going to have a price, and that’s going to succeed, but you’re given completely ambiguous terms—well, that’s product development at its finest. If you’re non-traditional, find that way to translate it.

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