P&Q: After earning your MBA, you returned to graduate school at the Yale School of Management to earn a Master’s in Public and Private Management, the school’s precursor to its MBA degree. What was your favorite class at Yale and what were the biggest lessons you gained from it that you still apply today?
IN: I was part of the third group that went through the Yale School of Management. It was the absolute glory days. It’s probably even more glorious today, but those days were glory days because we had an amazing faculty. Bill Donaldson was a terrific dean. Every faculty member knew every student by first name. It was a wonderful, wonderful culture. What was particularly good about SOM at the time was that they truly emphasized private and public management. We had cases like ‘Scoop Jackson for President’ or a case on Clark University. Either the Metropolitan Museum or the New York Library was another case. It was a wonderful distribution of the public, private, and non-profit sectors that were included in the teaching tools.
Yale did a great job of opening our minds to, ‘You can go and change the world in any way you want.’ They also emphasized for us the linkage between business and society. Even today, whenever I approach a business issue, I think about these questions: What is the impact on employees? What is the impact on communities? What is the impact on society at large? All of that came from my two years at SOM. Going through as many diverse cases as we did, in every case we were thinking about the holistic impact on society. It gives you a different sensitivity and sensibility.
There was a professor, Larry Isaacson, who ran the strategy class: absolutely brilliant, brilliant individual. I loved his classes and he was a vivacious, involved, and enthusiastic teacher who really involved the students and gave us a lot of time. Those were wonderful classes. Yale was also known for its organizational behavior classes: Victor Vroom, David Berg, and those guys. They taught us about team dynamics, how to deal with conflict, how to negotiate, and how to show your vulnerabilities (but not be too vulnerable). The whole thing was just masterful. They created a small group of people who did not know each other and had us work together for two years. We had to really figure out how to work with a group of people we had never met before and somehow make music from that. Applying courses like organizational behavior, strategy, marketing, all operating in these groups addressing complex issues, we learned a lot — it was brilliant! I’ll never forget the great Steve Ross, who was my microeconomics teacher. To learn microeconomics from a Steve Ross was priceless. The guy was a giant in his field and here he was teaching us Microeconomics 101. All that he taught us then still stays in my memory because microeconomics is the basics for all business.
P&Q: What types of activities were you involved in as an SOM student? What were some of the best moments or big achievements you had when you were a student at Yale?
IN: When I was at SOM, I didn’t get involved much in many activities because I was focused on the classwork. I was also a student without much money, I had to figure out how to make ends meet. So I would do part-time jobs working as a receptionist or sorting out mail in the mail room in the dorm — whatever it took. The only thing I did for fun was play bridge. We’d start Friday night and play until Saturday morning. Our dorm had some awesome bridge players! I really loved the bridge part of the Yale experience because the rest was work. I was involved in a lot of consulting projects for Larry Isaacson, but that was part of the coursework. For extracurriculars, I played bridge and nothing else. Remember, I didn’t have money at all so there was no way I could do anything that even involved spending $5.
P&Q: Over the past year, you’ve been vocal about some holes in the business school curriculum, such as a heavy reliance on cases and not enough emphasis on technology. If you could be the dean of a business school, what two things would you change to make graduates better prepared?
IN: Let me take a step back. I think what’s taught in business school over two years is a tremendous amount. We really cram students with so much knowledge in so many areas in two years that you really need to be extraordinary to get through business school. Here’s the point: The way we teach it today — which I’m not totally against —I think it can be improved in the following.
When we do the case method, we take issues and put them in a business context and quickly teach it to them, issue-by-issue using individual cases and then go on to the next issue/case. I think it might make sense every 2-3 weeks to pick a master case, where you’re going to integrate multiple issues to really talk about how a company is going to deal with these issues in very, very interdisciplinary and rich ways. The only way this can happen with business school is if we break down silos, if professors are willing to talk to each other and say, ‘Look, what we all teach in our respective classes actually link together. We all need to come together to talk about how we can explain the linkages and complexity to our students to make them think about the issues more holistically. I think that is what’s missing.
Let me give you a specific example. There is a case [that ties] PepsiCo’s Performance With Purpose [philosophy] with what PepsiCo is doing with potatoes in Peru. Great case! By itself, it is a good case talking about how PepsiCo helps Peru and the company itself. But what if we took that case and broadened it? What if we challenged students’ thinking? What is Performance With Purpose as a philosophy? What are the elements of Performance With Purpose? For PepsiCo to be an instrument of performance and purpose, what are all of the constituencies that PepsiCo has to think about? How would shareholders view it? How would NGOs view it? How would communities view it? Who do they have to engage with? How do they set up the metrics? What are the costs of implementing it? How do they set up timetables? I think it is such a rich topic. Talking about Performance With Purpose from the Peruvian potato example is a good starting point. But I think it could be enhanced to incorporate a richer perspective to include corporate governance, investor relations, supply chains, production management, R&D — all the functions required to run a corporation. They could invite professors from multiple areas to come together and run an integrated seminar. And at some point, actually invite company management to the class to provide a practical perspective. There’s so much that can be done.
P&Q: What advice would you give to first- or second-year MBA students to help them make the most of their experience?
IN: In any program, you learn as much from the classroom and lectures as you do from each other because everyone comes to the program with some work experience. On a social basis, everyone interacts, but I think it is also useful to have people share information on what they learned from their work experience. What did they pick up as part of a team running a library or a hospital and then came to business school? I think you have to really learn more from the experiences of your classmates.
I remember we had people in my class who came from the New York Sanitation Department, the Metropolitan Museum and another from the military. Just listening to them talk about their experiences was so fascinating! In fact, I would say even more fascinating than the classroom because they were giving us examples of what kinds of issues that they had to deal with. Then I would sit back and say, ‘What are we learning in class and how can what we learn apply to running a sanitation department, hospital or library?’ So what we learned wasn’t just applicable for private business. We have to encourage students not to socialize just from the purely fun way, but also learn from each other’s experiences.
P&Q: You have a daughter, Preetha, who earned her MBA at Yale. What experiences do you share in common? What changes did you see between when she attended and when you were a student?
IN: The common thing was that Yale is a great school. What’s amazing is that when I walk into SOM, I feel like it’s my school. Every part of it. Even though we moved to a new building, away from the building where I was taught, I feel like it’s my home. I don’t know why — I don’t visit it often enough — but I feel like it’s my home. I absolutely love it!
It’s interesting because Preetha feels the same way. She makes it a point to visit there as often as she can. Every time she goes, she comes back and says, “Mom, I feel like I’m home every time I’m at SOM.” It’s interesting, I don’t know what it is about SOM. It hooks you in.
The second part is that Ted Snyder has come a long way in creating multiple interdisciplinary tracks where they bring multiple disciplines together to really talk about how to translate what you are studying into a different practical area. That’s a new thing. They also do six weeks abroad, which we never did when we were at SOM (We didn’t have that kind of funding at the time). Preetha had a project in South America and then she was in India for a while. So these kids are getting great experiences going out to various nations and doing various projects.
I had a special experience at SOM. I feel it is my school. The school is evolving; every year, I see the improvements. It’s no surprise that the applications to SOM are up.
There is something about the school. I don’t know how to explain it. It has a soul.