Meet the MBA Class of 2022: Vasudevan Panicker, U.C. Berkeley (Haas)

Vasudevan (Vasu) Panicker

University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business

“Experimental musician, director, and educator; always striving to perfect my five-hour, slow-cooked rágu!”

Hometown: New York, NY

Fun Fact About Yourself:  I have sat in silent meditation for nearly 1,500 hours in my life—not consecutively!

Undergraduate School and Major: B.S. in Contemporary Music Studies from CUNY Baccalaureate (City University of New York); Advanced/Graduate Certificate in Piano Performance from Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, CUNY.

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Director of Face the Music & Faculty at Special Music School, Kaufman Music Center (NYC)

Berkeley Haas is founded on four Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself. Which pillar resonates most with you and why? Confidence without Attitude resonates with me most. It was my most notable observation when I first visited Haas and met its students, and it is evident in my fellow Haasies now. We are honest about what we know, as well as what we don’t know. Yet, we remain open and humble to learning what we don’t know. Confidence without Attitude may not have always been rewarded in the traditional business world, but I believe that it will be important in building connections across sectors and industries in the years to come.

Aside from the four pillars and your classmates, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose Haas and why was it so important to you? I was drawn to Haas’ emphasis on preparing to lead in the new economy — a world where human productivity and economic output has been, and will continue to be, fundamentally changed by automation and artificial intelligence. As a university, UC Berkeley has long served as a meeting point for STEM, progressive social policy, and access to excellent, world-class public resources. These forces can work together as an ideal vehicle for societal growth. Haas, as a business school, also emphasizes training in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which is embedded into our decision-making techniques. DEI has been a fundamental part of my own career and personal experience, and will continue to be a crucial part of my work.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? This summer, Haas offered a robust series of preparation workshops, ranging from Finance and Case Method to DEI. My fellow classmates all demonstrated one crucial quality: the ability to take a gentle pause in order to approach dialogue mindfully. When cold-called upon to answer a question, or when volunteering a viewpoint, my classmates took a moment to think about what they were going to say, slowed down their speech, and only then spoke.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: My biggest accomplishment is what I learned by flying across the world to dive head-first into a leadership position, on a few days’ notice. I was living in Argentina and was asked to return to NYC to lead Face the Music. I learned that, in order to bring a community together, I had to dramatically redesign our musical programming to reflect our cultural ethos — as an experimental youth music program in New York City. Although Face the Music’s mission was to perform music by living composers, there wasn’t enough inclusive representation across our programming. In our 2018-19 season, out of 60 pieces of music performed, 88% were written by living composers who identify as either BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), female, queer, or gender-nonconforming.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? When I first became responsible for managing a team and budget, I began thinking about pursuing business training. My own background and education had been entirely in piano performance and music composition, so studying business seemed like a far leap. Eventually, I came to understand how the health and growth of my industry—arts education—despite its necessary impact on young creative minds, was ultimately determined by the whims of the for-profit sector and capitalism.

That’s when I began thinking about how, in order to make the impact I desired, I needed to affect change in the for-profit sector. I decided that a competitive MBA would give me the best resources to do so.

What other MBA programs did you apply to?

Michigan Ross, Duke Fuqua, Austin McCombs, Oxford Saïd and public affairs/policy programs at Michigan, Duke, Berkeley, and Austin.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? “What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why?”

This question is so broad, yet also straightforward. I went through multiple iterations of answers. At first, I focused on single moments or experiences. As a musician, one of my favorite things is the feeling I get when I perform for, or share my music with, an audience. However, it wasn’t quite representative of how I had grown while building and refining Face the Music. I realized that I actually loved the process of bringing people together, organically synthesizing different and competing viewpoints. I called it radical inclusion, and I hope to share it with my fellow colleagues.

What was the biggest factor in choosing a particular business school and why was it so important to you? The cultural fit and mission were the biggest factors in my decision.

Given my background—as a trained musician, non-profit manager, educator, and working in a field where few people look like me—I needed to be at a school that accepted me for who I am; a school that would find value in hearing my point of view.

What was your defining moment and how did it prepare you for business school? In 2018, as I was learning to be a better leader in my organization, I used my resources to invest in one of my faculty member’s daring, and risky programmatic idea. Featuring the works of groundbreaking and esoteric African-American composer Anthony Braxton, it presented higher production costs and more challenging music (both for the performers to play and our audience to digest). But it resulted in our first sold-out concert in years—and a major press review from the New York Times.

I realized that, by relinquishing some control and investing and trusting in the talent around me, I had helped our organization reach a new level.

What is your favorite company and why? Bridgewater Associates is my favorite company. Ray Dalio’s book, Principles, was instrumental in my decision to pursue an MBA. I was inspired by Bridgewater’s approach to building a culture of transparency, constructive criticism, and thoughtful disagreement. I was also intrigued at how Bridgewater uses both artificial and human intelligence in order to combine multiple perspectives to set a direction for decision-making.

Look ahead two years and picture graduation. How will you know that your business school experience has been successful? I will know that my business school experience has been successful when I can look at a problem facing any particular industry, and contribute a cross-sector solution that weighs its effects on a range of communities and local environments alongside the bottom-line. I want to build better organizations and persuade industries to look beyond short-term gains, whether profit or metrics of impact, to see their long-term legacies.


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