My journey to Booth has been a very long one, yet somehow also short. It is just as my business professors emphasize: in the globalized landscape, time seems to move faster, and distances between places feel closer.
So yes, it seems very far away, my childhood village in northern India, the slant-roof hut I shared among a dozen family members. During heavy rains all of us huddled together under the same dry strip to avoid the leaks. But small steps have brought me far. At the age of 13 I moved out of town with my younger brother, who was just 10, to attend primary school. We stayed in a lodge where we cooked and took care of ourselves. This would be our only hope to eventually get into college.
Engineering was all anyone was talking about at the time, and my strength was math. But even the cheapest university engineering program would have cost about $2,000 a year, which my family could not spare.
Today, just over a decade later and at Booth, I’m specializing in marketing strategy. The way I think about the subject is this: do not worry about figuring out how to sell things to people. Figure out what people need. That is where the demand is.
My need was education. Unable to afford an engineering program, I studied political science and economics at the University of Allahabad, with help from a fellow student and a dear friend, Aparna. She paid for my college fee of $9 a year and helped with books.
After graduation I landed at Mumbai, India-based oil-and-gas conglomerate Reliance Industries Limited. My unofficial mentor there, Indian Army colonel Uday Verma, pointed out something I badly needed: better English. So he pushed me to write reports in the language every day, and that helped me get a job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Bangalore. But the job came with a proviso: I would have to improve my English. I felt weak and told myself that I might never pass my probationary period. I lived, ate, and slept the language for the next six months, even cornering Bangalore cabdrivers and vegetable vendors for verbal practice. Is a probationary period what Professor Thaler would call a “nudge”? Clearly it is a bit more than that; but whatever, it worked. After six months my manager said I was his division’s “best communicator.”
I was still with Goldman Sachs last year when I learned that the bank awards the George E. Doty Scholarship to 10 eligible employees each year to earn an executive MBA degree. Of course, the bank is big, with about 6,000 employees in India alone, so I was doubtful. However, my mother wasn’t. “God will do our family this favor,” she said, and she was right: I was awarded the scholarship, becoming the first recipient from India. In a whirlwind process, within weeks I was at Chicago Booth.
This is how a long journey is made short. My village was small, but I dreamt big. One step at a time, as they say in management, brought me to the position of an executive director in the firm, and with an MBA from Booth (class of 2016), I want to give back by setting up a model village back home. My hope is that one day the poor farmers in this village will be able to plan their irrigation strategy as qualified entrepreneurs, predict pricing using the same pricing models as those taught at Booth, and even start new agribusinesses or other businesses, crossing the same chasm that Booth’s Global New Venture Challenge candidates routinely do.
—As told to Cathy Holcombe