Sreehari Desai: 'I have a male and a female mentor at work, and they help me navigate any tricky waters.'
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Sreedhari Desai is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Previously, she was a research fellow at the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics (Harvard University) and at the Women and Public Policy Program (Harvard Kennedy School).

She obtained her PhD in organizational behaviour at the David Eccles School of Business in the University of Utah. She did her undergraduate studies at the Punjab Engineering College in the field of metallurgical engineering, and has a masters degree in finance from the University of Utah.

Her research investigates how individuals behave in organisations, with a focus on ethical decision-making, fairness and gender diversity. She is also an accomplished oil-paint artist and has had several shows.

1. Why did you choose Kenan-Flagler Business School?

Because of the lovely weather in North Carolina, of course! No, jokes apart, the degree of collegiality and community that is present at UNC Kenan-Flagler is unmatched. We are a top-notch school but what sets us apart is the collaborative environment here. Two of our core values are teamwork and community, which are embodied in our “Business Cares” Initiative and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to be part of these philanthropic endeavours.

2. Who are your business influences?

One of my main business influences is Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. He was always true to his ideal of running a values-driven business. And his philosophy of having fun running a business (remember the “Yo, I am your CEO contest?”) is something that helped Ben & Jerry’s thrive.

Despite transforming a small store into an ice cream empire, Ben stayed true to his social ideals such as curbing organisational income inequality using the 5-to-1 ratio when setting the compensation of the chief executive. Quite a remarkable man and, I must admit, I am a huge fan of the “Voluntiramisu” flavor!

Also, a young business leader I’m paying careful attention to is Dan Price, chief executive of Gravity Payments. Like Ben, he was bothered by the presence of organisational income inequality and his solution was to slash his own salary by $1 million so that he could raise the minimum salary in his company to $70,000. He figured that it wasn’t simply a charitable move – his employees would feel more loyal toward the company, identify with its values-based approach, and work harder to make it profitable — this is what Dan calls a capitalist solution to the social problem of inequality. Very dynamic thinking!

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

More than advice, Max Bazerman, a business professor at Harvard Business School, imparted a way of living, a way of being. Max’s main advice was to “keep it simple.” His Zen-like idea is applicable to both life and academic research. It encouraged me to keep my theorising simple and stay away from what he called the “Goes-Into” model, where there are a gazillion theoretical constructs, all going into one another, with no simple, testable or usable business idea. Likewise, academic writing should be simple, free from jargon and easy to understand.

4. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

Men and women are socialised to think differently. A woman might work hard and expect someone to recognise and thank her, whereas a man might be more vocal. So, in male-dominated environments, I am more vocal about my needs. If having access to some resource is vital for my success, I don’t assume my (male) boss knows it; I spell it out frankly.

Also, I have a male and a female mentor at work, and they help me navigate any tricky waters. I know they have my back. Lastly, my evenings are busy taking care of my little boy — so I can’t go have a beer with my co-workers. I therefore make it a point to schedule coffee or lunch appointments with my colleagues and superiors during the workday, and these interactions have proven to be valuable.

5. What are your top tips for networking?

I have always had mixed feelings about networking. If you think about it as “networking,” you are thinking of using people instrumentally, and I find that somewhat sleazy and unappealing. So, I think of it as simply “meeting interesting people.”

Being an ambivert, I need a little push to make new acquaintances. I rely on Katy Milkman’s concept of temptation bundling. For example, I allow myself to enjoy a martini only if I am attending a formal networking/social event at a conference.

Once I am there, I put forward my authentic, best self. I ignore power and status indicators and talk genuinely to people from different walks of life. I am curious by nature, so it is easy to ask questions. If I see an opportunity to help someone, I do so immediately. If I realise that someone can help me, I ask frankly if they can do me a favor. I think most people like my direct approach and I end up enjoying my martini to boot.

6. What is your favorite business book?

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey & Rajendra Sisodia: “This is what we know to be true: business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.”

7. What would you do if you were the dean of a business school for a day?

First, I’d pick up the phone and call Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg, who is a role model, for a 15-minute crash course on how to be an effective dean.

Second, I’d ask the various programme directors and administrators to give me comprehensive data about their programmes. Then, using a data-driven approach, I’d focus my attention on three things:

  • Given that b-schools are tuition-dependent and judged by the quality of their students, I would innovate, refocus, and restructure the MBA programme to enhance the educational portfolio and increase networking, internship and placement opportunities for the millennial students.
  • Running a b-school is akin to being the chief executive of a multi-divisional enterprise, and a key element for its operational success is having a healthy endowment. Generating investment capital to offset some of the cost-structure, for example, offering research support to faculty, would be my second priority. Also, I would work with the fundraising division to secure additional endowments by connecting and creating a sense of partnership with alumni and other donors.
  • Being a dean would offer me an extraordinary privilege to work on macro-initiatives such as gender and racial diversity, and I would make the most of my position to broaden the demographics of both the student body and tenured faculty.

8. What has been you best business trip?

Speaking at the Behavioral Science and Policy Association conference at the Harvard Club in NYC, and interacting and brainstorming with a global community of behavioural science researchers, policy makers and practitioners to arrive at concrete policy solutions to serve the public. It was fun interacting with such a diverse group of economists, psychologists, and policy and media people.

9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I wouldn’t do a thing differently. Each decision I’ve made thus far was my own. I have made some really smart moves and some not-so wise choices. But what’s important is that both success and failure have been vital for my growth. I am who I am as a consequence of both my wins and my failures. So, I wouldn’t change a thing!

10. What is your plan B?

To start my own art dealership. I have an understanding of the fine arts market, a network I can rely on and a passion for art. So, owning an art dealership would be my Plan B.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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