Students Corner: Interview with Kusum L Ailawadi, PGP 1984

What motivated you to do an MBA back in the 80s? How did you make the choice to join IIM Bangalore, and what careers did you want to pursue when you had joined?

I am going to be completely candid here. I did not have a grand plan in mind back in 1982. I did Physics (Honors) at St. Stephens College because I had done very well in it in high school, but I soon realized that it really did not excite me.  So, in my third year of college, I was wondering what to do next. Several of my classmates were either applying to graduate school in Physics, or studying for the Administrative Services, or taking the Common Admission Test for the three IIMs (there were only three at the time). I was pretty good at mathematics and analytical thinking and I had always been an extroverted person with a practical bent, so I decided to try my luck at the CAT. Fortunately, I did well enough to be shortlisted at IIM-B and IIM-C and then got admission into IIM-B.

How easy (or difficult) was it to make the switch from studying physics to management?

Actually, it was an easy switch. As I said, I realized that Physics was not my passion. But, my training in physics, mathematics, and the other physical sciences honed my analytical skills. That, I believe, has been a significant advantage both in my early years in industry and my subsequent academic career.  I have not only my formal college education, but my Dad to thank for that. Throughout my school years, he taught me mathematics, physics, and chemistry using books and exercises from the British Council and American Libraries not just the assigned school books. I should add that I did a lot of public speaking right from when I was a child. My Mom was a school teacher and she trained me for elocution contests, debates, and drama. I can still recite some of the English and Hindi poems she taught me when I was in fourth grade – The Beggar Maid, or Kadamb ka Pedh! That too has been a huge benefit in the field of management.

What was the campus life like in your time as a student at IIM B? Which all clubs and activities were you active in? What were your favourite courses and professors?

Ours (1982-84) was the first batch to move into the Bannerghatta campus. We began by being spread out in various Hostels throughout the city and coming to campus on the Institute bus every morning to attend classes. I was with a small group of classmates in Hostel C. After the first term, we were told the men could move into the campus hostel but the women would have to remain in the city given the remoteness of the campus and the administration’s valid concerns about our safety.  As you might imagine, we women (there were eleven of us in the hostel) were not pleased! Probably my biggest (only?) claim to fame at the time was the fact that I successfully led the negotiations with Professors Jagadish and Vyasulu to let the women move at the same time. We were ensconced on the top floor of A Block, with a night guard at the staircase, blocking male access to the top floor and Professor JD Singh, whose marketing course I remember very fondly, on the floor below us 😊.

As I look back at my two years there, and the skill, patience, and good humor with which all our professors taught us, I never cease to be amazed and impressed.  I particularly remember Professor Gopal Valecha’s soft-spoken yet firm handling of the class, Professor JD Singh’s energy and sense of humor when he taught us marketing, Professor Vatsala Nagarajan’s incisive and crystal clear delivery of concepts that might otherwise be considered dry, and Professor MR Rao’s patience in answering questions even when they came from someone like yours truly who had skipped a class session or two and was playing catch-up.

Any particular fond memories or moments from campus that you would like to share with us?

We were (and remain) a close-knit and fun batch. There was (and is) so much talent and so much warmth and affection in the group.  I remember the late night trips to Uncle’s little shack to get coffee and vadas, the egg bhurji I would whip up in the mess for night owls like myself, hanging out in F-block while my classmate Gothix (everyone had a nickname) played rock out of his room, or Tudu and Ravi strummed their guitars and sang Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs, singing tunelessly alongside Jockey while waiting at the railway station en route to the Inter-IIM Fest at Ahmedabad and Calcutta, scoring a win at the Fest in Dumb Charades with my awesome teammates and completely falling apart in my solo badminton match. There are also some very sad memories from those two years – of losing two dear friends, Puneet and Salvo, to accidents and the heartache that brought.

To say that I was not particularly hard-working or studious in those two years would be an understatement (as an aside, and in my defense, let me say that I did make up for that in my later years as a PhD student and then as an academic!). But I remember fondly many of the experiential projects we did for our courses. A presentation on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in Professor Valecha’s class, the door-to-door data collection in Jaya Nagar and analysis for our market research survey in Professor JD Singh’s class, the communications exercises for Professor Jagadish, and so many others.

What was the placement scenario at IIM B back then, especially in the pre-liberalization era?

It was actually very good. As they say, you don’t miss what you don’t know.  So, we didn’t miss the post-liberalization options because they didn’t exist.  For us, the many companies spanning industries from FMCG, pharma, and heavy manufacturing to banking and tech that came to campus were amazing. I don’t remember the stats now, but my recollection is that we all had job offers that we were delighted with. I interned with a small computer manufacturer and took a full-time job with Computer Maintenance Corporation (which later went by CMC). The plum job in marketing was from Hindustan Lever – I was SO impressed when my classmate Madhulika Gharpurey got an offer from them!

How did you decide to transition from a marketing career to academia?

Hmmm! I wish I could say that I always wanted to be an academic. But that would simply not be true! In fact, I grew up telling my Mom I would never be a teacher because she worked so hard and got paid so little!  I intended to come to the US after graduating from IIM. My then boyfriend, Anand (who is now my husband of 33 years), was here. But I had had enough of studying for a while and I wanted a taste of industry. So, I decided to work in marketing at CMC. After a couple of years of doing that, not only did I need to figure out when and how I was going to come to the US and be with Anand, I was also getting a little bored with the work and wanted to try something new. My original plan when I started my PhD program was to do the course work and look for a job in consulting. But I enjoyed the research and the teaching so much that the consulting plan went out the window, and here I am 33 years later, still steeped in it and still loving it!

How has your role as a teacher and a researcher evolved over the years? What challenges in management education do you foresee in the near future?

Wow! Those are two BIG questions that could easily take all day but let me try to answer as concisely as I can. On my own role as a teacher and researcher. When I first started as an Assistant Professor, I was barely a couple of years older than my MBA students. Unlike many other Assistant Professors, I had an MBA and some industry experience. Both those things were a boon, but still, it was tough to teach MBA students many of whom had more real-world marketing experience than I did. But, I did have the advantage of knowing my research well and of being a quantitatively focused teacher and researcher. And I had the benefit of a great PhD advisor from whom I learned the knack of tackling managerially relevant problems in my research. I also quickly realized how much I could learn just by being open and listening to students, talking to industry executives who visited Tuck, and presenting my research at all kinds of venues. Over the years, I broadened my interactions with industry through research collaborations, executive education, and consulting but I always made sure I did the latter two things in focused areas that would help me grow, not just give me a lucrative consulting income.  My emphasis on relevant research has held me in good stead and I have been able to publish award winning articles on topics that executives are interested in. I have also been able to build synergies between my teaching and my research. An example is the co-authored book that I recently completed on Multichannel Distribution. It will be released in April and my hope is that both academics and managers will find it of interest.

On the challenges for management education. As I see it, the biggest challenge is the sustainability of the MBA education model. At least in the US, an MBA degree is very expensive both in the direct cost and the opportunity cost of time. We need to make sure that the education we provide to our students is both distinctive and relevant, and worth the time and money they invest in it. Our research makes what we teach distinctive. I am a very strong believer that research expertise is absolutely necessary to make us good educators. But if that research is esoteric and hard to translate into practice, distinctiveness alone won’t cut it. And if the research is not much more than a compilation of consulting experiences, then what do we offer over the training programs of good consulting companies?  We also have to find ways of integrating remote learning with in-person immersion and community.  This is especially true of the elite institutions, like IIMB and Tuck and their peer schools, who must continually demonstrate that they are leading the way with innovations while not compromising their core strengths.  Along with all the devastation that the coronavirus has struck around the world, it has forced all of us academics to learn how to effectively teach remotely in a hurry. Once things settle back into normalcy (which we all hope will happen soon), we’ll need to figure out how remote education can be used to complement, but not cannibalize, what we have traditionally excelled at. Tough, but not insurmountable, challenges.

What advice would you like to share with the current students of IIM Bangalore?

I am not particularly good at giving life advice but that doesn’t usually stop me, so here goes 😊.  We all get both compliments and criticism from colleagues. I won’t tell you about the criticisms (and there are many!) but among the compliments I have received over the years, there are three that I am especially proud of – a warm and sincere smile (which is aging like the rest of me!), intellectual curiosity, and intellectual honesty (which I hope are not aging!).  Keep those things front and center in your work, no matter what career path you take and why you take it. Beyond that, our careers are really about luck and skill; some of us may be luckier than others some of the time, but it takes skill to make the best of the luck that comes our way. Some people find their passion early and follow it, some figure out what they are skilled at and make that their passion, and some become skilled at and passionate about the opportunity life offers up. I fit into the third category. You undoubtedly have both luck and skill in very good measure – after all you are at the finest management institution in India. Use the luck and skill! They are like muscle – use it or you lose it. But the relationships you have formed in your time here – nurture those. Nurture them because you care about them, not because they may be useful to you later in life. If you build relationships to use them, you will quickly use them up!  These two years at IIMB are as much about learning life skills and forming life-long friendships as they are about learning business skills. Make the best of them for all three things!  I wish you all the very best. Stay safe and healthy through this difficult time and I hope I will get to meet you in person sometime before you graduate.