Meet Dean Raghu Sundaram
A Collegial Collaborator and Innovator, Invested in NYU Stern’s FutureBY TED PRZYBOCKI
Rangarajan “Raghu” Sundaram was named Dean of NYU Stern in January of 2018. Dean Sundaram is no stranger to Stern. An award-winning, 20-plus year faculty member with a deep finance research background, and Vice Dean since 2016, Sundaram’s name rose to the top of a list of impressive candidates following the NYU search committee’s comprehensive process. Recently Sundaram sat down with STERN BUSINESS to share his thoughts as Dean on Stern’s place in the world of business education, and on the future of the School.
SB: Many of Stern’s alumni know you already, but for those who don’t, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I grew up in India, which was, at the time, amongst the poorest countries in the world. When I came to the US in 1984 as a 22-year-old, I came from a country that was not only poor but that kept itself economically closed. A few foreign brands were familiar to me, mainly because I had seen them in National Geographic or Time, but most were unfamiliar. I’d never even seen a vending machine before. The entire country of India at that time had, I believe, fewer telephones than the island of Manhattan.
SB: How did you become interested in finance?
Mathematics was a subject I always loved in school and in which I was quite good. Meanwhile, perhaps because of where I grew up, I had a natural curiosity around economics, and the questions of what made countries rich and what made them poor, or which businesses failed while others flourished. Somewhere along the line, my dual interests in mathematics and economics led me to finance, which is, in my mind, the most elegant and perfect expression of mathematics in economics.
SB: What attracted you to the deanship, and how did you react when you first heard the news?
Well, as a proud and longstanding member of Stern’s finance faculty, I was very honored and quite excited. Stern is one of the world’s leading business schools, and this is perhaps the most exciting period to be leading a business school. We are at a time where every business sector is being reshaped dramatically, across the globe by technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. What better time could there be to develop the next generation of business leaders? And to be doing it at what I believe is the most innovative business school in the world, in its most globally connected and exciting city!
SB: Stern announced several new and groundbreaking innovations during your time as Vice Dean. What are you most proud of?
Stern has always been at the forefront of innovation in education, and the last two years have seen a burst of fresh ideas. Stern is somewhat of a paradox—we are one of the largest business schools in the world, yet among the nimblest when it comes to programmatic innovation. In fact, it is precisely our large size that makes us nimble, that allows us to innovate rapidly. We have more than 200 full-time faculty with an enormous range and depth of expertise into which we can tap, and we have deep connections in global business. So, I am proud of all of our new programs, but I am especially proud of our innovative culture, and we’ll continue along that path.
SB: What will you focus on in the early days of your deanship?
Innovation is in our DNA, and we will focus on continuous innovation to meet the changing needs of the market. Recently we established the new specialized one-year MBA programs, expanded the executive MBA to NYU’s Washington DC location, launched new online certificate programs, and established the first Creative Destruction Lab in the US. But even as we seek to innovate, we will look to reinforce our core strengths including our reputation as one of the world’s leading finance schools and as a global leader in academic research.
Access, diversity, and inclusivity will remain central. We will also continue to focus on scholarships as a means of ensuring access to a Stern education for the very best students, regardless of their economic background. I have to credit the superb role of our alumni here. They have been essential in helping us increase financial support for scholarships. Diversity and inclusivity lie at the heart of Stern’s, indeed NYU’s, soul. As we progress, we will do so as a community that takes pride in its diversity and in which everyone feels at home. In the near term, I am listening to and talking with our community of students, faculty, alumni, trustees, advisors, and industry partners around the world. The feedback we get now in these early days will help guide us in developing future innovations and a vision for the School.
SB: You have a reputation in academic circles for moving quickly and decisively when it comes to introducing new ideas and getting things done. What’s your secret?
I’ve been very fortunate in having an amazing group of people to work with at Stern. It’s nice to get the credit for the innovations that have taken place, but the reality is that every one of them has been a massive group effort. We have outstanding faculty and administration teams, and experts from industry that helped with their time and advice. It makes it easy. On a personal level, when I am truly excited about an opportunity that will benefit Stern, I draw energy from that, and I tend to move quickly. I guess I’m just an impatient sort of chap.
SB: I’ve been told that the name “Raghu” literally means “swift” in Sanskrit. So, ‘Raghu’ is as much an adjective as it is your name?
(Laughs.) Yes, I haven’t heard it put that way, but I guess it does describe part of my personality.
SB: The world has seen incredible changes as a result of emerging technologies. How do you see technology shaping Stern’s future?
Every industry in the world, every sphere of activity, from finance to fashion, is undergoing transformation due to advancements in technology. As a result, the educational needs of students are growing more diverse. Our strength is in delivering specialized programs to meet specific needs. We were the first among top business schools to offer an MBA specialization in FinTech and we created a new category with the one-year Andre Koo Tech MBA and Fashion & Luxury MBA. Technology also enables us to reach an audience that doesn’t have to be physically present. We’ve done some exciting things as a result of technology, and there are more on the near horizon.
SB: The advisory board for the Tech MBA program is a new concept. Why is this important, and is this the beginning of a new model?
Given the state of change, it has become even more essential to tie business education into the business world more closely. We have been in constant conversation with business leaders, and have learned that their greatest need is for business people who understand technology, and people in technology who understand business. People who can navigate both worlds. Those conversations informed the development of our new one-year Andre Koo Tech MBA, and the Tech MBA Advisory Board was a natural outcome of that process. We’ve now joined forces with the most senior executives from companies such as Amazon, BoxGroup, BuzzFeed, Citigroup, General Catalyst, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Infosys, Jigsaw, Microsoft, PayPal and Rally Health—14 in total with many others expressing interest. Only three advisory board members have any connection to NYU at all, and only two are Stern alumni. They joined the advisory board because they were interested in the work we’re doing and they wanted to be part of it. Together we’ll continue those conversations so that we always have a clear line of sight into how business needs are changing.
SB: You have said you are a huge proponent of experiential learning and what you call ‘live case studies’; how will that viewpoint shape your plans for the School?
New York has long been a global center for finance, entertainment, media, fashion, luxury, and entrepreneurship. More recently it’s become a leading center for technology. The benefits of our location are enormous. We are a stone’s throw away from some of the world’s leading companies who are reshaping the global economy. And we have access to the talent that drives these businesses. We’ve been able to draw on this expertise to provide students with experiences both inside—and outside—the classroom that no other school can match. They are able to hear first-hand about challenges businesses face, while they are facing them. We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in the number of students involved in our Stern Solutions projects with companies over the past couple of years, in which students work alongside faculty to tackle real business problems, in real time. All of these types of experiential learning will remain a critical priority and an advantage of a Stern education moving forward.
SB: How do you view the role of the alumni?
Our alumni are absolutely critical to our collective success. We are very proud of our alumni. They visit us, talk to our students, teach in our classrooms, recruit and mentor our graduates, and sponsor live case studies through Stern Solutions. Our common bond is that we are all invested in the success of our business school.
- Born in Madras (now Chennai), India
- Started his working career as an assistant professor of economics, University of Rochester, 1988
- Earned post-graduate degrees in India and the US (PhD in Economics from Cornell)
- Vouches for the kale salad from Sweetgreen
- Prefers experiencing the world in person over viewing it on screen
- Wrote the book A First Course in Optimization Theory