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Fostering a collaborative view

As the son of a leading government official in India whose work took the family to different locations within the country and to England, Ashok Rao learned to make friends quickly. He also learned discipline from his father, who led the Indian defense department during a 1960s war with Pakistan.
Rao is applying those skills as the new dean of the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology. Quick to smile, laugh and make a friend, Rao, 65, also is working to strengthen relationships between the business school and leading technology programs at RIT, particularly in engineering.
RIT leaders said in announcing Rao’s appointment last November that they hoped he could forge partnerships among RIT colleges and with local and international industry as part of a shift toward more globally oriented curriculum. The College of Business, with 1,300 of RIT’s 16,000 students, is an integral part of the RIT vision to prepare students for careers in a global society, officials said.
Rao replaced Thomas Hopkins, who stepped down in the fall 2005 after seven years. Rao arrived at the College of Business in February after 26 years with Babson College in Massachusetts, a school known for entrepreneurial and international programs. Rao most recently served as professor of technology operations and information management, and held a five-year term as chairman of the school’s management division.
At RIT, Rao oversees a staff of 66, including 44 faculty members, and a $7 million annual budget. He has been getting to know instructors and deans across campus and making overtures on further connections.
The school now offers a vibrant minor-study program to students in other RIT colleges and is working with programs such as the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies and the Albert J. Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which includes a business incubator, Rao says.
The university is ripe with innovative technological and design programs that could benefit from collaboration with entrepreneurial experts in the College of Business-and vice versa, Rao says.
When RIT president William Destler met with Rao recently to ask for his ideas or concerns, Rao recalls the president asking him, “What kind of things keep you awake at night?”
“I told him, I’m new here,” Rao says. “One of the things a new person is always told, ‘Wait until you get here, and then you start turning over all these rocks and finding things under the rocks.’
“It’s been a pleasant experience,” Rao continues. “It’s not that I haven’t found any creatures under rocks. (But) I have found a lot of interesting things as well. Actually, just about two or three days before Destler asked the question, I had been awake all night. But what I was thinking about was all these opportunities.”
His excitement about possibilities dovetails with his excitement about Rochester. Researching the community, Rao was surprised to learn the city ranks near the top of 125 worldwide on a leading knowledge-competitive index. Rochester also rates several times higher than most communities in patents per 1,000 residents.
“It is well-primed for the knowledge economy,” Rao says.
RIT appears primed for Rao.
Provost Stanley McKenzie says Rao’s leadership could help distinguish the business school as “The College of Business at RIT”-in other words, a school that serves not only business majors but also innovative students across campus who have ideas that could be commercialized.
Rao has impressed McKenzie-the top academic officer below Destler-with what McKenzie calls a wonderful sense of humor and desire to collaborate.
“He is not pretentious in any sense of the word,” McKenzie says. “If there is anything he is unsure of, he asks. He wants to share ideas, get good opinions and ideas from other people. He has the highest standards, of course, and wants to implement the best of the best.”
Rao, a naturally cheerful person, learned to make friends easily and to be disciplined, says his wife, Janis Gogan. His father traveled extensively and held numerous high-level positions over the years. She found notes in U.S. national archives of a meeting between the senior Rao and former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
“When the family traveled to England for his father’s post, he gave the kids a list of all the countries in the world and each child memorized the capitol and principal exports,” Gogan says. “He was always giving them tasks like that in their free time to keep their minds going.”
The senior Rao also taught self-reliance. When Ashok Rao arrived in the United States in the early 1960s to begin graduate study at the University of Iowa, he traveled across the world with $15 in his pocket.
“Ash presents this easygoing demeanor,” Gogan adds, “but he’s incredibly disci-plined.”
The couple has completed 49 of 50 Massachusetts hikes listed in a book Gogan’s sister gave them. Avid travelers, the couple most recently visited Cambodia, touring a series of ancient temples and learning about the Khmer Rouge.
“His philosophy is we’re still young enough to do the more exotic and maybe demanding travel,” says Gogan, who plans to commute between Rochester and Boston, where she works as a professor of technology management at Bentley College. “He has this idea we’re going to do Kilimanjaro sometime.”
As a student in India, Rao says he looked at two primary options for professional study: engineering or medicine. Engineering was more appealing, as he had enjoyed tinkering with radios and other electrical projects at home.
He was admitted to the Indian Institute of Technology, where he found himself drawn to computing and engineering. He laughs recalling a lab project that now seems ridiculously simple: designing a flip-flop valve, essentially a switch.
He enrolled at the University of Iowa with a rough plan to study electrical engineering and management and to start a company. He increasingly became interested in digital computing, focusing on artificial intelligence.
After earning his master’s in electrical engineering in 1964, Rao planned to enroll at Northwestern University in Chicago for an MBA, but professors at Iowa urged him instead to earn a Ph.D. in industrial engineering. Rao followed that advice and supplemented the doctoral program with management study.
For practical experience, Rao took a position in network analysis at Leeds & Northrup Co. Inc. in Philadelphia. The computer analysis he focused on represented advances over previous “breadboarding,” which meant putting components on a platform to examine a system manually.
Rao next went to teach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a position that appealed to him because of opportunities in research. After five years, he returned to industry for more practical experience, becoming manager of operations research for Canada Packers Inc., one of the largest meat packing companies in that country.
Next he joined Northern Telecom Ltd., which was interested in Rao’s experience with oversight of manufacturing planning systems at Canada Packers.
Soon, Rao was offered an opportunity to teach at Northeastern University in Boston, where he stayed for three years before joining Babson-a move that appealed to Rao because of Babson’s emphasis on entrepreneurship and teaching.
He started several courses, including one on total quality management, as corporations began to develop TQM programs. Rao brought in professors from different disciplines in business to teach elements of the class, eventually writing a book that received wide attention for the cross-functional teaching approach it described.
He developed other courses to integrate disciplines.
“An entrepreneur needs to know several disciplines,” Rao says. “So we’ll teach them as if they are entrepreneurs, looking at issues from several different perspectives at the same time. So in a class, a case would be discussed by people from operations, marketing, finance, all at the same time.
“It often led to arguments between professors-that’s kind of good for the students. I found it very interesting, to get to learn so much more about all the other disciplines.”

Global learning

As the Internet took off, Babson developed relationships with schools in India and France. Rao led a project in which students here could interact with students overseas in a model global supply chain, negotiating deals online.
Mark Rice, dean of the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson, says one of Rao’s most significant accomplishments there was forging a partnership with the Indian Institute of Management in India. Rao developed a relationship with the founder of the school as it worked to launch an MBA program focused on entrepreneurship. Babson rewrote its strategic plan four years ago, Rice notes, defining a major commitment to global management as a complement to its entrepreneurship programs. As part of that strategy, the school said it would focus on its Glavin Center for Global Management, which includes institutes on Latin America, Europe and Asia. Within the Asia institute, Rao was the primary leader on programs with India.
“For us it was a major strategic initiative,” Rice says.
Rice notes the affable Rao can be determined.
“In the India case, our provost at the time was skeptical. We were doing so much in China, Japan. (Babson) is a small school with limited capacity. When he was challenged, Ash in a very diplomatic but persistent and forthright way, insisted. He appears to be very accommodating and facilitating. There is also a strong streak in him that causes him to push forward when things should be done.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting time at RIT,” Rice adds. “He has tech sophistication and business savvy. He’ll work well with other deans.”
Rao says RIT may have unique opportunities not only between business and engineering, but also with its design and computer science schools and CIMS.
“There are some unformed ideas, so take these with a pinch of salt,” Rao says. “I think we could get more technologically based as far as entrepreneurial activities. Part is to get business students more familiar with the technologies that are available-see how we can bring more of that to our business students.
“I think it would be fabulous if we can pull it off-this whole technology literacy piece. Not to the exclusion of general business, but I think it’s an area in which we could distinguish ourselves.”
Among other things, Rao thinks it could be worth looking at ways to physically connect the College of Business, which is in a building separate from the rest of campus.
“Even as a symbol, it would be worthwhile to do a connection,” he says.
At the same time, Rao talks about ways that the business school can help the tech schools. The tech schools might have incredible ideas or discoveries, he says, but the ideas alone go nowhere without the ability to bring them to market.
Rao cites as a powerful example Xerox Corp. founder Joseph Wilson, who basically looked for a technology to build a business around and found Chester Carlson’s xerography discovery.
“He built this whole enterprise around that technology,” Rao says. “The technology itself wasn’t going anywhere. It was the business organizational structure, the markets he identified, the selling of that, which was so different.”
jrbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

08/31/07 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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