Rama Yelkur has high expectations. That might be because there have always been high expectations of her.
She is the dean of the School of Business at St. John Fisher College, a position she began July 1. Yelkur manages an operating budget of $5 million and a team of 30 full-time faculty and staff plus roughly 20 part-time adjunct faculty.
Yelkur is the first female to hold the business dean’s post since the school’s founding in 2002.
The accomplishment that would likely impress those in her American circle is more of a fulfillment of her family’s expectations back in her childhood home of India.
Her parents encouraged her from a young age to pursue higher education and a professional career. Yelkur never saw a glass ceiling in her future. Instead, she was driven to perform.
“In India, growing up you are an engineer or a doctor,” Yelkur, 51, says, noting she tried engineering school. After failing to be accepted, she followed her father’s encouragement to pursue a degree in mathematics.
“I’m very grateful for my math background, because it allows me to base my decisions on sound quantitative analysis.”
Yet she was drawn to liberal arts such as geography, history and writing.
“I wanted to get a degree in liberal arts, but I would get my hand slapped over that,” Yelkur says. “For my parents, there was an employment concern.”
Yelkur believes her parents would be proud of where her career has taken her.
Once she earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1986, she went on to earn an MBA from the PSG College of Technology in India in 1988. She worked at her parents’ family business for the next year before coming to the United States to earn a doctorate in business administration in marketing from Mississippi State University in 1995.
Yelkur began her career at Texas A&M International University as assistant professor of marketing, serving there from 1995 to 1998.
She joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she remained until 2013, rising to professor of marketing and director of international business programs.
She took her first position as dean in 2013 at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, where she served until her post at St. John Fisher.
“I didn’t seek a Ph.D. to become an administrator,” Yelkur says. “As I got into my career, I realized I liked this kind of work, helping others, solving problems. Now I have time and wisdom from all my experience to help people see different points of view.”
Yelkur hopes to bring different leaders from the Rochester business community together to gather input on innovative ways St. John Fisher can be a resource for them.
“If businesses are changing rapidly, and we have to graduate students with the skill-sets needed for the workplace, universities have to think innovatively and creatively. Innovation is the first step, and implementation is the part where there is resistance to change,” Yelkur says.
“My approach is to gather people around the table and have a dialogue on the issues, ground up, collective planning and constant communication so that there is considerable buy-in from a critical mass for the initiatives or changes being proposed,” she says.
Family business program
One change she believes would be good for college and for Rochester businesses is the addition of a family business program at the college.
“There have been several conversations around how Fisher could become a hub for family business programming,” Yelkur says. “There could be a minor in family business. So many students are connected to family businesses and so are our faculty and staff.”
With some 4 percent of family businesses surviving to the fourth generation, Yelkur says, she feels there is a need for educational support in partnership with local businesses to help them deal with issues such as succession planning, human resources and sibling rivalry as well as business management.
Yelkur gained experience in family business programming during her tenure at Saginaw Valley State University. The Stevens Center for Family Business there has provided students and local family businesses education on topics that affect family businesses since 1999.
Donald Bachand, president of the university, recalls how Yelkur was instrumental in developing the program, which currently offers a concentration. Yelkur helped to ensure its accreditation, he says.
“When the accreditation body came to accredit us, they didn’t have much expertise with family businesses,” Bachand says. “Rama was in the middle of all of that. She had faculty members participating as well as businesses. It’s a trademark program for us and very popular.”
Bachand hired Yelkur to be dean when he was provost at Saginaw Valley State.
“I’m the guy who took a chance on her and it worked out very well,” he says.
Yelkur related perfectly with her main constituents: the faculty and also the community at large, which was a bonus for the university, he says.
“Rama excelled at the external component of her job. She was very engaging with corporate boards and business leaders in the region,” Bachand says. “She is very bright and very social.”
Yelkur’s ability to engage business leaders and understand their needs impressed Mark Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. and a member of the St. John Fisher search committee that selected Yelkur.
“What Rama brings is an understanding of how Fisher and the business community can support each other,” Peterson says. “Collaboration can be messy. All colleges have to collaborate effectively and we must re-learn and re-imagine constantly.”
The committee liked that Yelkur is experienced in the accreditation process, since the School of Business faces renewal of its accreditation—an accomplishment just 40 business schools across the country can boast, Peterson adds.
Her knowledge of family businesses and her ideas on outreach showed qualities Peterson and the search team found very valuable in a business school leader.
“It is a tremendous asset to be well-connected to the corporate community, so they send employees to the college programs and vice versa,” Peterson says. “We need input to get the right training and programs to serve the needs of businesses. Dr. Yelkur can bring the right people to the table.”
As dean, a challenge Yelkur faces is one many deans face, a decline in the pool of prospective students, brought about largely through a decline in high school graduates. She sees it most prominently in the Midwest and Northeast.
“We are all, in essence, competing for the same, smaller pool of students. This necessitates both publics and independents to innovate and look for new areas to attract different populations,” Yelkur says.
A large percentage of St. John Fisher’s student population is from this region and the Northeast. That has served the college well through a strong alumni base that has remained connected to college and continues to be financially supportive.
As the college, including the School of Business, looks to attract enrollment, Yelkur says leaders need to think of appealing to new students, including adults returning to class to earn a second degree.
“We need to think creatively for ways to fill the gap,” she says.
Seizing an opportunity
With challenge comes opportunity, Yelkur says. A challenge to overcome a bout of boredom in the classroom led to a boon she never anticipated. Now people come to her every year for her expertise in the NFL Super Bowl.
It started as a class assignment when she was teaching a course on promotions at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She started a research project with her students and tasked them to watch the commercials during the big game to see if there were common characteristics that could predict likability.
“It was the perfect educational opportunity,” Yelkur says. The ads engaged “the whole process of watching, coding, analyzing, using quantitative skills and soft skills of writing. It is my happiest moment to see students grow on the research side. And they love it.”
In the 20 years Yelkur has continued to do the project, the predictors of likability have changed.
The cost of buying a Super Bowl ad has changed as well. A 30-second commercial cost $40,000 in 1967, the year the Super Bowl debuted. In 2017, that same commercial cost some $5 million. Is the investment worth it?
Yelkur reviewed four years of advertiser share prices in the two-week period surrounding the Super Bowl. She found advertisers, on average, saw a 1 percent gain in their stock prices following the game.
“That’s a pretty great return, making it well worth the money,” she says.
Yelkur is like a crystal ball in predicting which commercials the viewers will like. Her top three are always within the top five of the USA Today’s top 10, she says.
“They are based on predictors of ad likability such as humor, animals, celebrity. This year we were seeing more social messaging,” she says.
How did Yelkur do? For Super Bowl LI, the USA Today top five were Kia Motors Corp., which featured Melissa McCarthy; Honda Motor Co., which had several celebrities in a high school yearbook; Audi, which highlighted a young girl in a race narrated by her father; Anheuser Busch Cos. LLC, which told a story of how the company was founded by immigrants; and Tide, which featured Terry Bradshaw.
Yelkur’s top three were the Audi, Anheuser Busch and Tide spots.
“It’s fun,” Yelkur says, noting she gets calls from national ad agencies for advice.
Yelkur, who watches plenty of football for the research project, admits to being a faithful Green Bay Packers fan. In college she was a goalkeeper for the field hockey team.
Yelkur also loves the outdoors and enjoys finding regional parks to explore with her husband, Mohan, and daughter, Natasha, 14. The family lives in Pittsford.
“We like to get away on weekends to camp or stay in a cabin,” she says. “We really love to travel. We hit our 34th country when we visited Ghana, Africa.”
Yelkur is making her roots in Rochester as she learns more about her role as dean and how she can use it to make an impact.
“She is extremely involved in our strategic planning process taking place right now,” college President Gerard Rooney says. “Her insight from other educational environments is invaluable.”
Yelkur has given the team different perspectives on various challenges they are discussing, Rooney adds. He is impressed by the way she has immersed herself in the college community in such a short time and looks forward to great things from her.
“The passion with which Dr. Yelkur approaches her work is inspiring,” Rooney says.
Position: dean and professor of marketing, School of Business, St. John Fisher College
Education: B.S., mathematics, Ethiraj College for Women, Madras University, India, 1986; MBA, PSG College of Technology, India, 1988; Ph.D. in business administration in marketing, Mississippi State University, 1995
Family: Husband, Mohan Yelkur; daughter, Natasha, 14
Activities: Travel, camping, hiking, sports
Quote: “We are all in essence, competing for the same, smaller pool of students. This necessitates both publics and independents to innovate and look for new areas to attract different populations.”
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