Dr. Saravanan Kesavan graduated with a B.Tech in Civil Engineering in 1997. He is presently a faculty member at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Excerpts from a free-wheeling conversation with him.

1. Could you please introduce yourself to the readers?

I am a faculty in the Operations Management area at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I teach undergraduates, MBAs, and PhD students. Apart from teaching, I devote a lot of my time to research. My primary area of research is “Retail Operations”. I use econometric techniques to examine how retailers can improve their operations to drive sales and profitability. I work with several large U.S. retailers on multiple research projects.

I did my doctorate in Business at the Harvard Business School. My doctoral advisor was Ananth Raman, an IITM graduate (1986- B. Tech, ME), and the best PhD advisor one could have, in my mind. Before I joined the doctoral program at HBS, I worked at i2 Technologies (1998-2002) where I was exposed to many operational problems faced by companies.

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I graduated from IITM in 1997 from Civil Engineering. I was a resident of Saraswati hostel, where I was involved in many extracurricular activities. One of them was the captain of the tennis team and the rest I will leave to your imagination.

2. Why is it that you choose to do what you are doing now?

a) We would like to know your shift from an MS in Transportation (which is part-technical) to being a Faculty member in OR at a prestigious B-School

b) We would also like to know why you chose a career in academics vs one in the industry

I wish I could say that it was all part of a well-planned, thoughtful exercise. However, in reality it has been a series of fortunate accidents that led me to being a faculty member.

I was passionate about the retail industry right from childhood. My father was a book retailer in Chennai and I would spend all of my spare time in my father’s book store. There were many aspects about retailing that I liked but the ones that I particularly enjoyed were the customer interactions; specifically, I was thrilled to help customers find what they were looking for. To be present at the point where supply met demand was quite joyful. Sometimes the transaction could be as simple as satisfying the need of a customer who was looking for a specific title but the more exciting ones were those where I could help a browsing customer choose an appropriate book based on their preferences. Unfortunately, I believed that a career in book retailing would not be a sound financial decision. Being academically good only made it harder (for me) to take the road less traveled of a career in book retailing.

So, I followed the crowd and did what most students who were analytically strong did. I took the JEE and got accepted to IITM in Civil Engineering. When I graduated it made sense for me to go to the US to pursue MS degree in Transportation and Logistics, a sub-field under Civil Engineering. With financial priorities still driving my decision making, I joined the supply chain management industry and worked for four years. I got married soon after and were expecting our first child soon after. Ironically, at the point where financial securities were most important, I decided to quit my job and join the doctoral program at HBS, with focus on retail operations. Returning to my retail roots, even if it meant studying it from a distance instead of participating directly, made it easy to take this life-changing decision.

Steve Jobs famously remarked, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” I feel that my training at IIT and my subsequent work experience helped me prepare for an academic career in business schools, where I am able to combine two of my passions:  retail and problem-solving. The latter deserves further explanation. In my mind, the common thread that unites all IITians is our natural inclination towards problem solving. We begin our journey wrestling physics problems in Irodov to pass JEE and then join IIT where our skills get further honed as we work on a wide variety of problems, be it in Civil Engineering or Electrical Engineering. For me, an occupation in academia is rewarding since I have fun working on retail problems while getting paid to do so.

3. How do you think faculty at B-Schools could contribute to IIT Madras?

There is a good opportunity to build a strong relationship between IIT Madras and its alumni who are faculty in B-Schools around the world. B-school faculty can present seminars or conduct short workshops on different topics. Apart from providing an exposure to the kinds of research that takes place in various B-Schools around the world,  such seminars would provide an opportunity for students to interact with the faculty. Another idea would be to conduct a focused symposium for IITM alumni in B-schools. It would be wonderful to have alumni across decades to share the same roof and discuss a wide variety of topics.

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4. Your opinion on students moving to the Non Core (non-engineering) sector as opposed to their Core (academic) disciplines?

Personally, I do not believe in imposing constraints on career choices of students. This is especially important for IITs where majority of the students end up taking a discipline based on their All India Rank (AIR). While I understand the economic compulsions behind enforcing such a rule, I also believe that AIR cannot determine the destiny of a student. A natural question that arises, and has been asked by many, is whether we are wasting our resources since students who train in a particular area move to others. I do not think so since I believe that irrespective of the discipline one chooses within IIT, all students are fundamentally trained to be exceptional problem solvers under different domains. From the student’s standpoint, this means that they should focus on every class and not only on those that they believe may be connected to their future jobs. For example, while most Civil Engineering students who learn how to design steel structures may never use those formula again in their life, intangible benefits such as structured thinking to problem solving will accrue and help them in the future. It is not only their right but the responsibility of students to use those problem solving skills in the right place. Many times, the right place may not be the one that pays the most. So, students should follow their passion with the belief that the dots will ultimately connect.

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