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Change Agent: B-School Buddhism

4 minute read
Carolina A. Miranda

Srikumar Rao wants his students to meditate. He teaches them to be grateful. In his gentle voice, he asks them to stop living in a “me centered” world and start living in an “other centered” one. It’s the kind of talk that would be right at home in a Buddhist monastery, but Rao’s disciples gather in another kind of temple: business school.

Think of it as self-help for the M.B.A. set. Mixing Eastern philosophy with career counseling, Rao’s personal-development class gets business students to explore what they find meaningful in life and integrate it into their careers. Despite some initial skepticism about the touchy-feely vibe (where else would a future M.B.A. read Ram Dass?), the class has been one of the most popular offered at Columbia Business School, where Rao has been an adjunct professor since 2000. Up to 200 students apply for 40 spots. Students have been so moved by his message, they started an informal alumni club to preserve the passion as they go on to conquer commerce. Rao taught last fall at London Business School, where he won another set of fans. “It’s a very intense course,” says Mar Doncel, who works in investment banking and took his course in London. “You do it with a lot of love.”

How does Rao bring business-school Type A’s in touch with their inner yogi? He draws on his knowledge of Indian spirituality but speaks to businesspeople in a language they understand, says Sreedhar Kona, who took the course at Columbia in 2004. Rao has a Ph.D. in marketing from Columbia and spent half a dozen years in that business, including working in a pivotal position on promotions for the movie The Exorcist. It was then that he asked himself the question he regularly poses to his classes: “Is this what you want your legacy to be?”

Students say figuring out the answer forces them to define their priorities in a way no other B-school course does. They are asked to keep a daily journal and attend an off-site retreat. Required reading ranges from classics like Creativity in Business to spiritual travelogues like A Search in Secret India. In one exercise, students spend an hour each day for a week helping someone else without expecting anything in return.

It may not be advanced accounting, but the results do filter down to the bottom line. Now a risk associate at GE in Stamford, Conn., Kona says the techniques have made him a better team player. “Before, I might not have gone out of my way to help a co-worker,” he says. “Now I take the stance that the success of a project is what’s important. Whether or not I get credit doesn’t bother me as much.” Doncel says the course even improved her relationship with her partner. “It’s much less about the little things and more about what we want from life,” she says.

Rao, who is on sabbatical from Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y., where he has taught the course since 1994, is expanding his mission beyond business students. A book based on his principles, Are You Ready to Succeed?, was published early this year, and he recently started teaching seminars based on this course for the public.

Ultimately Rao is counting on his students to create a more genuine ethic of business, one that would not allow a scandal like Enron to take root. He likes to imagine what a generation of other-centered businesspeople could do for the world. “In about a decade, my students will be in leadership positions,” he says with a satisfied smile. “And they will ask, What can I do to make things better?”

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