Eat around the world in 2 hours!

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Come September end, Darden students take to buying ingredients, digging up old recipe books, calling their mothers frantically to figure out how to make that one dish, and basically trying to figure out how they are going to manage cooking like a master chef in between learning how to be outstanding business leaders! We call this event the International Food Festival (IFF)!

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Every year students from 40+ countries around the world present their popular cuisines to the Darden community. Faculty, students and family come together, babies and pets alike to celebrate the vast diversity that the business school has to offer.

It’s advisable to start fasting all morning to be able to make it around the numerous mouthwatering stalls at least once before you go back for seconds, of course given there is food still left! Of course I hit the Indian stall the earliest to make the most of the “Channa masala” and the “butter chicken”. Craving spicy Indian food for almost a whole week. Moving on to the all American meat, British chicken sandwiches and salad, Chinese delicacies, Vietnamese rice items, Pakistani chicken dishes with spiced rice, Turkish walnut Baklava, Indonesian summer spring rolls, Israeli Falafel hummus, Japanese sushi, and tons of other exotic cuisines inviting your taste buds to dig in!

The Darden South Asia Society introduced the diversity pledge which strives to continue spearheading diversity initiatives. Be it race, nationality, gender, sexuality, background or even your school of thought. Students and faculty extended support by endorsing the pledge during the event. One of the reasons you enjoy two years at Darden is for this very reason. The openness to diversity of thought and being.

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There is of course no evening complete without dance and music. We had melodious Bollywood numbers, opera singers, violin performances, Japanese dance performances, and of course own very own Bollywood dance numbers ended the evening on a high note with the brave ones taking to the dance floor almost at the drop of a hat! Who doesn’t enjoy shaking a leg to the peppy “Bhangra” beats now and then?

So the next time you want to eat around the world in 2 hours, you know where in the world you need to be!

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Can you read for pleasure when doing an MBA?

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When you think about becoming a student for two years, one of the resolutions you make is that of reading more. That’s exactly what I thought when I decided to do my MBA. “At last I can now read all the books that I want to.”
A month into the program you soon realize that all the reading you would be getting are 100 page Business cases. (Thanks Harvard Business school publishing, it’s always a big wonder why such long cases! Most HBS cases are close to around those many number of pages.) Most of the time you are not even getting through the whole case. One of the skills you pick up very early on is the skill of being able to skim through volumes of text to find the relevant information, data, and tables to arrive at the insights required to make a recommendation backed by reasonable analysis and data.
And so a year later, it’s shameful to admit that I haven’t read for pleasure. I have read to analyze. I have read to make recommendations. I have read to draw insights. I have sometimes not read at all (but that’s of course between only you and me! You soon realize which courses you can get by a few minutes of skimming, a warning though – very far and few and often require a lot of strategic positioning and intuition. else you could get crushed in a case study classroom. So err on the side of “reading” a case – always!)
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So when the chance came last year to pick electives for second year, I ensured that I signed up for “Reading seminar 1” and “2” and “3”. The idea is to read a book a week and write a paper on what you took away from the book. Additionally you meet as a group of 15 students to share your reflections from the book. Very similar to a book club. But you are doing more than just reviewing the book. We read Machiavelli – Prince, Andrew Carnegie, and Enron – the smartest guys in the room, Steve jobs, Collin Powell, Warren Buffett.

Each one made me think deeply about lessons I could learn and mistakes I don’t want to make. It is one time in the week that I put all other reading away and curl onto my chair with a hot mug of chocolate and just read. Read for pleasure. About lives and stories and characters and dreams and hopes and successes and failures. Agreed that it’s not too far removed from business. After all we are reading about stalwarts in business. But biographies make for an interesting way to understand and internalize experiences, decisions, turning points, and character traits that make business lessons pleasurable to read.

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And so a year into the course I have read six books in six weeks. Spent two continuous weekends with Warren buffet, and Steve jobs. A rainy weekend with Collin Powell on his American journey curled in with a mug of hot chocolate and some Beethoven in the background. A weekend with Machiavelli and the prince. Not that’s what I call reading for pleasure! Looking forward to reading seminar two beginning in a week! American icon – Ford motors coming up!

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One for All, All for one! – Learning Teams at Darden

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As Second Years you often find yourself at home at 7:00pm either reading your cases for the next day or reading the latest posts on Oatmeal. (More often than not, it’s the latter). A few evenings ago I wondered why I was at home most evenings. And then it struck me that 7:00 to 9:00 pm was the sanctimonious time when you met with 5 other class mates every Sunday – Wednesday in First year which suddenly freed up on your calendar as a Second year.

I firmly believe that behind every successful man is a women. But I am convinced that behind every successful Darden First Year is the “Learning team”. One of the most unique things about Darden is your learning team experience. When I was applying to Darden last year, words like “collaborative”, “team work”, and “community driven” kept creeping up everywhere. In my interview. In my conversations with students at Darden. And other blogs that I had read when deciding to apply.

When I came on grounds, the end of the week of orientation your learning team was supposed to be revealed to you. It’s a team of 5-6 diverse individuals who become your second family at Darden. With approximately 300 students, the student affairs team (hats off to them!) tries to craft 50 learning teams. I write “craft” because they are truly crafted. Accounted for various constraints like diversity in undergraduate study, work experience, nationality, gender, global exposure, personality type, and god knows what else, the process puts fantasy football brackets to shame sometimes.

I learnt a year back on the last day of orientation that I was learning team 44. Darden sends you an email with a number and asks you to go to a learning team room to find your other members. It’s a very exciting/apprehensive feeling to walk into a room either to be the first one to welcome the others or be greeted by other members who are equally excited/apprehensive. A million questions run in your mind. Will they be nice? Will they like me? Will I like them? Will our styles of study match? Will we see eye to eye or will we contradict to no end?

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As you get to know your LT mates better over a day of scavenger hunting across Charlottesville, feeling glad that you have a UVA undergrad on your team who know the place like the back of his hand, you learn more about each person along the year. Most teams survived the adventure that is FY. Others simply crumbled into what could have been…

Like every relationship, LTs are built on the foundations of trust and honesty. Building ‘trust’ in your mates about getting an excel model/word notes for the next day’s case when you have been busy all week recruiting and trying so hard to crack an internship and reciprocating when they are in the thick of things. Being ‘Honest’ about not understanding the discounted cash flow model, not reading the case due to crazy recruiting schedules, not attending the meeting due to a prior commitment, and about needing help with another mate hours before meeting with others so we can be more productive during those two hours. Somehow getting staying afloat – together.

Most importantly it’s about really getting to know each other and having fun beyond those two hours! Being so far away from home and familiarity, when you feel nothing is ever going to go right for you. Academics, career, life. No one knowing that today is your birthday, you cranking away in a lonely room working on finance cases for exams… wanting to just check out. And in that moment it’s about finding the most surprising sense of family in them throwing a surprise party for you with your favorite red velvet cake and making life – not so bad after all.

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Dedicated to the closest semblance of family I found here – Annemarie, Henry, Will, Jacob and Nicolas. Couldn’t have made it through Year 1 without you all.

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This blog post was also featured in http://www.topmba.com.

Flying too frequently?

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Air travel as a child was a thing of luxury. I still remember the first time I flew on a plane as an 8 year old. The feeling of holding my own boarding pass, carrying my own cabin baggage, walking through security check, walking along the glassed windows watching flights take off, walking through the viaduct onto the plane, being welcomed by a very elegant air hostess, fighting with my younger sister for the window seat, being offered candy(in those days air-hostesses used to offer eclair toffees on a tray), trying to grab as many as I could in my tiny hands, buckling seat belts on, the final excitement of taking off, and that glorious moment when you are in air, wondering how such a massive airplane flies, of course, this was before I learned about the Bernoulli’s theorem in physics!

It was a magical to say the least.
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Things have changed a lot in the past two decades. After a summer internship as a management consultant, I have become quite the jet setter. Something that comes with the job territory is travel. Having now experienced airports in all the major cities in the United States, I have often found that frequent fliers are neither grateful nor enchanted…

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Gone are the days of feeling like you were living a miracle when the plane took off. Welcome to the world of airlines trying to hold onto dear customers with frequent flier programs/incentives. Most people today don’t enjoy flying. It’s “torture” they say.

The ordeal of getting to the airport, long queues at the security check, unnecessary pat downs, opening and closing cabin baggage multiple times, commuting the gates, waiting a half hour early in line even when you have priority boarding(lest someone else takes your place in line), cursing your luck for a five minute delay, navigating annoying families(read kids) on vacation taking non-stop selfies, trying to stuff your baggage in the ever shrinking cabins abroad, having to check it in instead (for free), cribbing about the lax service in first class, about the five extra minutes the pilot takes to taxi, getting annoyed at the passenger who can’t get his baggage out in less than 3 seconds, waiting for your baggage at the conveyor(they get only about 95% of it on time), getting out of the airport finally to look for your Uber/taxi, and making it home in one piece for dinner with your family.

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In-numerous flights later, I always find it amazing how most people are extremely irked by every single aspect of air travel. I think about just a few decades ago when it took us days on end to travel by water and land to get to our final destinations. Air travel was all but a distant dream. Even today, almost 75% of the world population has never flown!

As the summer came to a close, I found myself becoming one of these irked/cribby travelers, until I found a little girl, she looked about 8, with her colorful backpack and travel games beaming ear to ear, sitting across me at the airport gate. She clearly couldn’t wait to get on the flight. Her mother smiled at her restlessness. She asked, “Do you want mommy to exchange her window seat for your aisle?” The girl nodded and gave her a tight hug. Her excitement was palpable. She smiled at me, while I worked away on my power point presentation. I couldn’t help but smile back. Something told me this was her first flight ever.

And then, I spent that short flight looking out of the window thinking about what a miracle it is that I am flying thousands of miles an hour, in a machine that weights at least a few hundred thousand pounds. I didn’t let Bernoulli’s theorem ruin that feeling either.

Make your home in your heart!

Growing up as an army officers’ daughter, I have known many homes. Close to 14 different cities, towns, villages, and 9 different schools to be precise. From the cold mountain ranges of the Himalayas, the harsh desert expanses of Rajasthan, the lush green tea plantation hills of Assam, to the pristine white salt pans of Gujarat etc. Apart from the geographic contrasts, I have also immersed in a plethora of cultural contradictions. As you can imagine, for someone like me who takes hardly any time to make a new place & diverse people my own, the word ‘home’ still remains quite a mystery.

However, exactly a month back when I boarded a flight to India, there were butterflies in my stomach. I hadn’t been back in a whole year since I started B-school at Darden. Of course I was always updated about the goings on. I was constantly in touch with family and friends all over the world thanks to technology and rarely ever felt like I was too far away… As the flight left Abu Dhabi and approached the Rajiv Gandhi International airport at Hyderabad, I couldn’t wait any longer to claim my baggage. As I wheeled out my overweight “US looted” luggage trolleys through the arrivals, I could smell the familiar Indian summer air- humid and thick. As the crowd parted, I could spot our black car. My sister suddenly jumped at me and as I had predicted our golden Labrador, Oscar sprang right at me, my mom seated at the wheel! And suddenly it felt like homecoming…

Each morning I woke up to the chants of the classical mantras on the radio, the whiff of honey ginger green tea brewing, the aroma of lentils cooking away with magical spices, mom watering the plants outside animatedly instructing our maids of the daily tasks, the sight of dad peacefully reading the morning paper, the joy of Oscar playing with his chew toy next to him, and my younger sister still fast asleep probably only half way through her dream…

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Somehow nothing had changed since I had left a year back, and in some ways, everything had. Things that felt so familiar, felt completely alien at the same time. These of course included all “foreign return” clichéd observations like the traffic sense on the roads, the sheer number of people, and the heat (unless you got back from Texas). I was totally prepared for these and quiet enjoyed them as well. But the ones that caught me completely off guard were the constant supply of delicious food at your whim and fancy, the “unpredictable appointment-less” plans and all night adventurous partying with friends, and the general feeling of being surrounded by people who truly care and love you unconditionally…these cliché’s felt vaguely familiar yet alien at the same time.

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On my flight back, I sat next to a person who moved to the US many years back and every year thought about going back to his village in India for good. But after all these years he still struggled with this dilemma of picking a home. And then realization struck that I had also in fact left home, to be at a home away from home. But luckily for me when I closed my eyes, all the homes I have had for the past 27 years flashed by like a film reel. I felt lucky. I never had to pick a home. And I knew why.

I had never made a home in a ‘place’. I had made a home in my head and my heart. I had everything I needed to furnish it – fantastic memories, friends I could trust, and the love of learning.  And that way it went with me wherever my journey took me…

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Blossoming trees, galloping horses, and home going!

As a third grade Geography teacher, I taught my kids about seasons – the four distinct seasons in India, the winter (January and February), the summer (March to May), the monsoons/rains (June to September), and the post-monsoon/autumn (October to December) and their beauty. As India welcomed a simmering summer, it also went into the world’s largest democratic general elections – equally heated so far…

On the other side of the globe, the white noise has finally disappeared. What followed, left me quite breathless. Snow and white gave way to blossoms and green. Coats gave way to light sweaters, boots gave way to sandals, and woolens gave way to floral sun-dresses, and jeans gave way to salmon, aquamarine, and khaki bonobo shorts. My first official “spring” finally arrived.

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After hearing a ton about the cherry blossoms on the mall at Washington DC I was disappointed that I couldn’t catch them during spring break. But what I saw outside my own apartment and all over Darden left me speechless. Often I would find myself smiling at  the blossoms on my walk back home form a day filled with extremely challenging MBA studies taken way too seriously just to realize that the simplest things in life were really just that simple. You will know what I mean when you look at these colors. Shades I didn’t know existed and patterns I didn’t think were created yet.

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Breezy & sunny morning with long days were perfect for many things. Barbeque parties, group discussion in the Flagler court in the course “Establishing yourself at work”, procrastinating about data analysis and optimization cases and exams, long lazy lunches with bloody marys, and the fox field races! Darden Alumni come back to meet their batch mates and indulge in a weekend long of festivities during these popular Virginian races. They were every bit the “little women” in hats and fascinators and men in bonobo pastel shorts and loafers. It reminded me of horse riding lessons I took as a child, derby races and polo matches at the turf club in Pune India, of books I had read, and movies I had watched of the old America where people had more wealth than they could exhaust in a lifetime and more time than they needed to relax.

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Finally, after getting myself to finish the last exams of the first year MBA, having shopped like there was no tomorrow, trying to fit it all in two 23 kilogram suitcases, still ending up 5 kilos over weight, convincing Etihad airways that this was my first time back home in almost a year, sitting here at the Dulles airport with another hour to go, looking back at the whirlwind of the year that was… the inhibitions, the excitement, the craziness, the frustrations, the failures, the lessons learnt, the triumphs, the tribulations, the euphoria, the calm…it is time… it is time to take a break…it is time to go home… To familiarity, to family, to friends, to vote, and to fill myself up to the brim with all of the above to make it back here…for a new season and to embark on a wonderful & exciting summer adventure… See you again in a month, the US of A!

 

Darden Diaries 14: Battlegrounds and boardrooms.

Some of the best things about a business school like Darden, nestled in the rich cultural heritage of Virginia, are the fabulous relationships it builds and fosters with great institutions like the US Marine Corps. What started as an experiment last year with only a handful of Second year students evolved into an experiential leadership course for more than 200 first year students at the Battlegrounds of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Last weekend saw us travel to Gettysburg. Being welcomed by the dean of the US Marine Corps academy, wining and dining in the 18th century extravagance of the ghost town of Gettysburg, and most pleasantly experiencing undiluted chivalry all around in the form of chairs being pulled and doors being opened, was an interesting twist to the MBA experience. We battled wind chills of -10 degrees centigrade, defended ourselves from rain that attacked through numbed skin, and walked staff rides in the expansive battlefields, humbled by the conditions that soldiers fought wars in before modern warfare.

When I first bid for the course “Business & Leadership lessons – the battlefields of Gettysburg”, I wasn’t even quite sure how the two related. The more I acquainted myself with the American civil war, the north and the south, the cause each valued, the battles, the decisions, and the outcomes, the more clear it became to me how numerous business lessons could explode from one cannon fire of a strategic decision made by the Generals of both the union and the confederacy.

I was overwhelmed with the plethora of parallels in business leadership that were waiting to be made using strategic battlefield decisions. Be it understanding “Key Terrain” in a battle which directly translated to “competitive advantage in an industry”, to how General Meade of the north “manages diversity of commanders’ character” in his army to how a CEO “leverages diversity of thought and talent in an organization”, there were inferences everywhere to be drawn.

Never truly understanding why people needed to fight wars in the first place.  You would think that constructive conversation, talk, and debate could bring all the peace in the world. Clearly I choose to remain naive and idealistic when history is testimony to two world wars, several bigger/smaller/medium sized wars in the recent past and present, rendering peace talks quite irrelevant in  modern warfare.

In the end, what really stuck with me on the bus ride back  home with 100 other exhausted classmates was how we all will face situations in classrooms, the workplace, our organizations, our social networks, and our professional & personal worlds, which will demand us to go to war… but can the unique leadership style we develop at Darden enable us to resolve conflicts with tact and peace?

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