B.S. Sridhar, Ph.D.
B.S. Sridhar, Ph.D.
College of Business
by Grace Lim
the teacher’s son
On the grounds of the National Primary and Middle School in Bangalore, India, B.S. Sridhar reflected on his father’s lessons:
You need to be a life-long student to be a productive citizen. You need to live a life giving back to the community.
On that pleasant January day in 2012, Sridhar, an associate professor of business at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and his siblings stood on the grounds of the school that their father founded more than 75 years ago. They saw their father’s life’s work in the shining faces of more than 700 students. The Balakuntalam siblings, five total, were back in India to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of their father, who passed away in 1980. They came back to honor the man, who taught them to value education for themselves and others by establishing the Srividya Foundation, which will focus on making educational opportunities available to children who cannot afford them. The foundation’s first order of business is to provide uniforms for the students at the first school that their father founded.
Sridhar and his siblings did not want to make a big fuss over their return to the school. They had just wanted to drop in, reminisce a bit, then leave. But when word got around that the sons and daughters of the founder, Balakuntaalum Sundareswara, were on the campus, the school canceled classes and held an impromptu welcome presentation.
Sridhar was touched beyond words. He said his father would have been terribly embarrassed by the attention, but would have loved that the school is thriving and the children are learning.
And he would have loved that his son Sridhar is continuing that tradition of cultivating young minds.
Sridhar was born in Bengaluru, the capital city of the Indian state of Kamataka, which is situated in southern India. His father was a trained child psychologist, but chose to go into education. His mother, a consummate volunteer and avid reader, provided the steady hand in the rearing of five children. His mother was the only daughter of an affluent businessman and came from a family steeped in community service. When Sridhar’s parents got married, his father did not want the customary dowry that is provided from the bride’s family. “My father who was an idealist wanted none of that. He said, ‘Just come as you are,’ which meant that my mother had to give up a lot of her comfortable living,” Sridhar says. “As a Gandhian, my father could go into the field and pursue his vision, but the person that kept the family intact and gave him all the support was my mother. We owe a lot to her.”
Sridhar says his father trained teachers and taught high school for a few years, but was disenchanted with the quality of educational foundation the students had prior to entering high school. His father took a 50 percent pay cut so he could start a kindergarten and middle school. That school, the National Primary and Middle School, opened in 1937. After a few years, the family moved from town to town while the father promoted his educational visions. Sridhar remembers several schools that were so impoverished that the students had no furniture. But the children were not lacking education-wise because of teachers who truly cared.
Since that first school, his father had helped found several more schools and until his death continued to train teachers and mentor many others. “He firmly believed that you cannot really educate students unless the teachers have had good training and preparation,” he says.
Education was paramount, Sridhar said. His parents’ home was filled with books and news magazines. “We did not have a radio in our house until I was 12,” he says. “I did not grow up with television.”
His parents often hosted well-known Indian poets, authors and artists, and encouraged the children to interact and engage with the guests. They were followers of Mahatma Gandhi, who valued education and culture. “That was invaluable,” Sridhar says of lively dinners and friendly debates with guests. “That was huge as an education.”
Arts and Science
Sridhar enjoyed and excelled in school. He knew what society’s expectations were of him. A professional career that begins with engineering school, medical school, something of that ilk. However, that was not what interested Sridhar. “I took science, I enjoyed it, but I had never any inclination on becoming an engineer or doctor, which for the larger community is almost taboo,” he says.
“How could you not think of becoming an engineer or doctor?” well-meaning friends and relatives would say somewhat incredulously. Sridhar smiles broadly. “For me, liberal education was more fun.”
He “dabbled in literature” while majoring in physics and chemistry and minoring in mathematics at Bangalore University. Between his undergraduate and first graduate degrees, he was selected as a Naval Aviation Cadet Officer. He was one of 16 people out of 7,000 applicants accepted into that program. After 18 months, an ear problem grounded his flying days. He then made the transition from science to management.
That switch wasn’t too hard because he had always exhibited leadership qualities even as a boy, from leading student organizations, fundraisers, participating in music competitions, debate, and plays. In college, he competed in literary debate in three languages. (He has comfortable fluency in five languages.) “Leadership came very naturally for me,” he says. “So, to me, management is about leading people and leading organizations.”
|In this video, B.S. Sridhar talks about the importance of liberal arts education. Video produced by multimedia news intern Noell Dickmann.
After his stint with the Navy, Sridhar immersed himself in the world of business. He has worked as a personnel officer, personnel and administration manager and chief personnel manager for several large companies in India. He earned his first of three advanced degrees, a master’s of arts in personnel management and industrial relations from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.
Teaching as a Vocation
He had entertained the idea of teaching, having participated in employee training sessions at various companies. However, he had a different view about teaching as a vocation than his father, who had viewed teaching as a calling. His father’s life and career choices meant the family lived in poverty. Rich in ways not measured by money, yes, but poor in reality, nonetheless.
Sridhar says he has a more pragmatic way of looking at life than his romantic father. “I was looking for an opportunity to be gainfully employed and be comfortable,” he says. “I wanted something that could balance my economic needs as well as my professional needs.”
He began questioning his career path. His wife, Sandhya Sridhar, worked for a bank as a Selection Psychologist; he was head of HR for a large company. They have two children and lived a comfortable life. “I said, ‘Money and power is good, but is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?’ The answer was, ‘No.’”
He thought about what he liked to do–learning and teaching. He could have stayed in India to do just that, but he felt he would have to give up too much to do so. But teaching in the United States, now that had promise.
He made his way to Columbus, Ohio, on straight immigration to study organizational behavior and marketing at the Ohio State University where he earned his M.B.A. and doctorates. (His wife Sandhya Sridhar also earned her doctorate in business there, and now also teaches in the College of Business at UW Oshkosh.) Soon after graduating in 1987, he landed a teaching position at UW Oshkosh, where he has earned numerous teaching honors including the Excellence in Teaching Award, Management & Human Resources Team (2007, 2011) and Beta Gamma Sigma Professor of the Year (2003, 2006). “In the U.S. you have a fairly decent standard of living as a teacher,” he says with a smile. “Teachers are still not compensated well compared to a plumber or an electrician. On the other hand, I can’t complain. My needs are minimal and I can have fun with teaching.”
At UW Oshkosh, Sridhar teaches both graduate and undergraduate students. He is the founding advisor of the International Business Club, which began in 2001. Bryant Nankee, a senior majoring in marketing and minoring in global business, says Sridhar’s teaching have helped him with his current position as a marketing intern at Oshkosh Corp. “A lot of the course material has allowed me to better understand how to communicate with employees and customers of Oshkosh that are of different cultures,” says Nankee, who is also the Treasurer of the University’s International Business Club. “Wanting to pursue a degree in the international field, I can take away many of the subjects he teaches and be able to use them in the future.”
Kathryn Simon, a marketing senior and President of the International Business Club, says she is struck by Sridhar’s willingness to help. “Dr. Sridhar has taught me the power of connecting with people,” says Simon, who is working as an intern at New North in De Pere, Wis. “He has shown me that it is important to make connections with business professionals. I truly value his advice.”
Tim Fliss, who earned his MBA from UW Oshkosh in 2000, says he often uses Sridhar’s lessons in his job as Vice President of Human Resources at Bemis Company, a multinational company and major supplier of flexible packaging in Neenah, Wis. “Dr. Sridhar used several effective teaching and facilitation techniques to push us out of our comfort zones and think about new possibilities,” Fliss says. “This experience had a profound impact on me and was a catalyst that resulted in several years of rapid personal and professional growth. I also have used many of Dr. Sridhar’s concepts and techniques as I coach and develop leaders in my role as Vice President of Human Resources at Bemis Company.”
In September of 2012, Sridhar passed his quarter-century mark as a professor at UW Oshkosh. His commitment and passion to teaching remain as strong as ever. “There is not a semester when I don’t take a close look at my syllabus and the contents,” he says.
One student recently inquired about an upcoming Spring class. “He sent me an email about three days ago saying, ‘I want to be prepared for your class. I know you are a tough task master, and I want to use these three weeks to prepare.”
Sridhar took the student’s request to heart. “The last two days I updated my entire course content, and my wife was saying, ‘I thought you wanted to relax,’” he says with laugh. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to send him a bad syllabus.’”
Sridhar still keeps current with his field with outside consulting projects. He works with local companies in the Fox Valley including nonprofits like the Leadership Oshkosh, Paine Art Center, Oshkosh Symphony in Oshkosh and several small, medium and Fortune 500 companies in the area. “The reason I consult is not because of the money because money comes and money goes,” he says.
He says he is a better teacher when he can bring real-life experience into the classroom. “You gain more credibility when you are conveying abstract concepts like strategy, culture, motivation and leadership” he says of his consulting work. “You get a chance to test your concepts, test your techniques. You can bring the experience to validate or invalidate the textbooks.”
Sridhar wants his students to the see the world from different perspectives. In one recent MBA online class, International Business, he posed a question to his graduate students, “How do you market pizza in Kenya and Nigeria?”
For two days, the students, all in their 30s, engaged in a lively online discussion about the unlikelihood of marketing to people who “lived in trees,” had no infrastructure or need for such modern goods. “They had so many solutions and preconceived notions,” Sridhar recalls.
Then the teacher taught them a lesson with simple YouTube clips. He posted videos of modern supermarkets in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria. “The students were shocked,” he says, chuckling. “They said, ‘We don’t have supermarkets like this in Appleton or Oshkosh.' Suddenly they started thinking about these African countries as having great potential for business.”
|In this video, B.S. Sridhar explains a program he works with called IndUS. Video produced by multimedia news intern Noell Dickmann.|
If there is one lesson that Sridhar stresses to his business students, it is this: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
He wants his students to understand that best-laid plans often are rendered useless because they are not in sync with the culture of the organization. “The hardest thing for an organization is building and sustaining desired organizational culture.” In other words, people. How do you attract and retain people, the right kind of people with right kind of values, beliefs and talent,” he says. “They have to understand that people are your most important asset.”
Though both his parents passed in the 1980s, their lessons on education and community service still resonate in Sridhar. “They’ve taught me that learning is fun and that you grow by giving,” Sridhar says.
He lives those lessons daily. He teaches, keeps current in his field, and he gives back to the community by volunteering in many organizations. He has served as president of the Oshkosh Area United Way. He founded Seva, a volunteer group that serves lunch at the Salvation Army in Appleton every Saturday since 1993. He co-founded IndUS of Fox Valley, Inc., a volunteer organization whose mission is to promote “Indo-American friendship and goodwill by serving the community through social, cultural, educational and charitable activities,” and has served as its founding president for six years.
Since 1999 IndUS produces an annual cultural extravaganza that includes an exhibition, musical and dance performances and a multi-course authentic Indian dinner prepared by a renowned chef. The past five years, the gala has been held at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton and has attracted a sell-out crowd of 400 attendees.
It is in this venue that another side of Sridhar appears, one that his parents had cultivated when he was young and engaged in lively debates with authors and other creative souls. He has written, directed, and produced two plays, three dance-dramas, and seven musical-dance revues that have been staged in Oshkosh, Appleton and Madison.
For the most recent one in November titled “The Mysterious World of Indian Mythology,” Sridhar wrote and directed the dance drama. The dancers were from Kalaanjali School of Dance & Music, Madison, and Kanopy Dance, the resident dance company of Overture Theater of Madison. Only hours before the main event, Sridhar was going over the final blocking with the professional dancers from the Kalaanjali. His body swayed with the music, his arms flowed in time as the dancers swirled and twirled on stage.
“I am a great believer of liberal education so for me the liberal education has continued,” he says, adding that the business world would benefit greatly from people who embrace the arts. “A liberal education widens your mind. It teaches you how to learn. Art, music and literature are symbiotic with what I do as a professor of business.”
He doesn’t mind the long hours and the stress that comes with producing the cultural program at the annual event. “I learn so many new things,” he says. “It’s actually quite selfish on my part because I always come out ahead. I continue to grow.”
research mattersby B.S. Sridhar, Ph.D.
My current research interest lies in gaining a deep understanding of the impact of organizational culture and organizational mindfulness on effectiveness of nonprofit organizations in the context of social entrepreneurship. With decline in governmental revenues, and the increasing unemployment, societies around the world are facing severe cutbacks in social, educational and health services. Some nonprofits, faced with their declining donor base, and increased demand on accountability, are transforming themselves into social enterprises (SEs). Social enterprises pursue a triple-bottom line approach of people, planet and profits.