Mahendra Gupta, dean, John M. Olin School of Business, and the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professor of Accounting and Management. (Photo by David Stradal)

Tapping the Synergy Between Business and Scholarship

By Rick Skwiot

Mahendra Gupta is leading a charge to transform business education, and the individuals who go on to transform business. The plan of attack: continuously find new opportunities to bring Olin Business School’s rigorous research expertise to bear on timely, business-critical issues by partnering with business and involving students in the process.

Gupta, dean of the Olin School and the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professor of Accounting and Management, sums it up in three words: rigor, relevance, and collaboration, which, he says, capture a mindset prized and embraced throughout Olin. That mindset—along with ample aid from alumni and friends—is helping catapult the John M. Olin School of Business into the top ranks of business research institutions worldwide.

Rigor, relevance, and collaboration are values he acquired years ago in running the family business, the Guptas’ Bombay food products, financing, and agribusiness. From his family, he says, he learned about more than just profit-and-loss statements.

“I learned about the importance of hard work and getting people together, the importance of caring for people—workers, customers, and business partners—and the importance of creating long-term sustainabilities,” says Gupta. “Nothing can be achieved without the help and collaboration of the people you work with.”

A plan for long-term excellence

Those lessons have helped Gupta lead the launch of “an ambitious long-term plan for excellence.” This plan includes an aggressive initiative to expand faculty, construct new state-of-the-art facilities to attract top students and researchers, and substantially increase student financial aid and scholarships.

At the plan’s core lies a strategy to tap into the overlapping interests and skills of faculty, students, and business.

“To differentiate the School, we must make businesses an integral part of our research as well as make Olin a partner valued and sought after by business,” says Gupta.

“This gives students the opportunity to learn to become better leaders and understand the complexities of business through hands-on experience, and to build critical thinking and communication skills.”

For faculty, Gupta says, it creates a platform to have an impact on businesses, to combine elements of rigorous education with elements of practice, and to build new research opportunities.

The plan holds benefits for business as well: “We never lose sight of our responsibility as a business school to serve the business community, through the preparation of exceptional graduates and future leaders, and through world-class business research,” he says. “We must earn the trust of business—partnering to help companies advance and spawning new insights for future research and growth.”

The Ding, a gift from the School’s Shanghai colleagues, is displayed in the Knight Executive Center courtyard. (Photo by David Kilper)

Olin intersects with business in many ways. Its non-degree executive education programs attract local, national, and international firms to its Charles F. Knight Executive Education and Conference Center. The Executive MBA–St. Louis Program attracts senior business leaders nationwide; the Professional MBA Program draws emerging business leaders from the St. Louis region. The young Washington University–Fudan University Executive MBA Program in Shanghai is already a top EMBA program in China. Additionally, undergraduate business students and full-time MBA students have copious opportunities for experiential learning.

“Olin’s 14,000 alumni are transforming business. We’re helping people discover new opportunities, new growth, and new potential,” says Gupta. “In China, we’ve created a world-class program that now boasts some 400 students and alums among senior executives in that country.”

International and interdisciplinary

Growing increasingly international, the business school now has a third of its graduate students coming from abroad. The School’s grown more interdisciplinary as well, with cross-school programs in architecture, social work, law, biomedical engineering, and more, “enhancing students’ skill sets,” says Gupta, by combining business and diverse disciplines.

“We continue to create exciting, new collaborations with other programs and, in turn, for students,” he says. “One-third of Washington University undergraduate students already take courses at Olin.”

Likewise, Olin students are engaged in projects that reach out to other parts of the world.

“In Madagascar, they are creating a sustainable economic model for villagers, so they won’t have to cut rain forest for subsistence,” says Gupta. “In Mexico, they are studying what kind of corn will best benefit the local economy and how you can market it. Our students are making good things happen in economically sustainable ways.”

The road from Mumbai

Gupta himself was lured to Washington University from halfway around the world. He started working in his family’s business while in high school then earned an undergraduate degree at Bombay University. Next, he earned a master’s of business administration from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and returned to India to apply his newfound knowledge to the Guptas’ commercial operations.

After five years, he longed to continue his business education and returned to the United States to earn a doctorate at Stanford University. In 1990, he came to the Olin School where he excelled in research and teaching, winning the Reid Teaching Award seven times. His research has included investigations in strategic cost management. In 2003, he assumed the role of senior associate dean and in 2005 the deanship of the business school.

“After my rewarding roles as a teacher and researcher, I was eager to discover what more I could do for and learn about this complex, energizing School,” says Gupta.

His predecessor, Stuart Greenbaum, the Bank of America Professor Emeritus of Managerial Leadership, says Gupta possesses an “entrepreneurial flair” that augurs well for his leadership.

“He has a charm, a warmth, personal skills, and intelligence that are impressive, and entrepreneurial instincts that serve him well. He’s a true academic entrepreneur,” says Greenbaum.

Gupta’s plan for excellence, Greenbaum says, “attacks fragmentation” in the community the School serves.

“Everyone aspires to this, but he’s articulated it. It distinguishes his leadership,” says Greenbaum. “He’s early in his leadership and still has years to establish his legacy.”

However, that legacy is already being written according to Ronald King, the Myron Northrop Professor of Accounting, who is Gupta’s successor as senior associate dean.

“He has already achieved a great deal during his three years as dean, which has had a profound impact on Olin’s trajectory,” says King. “One noteworthy achievement has been his ability to create and nurture a healthy and constructive culture. His energy and passion for the School has set a tone for all to work to achieve the highest standards.”

For Gupta, those high standards mean helping the School, founded in 1917, prepare for a second century of heightened global influence and excellence.

Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.