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A Very Visceral Experience With Business

Successful adults often point to their childhood experiences, and the influence of their parents, when talking about their own career choices. In a recent Harvard Gazette profile, Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School, spoke about the influence his father’s career had on his own. Here’s an excerpt from his profile, which can be read in full here:

Q: Was your interest in business a result of your father’s influence?

A: I think that certainly my father had a very large influence on my interest in business. But more than that, I also had a very visceral experience with business. I used to travel with my father very often, and I saw what business could do. He was running an electrical equipment company. This was a time when India was getting electrified, so the vast majority of the country had no electricity, and he was building the generators, the transformers, the equipment that would help in the electrification of the country.

I still remember going to visit a factory in a place called Nashik, which was just outside of Bombay. So we’d go to these places — Nashik was a great example — where there was nothing, and my father, his company, built the first factory. Then you go to these places again five years later and where there was a factory, there were 10 factories. And then you go another 10 years later and there was a whole city. So the power of business to generate economic prosperity — I remember there was a 10th-year anniversary of the Nashik factory that I had the privilege of going with my father to see the first year when it was actually started. We were sitting at the lunch table, and it was his common practice to sit at the regular lunch table with workers. I was sitting next to a worker, and he was describing how much this factory had changed his life — how he had gotten employment, his kids had gone to college, there were now hospitals. So I had this very visceral sense of business being a noble thing and that the impact it had on society was very positive. It didn’t just feel like a choice that I was making because it was a conservative choice or a choice that would generate employment or something. It just felt like a way to live your life where you could do something with your life that was worthy.

Q: Did your father or mother offer any advice to you in those days that stayed with you?

A: My father always used to say that there must be two things that you should always do in life. He said you should find something that you love doing. And you should find something that makes you feel like you’re doing better for society. That was very important to his own sense of life — living a life in which your life was in some ways giving back to society or you felt like you were making a positive difference in society. That was a deeply important value for him.

His view was that there’s no particular way in which you should choose to do it. Find something that you love, but find something that also makes you feel that you’re making a positive difference on society.

Q: When you first came to the United States and arrived at MIT, did you have any preconceived notions about what Cambridge or the U.S. was like?

A: There was this wonderful graduate student who was about 10 years older than me. I was among the youngest people in the graduate program at MIT. She was very concerned, almost like quasi-maternally concerned, about whether this young kid who had just dropped off the boat from India was doing OK or not. I remember about four weeks in, she sat down and she said to me, “Are you having culture shock?” I said, “Yeah, I’m in culture shock.” She says, “In what way?” And I said, “I didn’t realize I had come to a village.” Because I was shocked that you couldn’t go out after 10 p.m. and get dinner in Cambridge! In Bombay, after 10 p.m. is when you started to go out and it was a big city even then. Now it’s 20 million, but when I left it was probably 10, 12 million. Boston felt very provincial.

On the other hand, the academic environment at MIT was the most freeing — you suddenly felt like there was no limit to what you could imagine, what you could think, what you could do. I had this simultaneous sense of, on the one hand, being in a small place, but on the other hand, being in a limitless place intellectually. What was striking is that nobody said that just because you’re a graduate student, you’re supposed to think small thoughts and you have to wait until you get tenure to think big thoughts. In India, you almost always felt that you had to find your place. It was a very hierarchical society, and when you were young, you were never supposed to challenge a professor.

Here, to suddenly be liberated to imagine whatever you wanted to imagine for yourself, to be encouraged to sit in seminars — your right to ask a question, if you asked an intelligent question, was the same as anybody else’s right to ask an intelligent question. To constantly be challenged by your professors, I had this extraordinary sense of liberation intellectually, which was exhilarating. There’s no other word that can describe it. It was just exhilarating. Of course, I did have to get over the cold.

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