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My wonder years

Industrialist VN Dalmia journeys from his student days at the Darden Business School, University of Virginia, to being chosen member of board of trustees, of his alma mater

education Updated: Jul 21, 2010 09:24 IST
VN Dalmia
VN Dalmia
Hindustan Times

I was at Darden from 1982 to 1984 and was 29 years old when I graduated. I had seven years of work experience when I entered and was older than the median age-group then. Now, it is usual for an entering student to be 27 and to have four-plus years of experience.

How I got there
I had just about finished applying to B-Schools when, in 1981, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘The money chase – what business schools are doing to America’. I had never heard of Darden: “what’s this!” I thought. “The best MBA Programme in the South! And I haven’t even heard of it?” So, on a fam-trip to business schools before deciding, I visited Darden. And I was entranced when I attended a class. The energy and enthusiasm of the students was infectious – all were out of their seats, raising their hands to attract the attention of the professor, all wanted to speak! A very supportive, warm student community, high faculty-student ratio, accessible professors and the beautiful environs... my mind was made up.

I submitted my application after my visit. In those days, applications were written up on manual typewriters. I wrote my essays carefully, highlighting my seven years of managerial experience (which was higher than the average two-three years required at that time) emphasising what I considered to be my achievements. I attached all kinds of supporting material to my application – magazine articles, newspaper cuttings, certificates, etc. in order to present a comprehensive picture of my personality. As a result, my application package was bulky. In those days, there were no couriers and I sent my application by registered airmail, which took 15 days to reach.

One of the requirements of universities in those days was that students show proof of their being able to cover the cost of at least one year of education before the university agreed to issue an I-20 visa sponsorship. At this end, in India, the Government had a strange law which did not allow release of foreign exchange for studies abroad unless you were a first-class student in your prior studies in India. No relaxation was possible to obtain, despite my best efforts. The Government did not care if you got admission to the best university in the world. You could not legally obtain foreign exchange and hence, I was unable to prove – to the university – adequacy of resources in dollars. I had to ask a friend of my father in New York to sponsor me.

B-school boot camp
During the visa interview, the officer asked me why I was going to Darden. “A mid-career break,” I replied. He laughed. “Darden is not a break,” he responded. He was right – Darden was considered the boot-camp of business schools in those days. We are still considered a school with one of the highest workloads.

While struggling against odds which included an Indian bureaucracy that was determined to keep me in the country and a business family that did not want me to go, I lost the opportunity to obtain university housing as I applied too late. My wife and I arrived in Charlottesville and had to stay at the International Students Center for the first few days. For the first night we slept on camp-cots in the table-tennis room!

As an international student, there were many things about the system and city-life that I was unaware of. But the school had an orientation week for international students in which there were special classes, social outings and discussion-groups which helped immensely .

My two years at Darden were a life-transforming experience and I worked harder than I have ever worked in my entire life. This was Lesson No.1 – Darden’s philosophy is make you work at 200 per cent of real life, so that everything else thereafter is a cake-walk. Some other extraordinary value-additions that had a significant effect on my performance and character were decision- making techniques, marketing insights, human relations and the value of people, the time-value of money and most importantly, ethical considerations in the conduct of business. International students were a mere 10 per cent of a class of 200 then and I was the only Indian (now more than 30 per cent of a class of 300 are international, with half of them being Indians); we were a tight-knit community, closer to each other than to the Americans. The group was an important support structure, especially for those whose native tongues were not English. The Japanese, Koreans and Venezuelans provided us many mirthful moments, inside and outside of class, when they either misunderstood what was being said or mis-pronounced a name or word, but we clung together as a group throughout and formed deep, lasting bonds.

We had a pre-term orientation as soon as we arrived which included a picnic in a nearby wood and a visit to Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia and third president of the United States. His tombstone left a lasting impact on me. His epitaph, as per his direction, mentions only that he was the author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and that he was the father of the University of Virginia. In fact, besides president, he was secretary of state, Ambassador to France, etc. but he did not want to be remembered for his political achievements, only his literary and academic ones. There was an important lesson for me in that.

The MBA degree was not my only achievement at Darden. My first child, my daughter Himani, was also born there and I am always unable to decide which was the greater prize! After a hard day and night at the hospital, when I returned to class (as no one ever missed class for any reason) you can imagine my delight and surprise when a class-mate announced that I’d had a daughter and the whole class clapped!

We had a daily schedule that began with class at 8 am and finished after 1 p.m. I would rush home to eat a quick lunch and immediately begin preparing my assignment for the next day. I would continue without a break till 7 p.m. when I would meet with my study group of five other students. By 9 pm, I would return home, eat a very quick dinner and continue preparation till I went to bed at 11 p.m. We had to prepare three cases a day and we had three classes every day of the week plus a written or reading assignment for Saturdays. Sometimes I could not manage to prepare the third case and my wife would read it and summarise it for me in bed before I fell asleep.

What’s unique about Darden
First and foremost is the Case Method of instruction. Darden is almost 100 per cent case. At Darden, any articles or theoretical readings are adjunct material to cases. Furthermore, cases are discussed, not taught. A student begins classes with a presentation of the business problem and then other students interject with their thoughts. Professors intervene to guide, collate and sum up the discussion but never to provide any perfect solution to the problem. The idea is to simulate real life business situations and discussions. Over two years, students discuss more than 500 cases and are exposed to perhaps as many business situations and industries. A full 50 per cent of each student’s grade is based on oral participation in class. Darden believes that managers must be seen and heard in order to be successful. The quality of discussion is quite high as anyone who gets into Darden is, by definition, smart.

Darden is a General Management school and its mission is to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs” – to produce persons who will eventually become general managers and CEOs. Of course, Darden produces specialists in all management functions, but our specialists are different because they always keep the ‘enterprise’ or the ‘general management’ perspective in mind and do not impose a parochial functional approach upon strategies.

Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Darden, has been ranked as the city enjoying the highest quality of life in the USA. The beautiful warm Virginia countryside at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains is incomparable to any place on earth

First Published: Jul 20, 2010 12:48 IST