Interview by Yash Panchal
Dr. Shalini Urs is the Founder-Chairperson of MYRA School of Business. She is an internationally recognized academic and an institution builder and her brainchild other than MYRA is the International School of Information Management. She started her career in the academia 42 years back, joining the University of Mysore in 1976. Since then she has excelled in teaching, research, and institution building.
As an information scientist, Dr. Urs has a research interest in all matters of the mind—from creativity to cognitive to cultural. Taking a 360-degree view of information, she has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. Her areas of research include—Information Retrieval, Ontology Development, and Social Media and Network Analysis. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in the year 2000 with funding from the Government of India, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research under their National Information System for Science and Technology (NISSAT), which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation. She is lauded as a pioneer in the field of digital libraries and Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) areas in India. She built an online digital library way back in 2000, much before the digital era captured the imagination in India.
Dr. Urs has published more than 200 papers in peer-reviewed journals and prestigious academic conferences. She has won many awards—including the Best Paper Award at Infotex 1995; NDLTD - Adobe Leadership award in 2004; Emerald Research Fund Award 2007-08. She was awarded the Mortenson Distinguished Lecturer 2010 by the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA and was invited to deliver their annual lecture series, where she lectured on how digital technologies have transformed the learning experience. She was conferred with the Women Leadership Award by Dewang Mehta Business School awards in 2014 and Education Evangelist Award of India award by Skill Tree Foundation in 2015 for her outstanding contribution to higher education.
Dr. Shalini’s ‘Edupreneurship’ experience
I am an accidental edupreneur. Edupreneuership grew on me over the last 20 years of my academic life. Born in the mid-1950s, to educated and cultured parents, I had the best possible environment at home for learning. Two things were dinned into us— the importance of education and character building. My parents always encouraged us to study well and be useful in some manner or the other. And they shaped our thoughts and values. Whether in school or college, education was also a journey of self-discovery, finding our interests, strengths and weaknesses, our purpose in life, and finding our niche in the world and life. We were taught to value education as a means to an end, as well as an end in itself.
While doing my Master's degree, especially while working on my Master’s thesis, I realized my interest in and competence to do research, and thus knew that I could be an academic. So, I seized the opportunity of joining the University of Mysore as a faculty immediately after my Master’s in 1976 and thus began my academic journey. Teaching and research opened up my eyes and my horizon.
I thoroughly enjoy working in the education sector for the following reasons:
- Education offers immense opportunities to the critical faculties of human beings – imagination, creativity, logic, and reasoning. It provides unfettered opportunities to learn and develop – it is like a vast canvas, to paint our thoughts and ideas into the kind of picture that we imagine.
- It offers us an opportunity to contribute to not only the discipline that we are in but with the flexibility to borrow and contribute to others as well.
- As an academic researcher, I was able to travel extensively around the world and experience different academic styles and institutional models, which shaped my edupreneurial instincts.
- Education sector offers diversity of experiences and experiential learning. Carrying out funded research projects, gave me further opportunities to interact with funding agencies such as Government of India--Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India; foundations such the Ford Foundation; industries/corporates such as Microsoft; and international organizations such as UNESCO. These opportunities not only added to my repertoire of research experience but also academic administration and international collaboration as well.
- As a teacher, what I liked best was the opportunities for coming up with fresh and innovative ideas, and the opportunity to shape the opinions of students.
- As an edupreneur — I began my edupreneurial journey when I set up the International School of Information Management with the Ford Foundation grants in 2005; I also began enjoying the challenges of being an omnipreneur. Omnipreneurship is an entrepreneurial approach to every aspect of life. Omnipreneurs focus on living more meaningfully across different areas of lives: in business, with family, and in the community.
- I would paraphrase Jawaharlal Nehru and say, “students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.” That is why it is the best sector to work in. Which sector gives you such an opportunity and a responsibility not to mention the challenges?
A leadership philosophy of Initiative taking and leading from the front
My philosophy of leadership is as follows: For me, leadership is all about taking the initiative and leading from the front-- from conception to execution. The essential attributes of a leader are:
- A leader is not only the one with vision, but has a plan and the ability to execute
- Able to take the initiative to conceptualize and concretize the ideas
- Has the fire in the belly propelled by pragmatic idealism
- High on enthusiasm, energy and drive to achieve the impossible
- Never-say-die attitude and does not give up easily
- Equanimity to take everything in his/her stride
- Ability to imagine a world as it can be, and pragmatism to accept as it is.
- An effective leader is one who leads by example and believes that the ‘ buck stops here.'
I would describe my leadership style as authoritative.
Challenges for the Founder and Chairperson of MYRA School of Business
The challenge I have faced is the trust deficit. People doubt your sincerity of purpose and commitment. I guess people see so many self-serving people; it is not easy for them to believe that there are people who believe in and want to achieve a larger purpose.
Driving force behind the initiative of setting up two educational institutions
I have always believed that desire and ability are to be in sync to achieve anything.
Have been influenced by three people and three quotes from these people:
- Mahatma Gandhi: His famous quote "Be the change you wish to see."
- Jawaharlal Nehru: His “Tryst with Destiny” speech
- John F. Kennedy: his speech “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
Having been influenced by these thoughts and the path shown by my parents to ‘serve with pleasure’ and imbibed the spirit of – being useful, I always had the desire to go beyond the call of my duty, to add value and make myself useful. I do believe that education is the instrument of change and I attribute my education (in the broadest sense, not just the limited sense of qualification) as the power behind who I am and what I stand for.
The idea of setting up an education institution happened along the continuum of being academic and taking up many funded research projects to organizing big academic conferences, mobilizing resources including funds and building a vast international network of academics, industry honchos, and government officials. I never set out with an explicit goal of setting up institutions, but along my academic career spanning 40+ years, I realized that I have the ability (what it takes to) to set up and lead educational institutions. I had taken the initiative – that extra mile to do many things whether projects (have done more than 12 different projects) or conferences (have organized more than 15 conferences), I realized my strong organizing ability and lead from the front. It just emerged. I want to quote, two management scholars Henry Mintzberg and James Waters who defined the two forms of strategy – the deliberate and the emergent. Setting up the International School of Information Management and the MYRA School of Business’ was a case of ‘emergent strategy’ of my career and life.
So, my desire to make a difference in the field of education and my ability to make it happen are the two driving forces.
Being available for the students and relation with them
The four core values of MYRA are – Integrity; Excellence, Efficiency; and Engagement. My relationship with students of MYRA is derived from this. I believe in engagement with all of our stakeholders including students. In addition to having a variety of sessions (formal classes) to informal chit chats to being able to listen to their grievances over emails and meetings. My students know that I am only an email away from them. I am a hands-on leader and hence believe in being involved in all aspects of running the institution – from admission to academics to placement.
Views on an ideal environment for learning
In my view, a teacher is also a student/learner albeit a senior one at that. Therefore, an ideal environment for learning is one where the teacher and the taught are in constant quest for knowledge and education. It is more a matter of attitude and less an aspect of mechanics. As Rabindranath Tagore famously said, in his poem -- Where the mind is without fear, we need to create an ideal platform for learning where the mind is without fear; where knowledge is free; where we search for truth; work towards perfection; our minds are led by the breadth and depths of our thoughts.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
Changes noticed in the education industry
One significant change is in the overarching mission of an educational institution. I quote and echo Dr. Faust, the president of Harvard University who said that the essence of a university is its “Timelessness.” She said, “The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present.
I believe that accountability for an educational institute such as MYRA is not about results in the next quarter; It is not just about numbers, it is not even about whether all of our graduates have been placed; or whom a student has become by graduation; or how many of our students aced it.
I feel over time, this essential ‘essence’ of an educational institution has been lost and morphed to that of placement. Today, educational institutions have become placement agencies rather than places for shaping the minds of students with ideas, imbibing them with the processes of how to do a job, and training with the tools of executing those ideas and carrying out those jobs.
The very idea of (as proposed by some) viewing students as ‘customers’ is anathema to me.
My view is as follows: Students are a work in progress. Students, when they enter the portals of educational institutions, are raw materials, and through the processes of curriculum and teaching, we try to transform them into finished products. They are the products and services of an educational institution to the businesses or organizations that hire them. An educational institution serves employers and organizations as well as society at large.
Given this change in paradigm educational institutions are overemphasizing the placements rather than making students employable. Moreover, we are made accountable not to our ability and efforts to make them employable but primarily their placements.
Even though the movie “3 Idiots” became a super hit, the essential message “Beta Kabil BanoKabil, Kamyabi to sali jhak mar ke tumhare piche ayegi" is lost and is not held up.
Educational institutions should focus more helping our students towards competence and excellence -- "Kabil".
Top qualities that an aspiring Manager must possess
The top qualities that a manager must possess in my view are:
- The ability to have the double vision – long-term purpose and the short-term accomplishments.
- Possess both “hard skills” (such as finance or marketing or any technical aspect of management) and the “soft skills” such as empathy, emotional quotient and such.
- Have the "T" personality – breadth and depth of knowledge. A manager is like an all-rounder in cricket, should be able to bat, bowl, and field, while being able to possess the in-depth knowledge, skills and insights in one of the chosen fields.
- To always be both effective (I define effectiveness as doing the right thing) and efficient (doing it right)
- Nimble footedness and adaptability
Goals to achieve in the next five years
Our goal is to grow both organically and inorganically. To expand the numbers of students in the current offerings – PGDM; PGPX; GMBA, and Ph.D. Also, expand by adding new programs. We will soon be launching an undergrad program as well. By 2023, we would like to see some 500 students on our campus pursuing different programs.
We will be continuing our efforts to offer flexible options to our students regarding Student Exchange Programs, Twinning Programs both for postgraduate as well as undergraduate programs.
Suggestions for the current youth and the aspiring students
- Hard work. I put in about 14-16 hours of work daily. Moreover, I enjoy doing things.
- Develop the ability to find and seize opportunities. I am looking out for opportunities always.
- Ability to balance. I will always find the time, efforts, and resources for all aspects of life. I still have time for family and friends along with the demands made by position and profession.
- The quest for learning. I am always curious to learn. My pursuit of knowledge keeps me not only ahead of others but happy and confident.
- Develop ‘joie de vivre.’ I enjoy every aspect of life. I am never bored.
- Leave no stone unturned. I don't give up easily. I will pursue until I have done everything in my arsenal to make things happen.
Last Updated - 14 Aug 2018