This story was published in March 2017, on the isb.edu site, on the occasion of ISB @15 celebrations.
“Facilitate, empower and create an environment for people to perform at their best,” says Professor Kavil Ramachandran, the first faculty of ISB.
Professor Kavil Ramachandran glanced meditatively outside the window, at the vista that bore a pastoral charm. The brilliant green of the lawn, the thick and vibrant vegetation that sprouted here and there, was a feast to the eyes. But the ambience wasn’t so spectacular on July 2, 2001 when he had joined the Indian School of Business (ISB) as its first professor. The place, once ridden with dirt and rubble, took time to transform into a restful view now, simultaneous to the strengthening of the glory of the School. He has stood testimony to both.
His half-rim glasses imparted him a demure look, but when he spoke with passion of his close association with the phenomenal growth of ISB, his eyes blazed behind his spectacles and his face acquired good-humoured proportions.
“I have been witness to the School structure coming up brick by brick. It was like seeing a baby growing up.” His eyes glimmered with pride, and an expansive smile lit up his face. Tingled by a host of fond memories, he spoke eloquently of his early days and about his stimulating journey at ISB.
“When I joined the school I was told I could choose my office, and I chose this one. This is a room with a view,” he said, sipping his coffee. “I come from a village in Kerala where we used to have severe monsoons. Sitting here with a cup of coffee when I look out I don’t see the glass window, I find that the lawn is an extension of the office floor.”
From a village in Kerala to IIM Ahmedabad, where he was a faculty for 15 years, to ISB, Professor Kavil was attracted by the School’s dream to be one of the excellent institutions in the world and the opportunity to build from scratch a Center for Entrepreneurship.
Hired by Professor Deepak Jain and Professor Sumantra Ghoshal, he recalls getting a completely free hand to build the Wadhwani Center for Entrepreneurship and Development.
“I remember having a conversation with Sumantra, about the future. He said ‘go, join and build it up’. Interestingly there was no money. Professor Vijay Mahajan, the second dean, looked at my budget proposal and said ‘Ram this is good, go ahead, but don’t ask me for money’. So it was more like an entrepreneurial start-up.” He chuckled.
Newer responsibilities and newer challenges brought with them newer resolve to succeed. Some five years after joining, at the behest of Prof. M.R. Rao, the Dean then, he accepted to be the Associate Dean of PGP. The turning point in his career, however, came when the family business initiative began to take roots.
Realising the importance of family business in the country, and no business school offering any course in it, ISB started a program in 2003, with Professor John Ward of Kellogg, a guru in family business.
“I was fortunate to have worked with him and learnt immensely from him.”
In 2006 Dr. Thomas Schmidheiny offered the school funds to set up a chair for family business and Professor Kavil assumed the Chair Professorship in 2008.
“Most Indian businesses are family controlled and many of them face challenges of transition, governance, and professionalisation. I took it as a responsibility to the society. It was a familiar territory for me as I had worked with family businesses informally, in the entrepreneurship-strategy space. I understood the challenges well.” The first Family Business Conference in 2008 was a roaring success.
A few years later Dr. Dieter Spaelti, Dr. Schmidheiny’s right-hand man and his advisor, observed Professor Kavil’s remarkable contribution and advised him to upgrade the Chair and establish a Centre. In 2015 the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise was inaugurated.
“I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to do many innovative things, and add to the overall institutional building journey of ISB in the last 15 years.” His face flushed with delight.
Professor Kavil has been a silent movement in the transformation of family business, as one journalist remarked during the recently concluded Sixth Asian Invitational Conference on Family Business.
For a person who believes in building and moving on, and one who gets bored with doing the same thing again and again, ISB has been a journey of variety and immense challenge―of finding innovative ways to build activities in terms of student community, in terms of networking with others, organising events, developing a program for management teachers etc.
“Basically, I don’t take a lot of stress. I believe in a hands-off approach. My role is to facilitate, empower and create an environment for people to perform at their best. Independent of an individual, the department should be able to excel. I encourage people to do new things as long as everything has a purpose. I never saw myself as a pure researcher. I believe that any activity that I do should have a larger purpose to society.” Recollections of his enterprising venture at ISB brought a certain vigour and gaiety to his speech and a profusion of broad smiles during his eager confabulations.
“I have had a very satisfying journey at ISB. From about 126 students to 900, to multiple programs, to two campuses, all across there has been a lot of growth.” He smiled proudly. The unmistakable glint in his eyes spoke of the vast stores of vitality within to continue his journey of institution building with an unrelenting passion.
Professor Kavil took the last sip of coffee and laid down the cup, leaned back in his chair resting his hands on the armrest. He looked outside the window with a soft smile on his lips and a great satisfaction of achievement in his heart. He was enjoying the view―the view outside and the ‘view’ of his past years at ISB.