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Degrees of Achievement

Early in their careers, entrepreneurs have to make difficult decisions about the level of education to pursue. Business school is costly and takes years to complete -- and even longer to pay dividends.

If you're a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, schooling clearly won't make or break your career. However, for me, education probably made the difference between success and mediocrity. I've gained so much from my education that I've decided to give back to the system.

TUITION BURDEN. Long ago, I had to make some very tough choices. With a bachelor's degree in computing, I was well set in my technical career. I took great pride in being a geek and would boast about my coding exploits at cocktail parties. Yet I knew that my understanding of the business world lacked depth, and I harbored a deep-rooted desire to get the best education possible.

I signed up for an MBA at New York University, but this was no easy decision. My wife and I had to choose between tuition and the down payment on a new house. Having a child on the way made it even more difficult. We ended up having to manage with a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in North Bergen, N.J., while I went to school.

After starting the program, I wasn't so sure why my study included topics like economics, accounting, marketing, and operations management. These seemed so far from my technical world that I wondered if they would ever help me.

About the time I completed my degree, I received an offer from investment-banking powerhouse Credit Suisse First Boston (CTNX) to join its programming staff. I'm still not sure if my MBA helped me land this job, but it didn't hurt.

SELF-ESTEEM BUILDER. For the first couple of years, my business degree seemed totally irrelevant. Knowing about how the capital markets worked or understanding operations management didn't help me write better code. So I used to wonder if I had made the right choice.

Over time, I realized that I had a much better understanding of how the business worked than some of my peers. And I felt confident in my dealings with the bank's managing directors as well as with user departments. I could present business proposals and participate in technology design meetings. I was able to persuade the company to invest in technology I had designed.

When my team's success led to IBM's (IBM) funding of a spin-off company, I was offered the chief technology officer post. That's when my education really began to pay big dividends.

A FEW ODDBALLS. In the startup world, it's simply survival of the fittest. You have to involve yourself with almost every aspect of the business -- and leverage all skills. I would find myself having to develop and manage budgets, help market and sell, hire, and motivate employees, assist in setting corporate strategy, and review legal contracts. Plus, I still had to develop technology and deal with all the uncertainties and failures that come with a startup.

My MBA classes seemed to fit our business needs like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Even obscure topics like corporate finance came in handy in IPO discussions with investment bankers and when I later raised capital for my own company.

To be fair, there were some jigsaw pieces that I'll never use and others that didn't fit well. I can't imagine when I'm ever going to price an option with the Black-Scholes Model, for example. I wished that the program had had classes on selling and given us more interaction with the real world.

HIGHER GOAL. In previous columns I've written about my adventures with India's Bollywood (see BW Online, 1/24/04, "Bollywood, Here I Come!"). To my surprise, my education even helped in that universe. The principles of marketing, management, and accounting all have the same applications, no matter what the industry.

With My Bollywood Bride nearing theatrical release and my having become disenchanted with this world of glamour, I began to wonder where I'd find the next mountain worth climbing.

A chance meeting with Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, presented the opportunity I was looking for. With a PhD in Electrical Engineering, 44 patents to her name, and her involvement in many startup technology companies, Kristina is no ordinary academic. And she has a mission.

GLOBAL EDGE. Kristina worries that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge as the graduation rate of engineers and scientists declines. To hold on to quality of life, we have to maintain our competency and leadership in engineering, science, and technology. She also feels that graduating engineers and technicians generally lack business skills.

She introduced me to Dr. Jeff Glass, who heads the Pratt Master's of Engineering Management (MEM) program, which had put together a very innovative one-year course of study.

The program seeks to prepare engineering graduates to go beyond their technical roots when they enter the workforce. By teaching topics such as marketing, management, and law, the MEM Program gives students a head start in the corporate world.

And MEM graduates can better compete in the global economy, where lower-level technical functions are rapidly relocating to countries like India and China.

HONORIFIC GETTER. Jeff wanted to bring the program closer to the business world, to set up an advisory board that comprised business and academic leaders to guide the school. He wanted assistance in mentoring students and his faculty. Kristina wanted help in commercializing some of the revolutionary technologies her school was researching. And she wanted to create ties to universities in other countries.

When Kristina asked me to join the university as executive-in-residence, I said yes immediately. I was looking for a way to give back to the education system that had given so much to me, and this seemed like the perfect role. Plus, it would allow me to add a title that I have respected since childhood.

So, Professor Wadhwa it is.

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