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September 17, 1999


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Why Does Dr. Sawhney Wear Many Hats?

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

Prof. Mohanbir Sawhney with his daughter Mohanbir Sawhney was named Professor of the Year in 1998 (finalist in 1997 and 1996) at Northwestern University's J L Kellogg Graduate School of Management. He heads the department of e-commerce and technology there. The school was ranked the second best business school in the United States by Business Week in its 1998 rankings

For the Tribune Professor of Electronic Commerce and Technology for 1999, this is an astounding take-off. For Sawhney, 36, has been on the faculty only since 1993. He acknowledges the speed with which he's climbed.

"Normally people go from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor to chair, I jumped four ranks. Which is quite an honor, considering I've been in the business only six years."

Quiz him about why the students think he is awesome and Sawhney is forthright:

"I'd like to think that I bring a passion, energy, and enthusiasm in what I do. I expect a lot from my students. My courses are very high standard and I try to lead by example, working harder than even they do. So students respect that. Plus, I endeavor to keep my courses at the cutting edge, which is a lot of work given the area I'm in."

"I've built a lot of courses -- the case studies, the software simulation -- myself," he says. "The material is new, it is fresh, and it is cutting edge and I've put in a lot of work. I try to be tough with my students and expect that they are here to learn."

Sawhney has created two new courses at the Kellogg School -- Technology Marketing, a capstone course that provides students with conceptual and analytical tools to manage technology-based businesses; and Kellogg TechVenture, a field-study based course that focuses on the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

"He can be a little intimidating to people who don't know him, even to his students," says his brother Amar Sawhney, a Boston-based entrepreneur. "Because he is so intense and so sure of what he is doing. A person who is a little unsure can be intimidated, but once you get to now him, you realize that he doesn't mean anything, that is the way he is."

Learning is something Sawhney himself continues to do, and has done with impressive results. He has an Electrical Engineering degree from IIT, Delhi; he was a gold medallist at IIM Calcutta. In the United States, he has a master's degree in arts from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph D in marketing from the Wharton School.

Sawhney insists he fell into it all more by compulsion than choice.

"I was never really interested in being an engineer. I was okay at it. I was always more creative, more right brained. I'd like to write. If I had had no constraints I would have done psychology in my undergraduation. But you don't make a living doing psychology in India," he recalls.

"IIT was socially acceptable and [a form of] social security rather than something I was really interested in. I've always had a creative streak. I'm finding that to be very useful, as you create new businesses, people look to you for new ideas on how to design new businesses, so in some sense this is the age of creativity and ideas."

His brother says the professor is not a very practical guy. "He doesn't like to build things with his hands, which is why he has gone into teaching as opposed to owning a company," Amar Sawhney says.

"Even when he was an electrical engineer, if the toaster broke down, he couldn't fix it. He doesn't sugarcoat things; he is pretty matter of fact and that is what makes him a good adviser to companies."

Besides being a professor, Sawhney is a consultant to 12 top companies, a writer, researcher and even a poet. Ask him as to how he juggles so many hats, he dead pans, "I wear only one turban. I enjoy doing everything.

"Researching has its own rewards, teaching has personal rewards in lighting a spark, with consulting and writing you have the satisfaction of having an impact on a broad audience," he continues. "The uniqueness of the position I'm in lets me have a finger in so many pies. The sum total of doing so many activities is infinitely more exciting than working for just one company or being a pure academic."

Of course, it also helps to be a workaholic who is passionate about his work and is a time management freak.

In Sawhney's dictionary there is no room for the word 'fatigue'. He works seven days a week, putting in more than 70 hours, has just signed a publishing deal for his book on marketing in the network economy, due next year and even finds time for poetry and family (consisting of wife Tia and two children).

He also has a deeply reflective side to him that keeps him rooted to his philosophy and mildly detached from all his success.

"If it is a choice between thinking with your gut and thinking with your mind, I would go by instinct. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, you are not going to do it well," he says.

"There is more to life than material success and beyond a point, material success acts as a deterrent to personal growth. This is where the East has a lot to teach and one of the things I want to do down the road is to explore the insights from eastern spirituality, of thinking holistically.

There is more to life than becoming a CEO and having a million dollars in the bank. Paradoxically, walking along the path to material success means walking backwards on the road to self-discovery."

"There is more to life than material success and beyond a point, material success acts as a deterrent to personal growth," says Mohanbir.

"This is where the East has a lot to teach and one of the things I want to do down the road is to explore the insights from eastern spirituality, of thinking holistically."

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