What they don't teach you at B-school

 Anand Adhikari        Print Edition: October 18, 2009

She was the cinematographer for Avchetan, which won a National Award for the best film on social issues in 2003. She has shot music videos for pop singer Daler Mehndi and Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal. She has also worked as a cinematographer for the title sequence of the recent Bollywood hit flick Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Meet Malini Dasari, the internationally-acclaimed cinematographer whose life story is a bit like a potboiler itself, with quite a few twists and turns.

The biggest twist in Dasari’s tale is that she is a product of IIM Bangalore (IIM-B), one of the country’s premier B-schools and ranked #2 in this year’s BT-Nielsen ranking of India’s best B-schools. Dasari could have settled for a fat-packet career at any highflying corporation, along with the routine climb up the ladder over the years. Instead, the girl from Hyderabad decided to pursue her passion—to which her MBA education would have had little to contribute (not at least academically).

WHY MBAs ARE TAKING THE LESS-BEATEN PATH
Fewer jobs in traditional MBA-hiring sectors due to the downturn.
Desire to do more meaningful things than just chase fat paychecks.
Initial years in corporate jobs help many build a solid cushion.
Finding a disconnect between their studies and work.
MNC culture too rigid, with limited scope to work independently.

Dasari isn’t the only MBA graduate to settle into a career that wouldn’t figure on most B-school calendars. Growing disillusionment with the corporate rat race, a desire to work on a larger canvas, and a conviction that one’s dream is within reach, combined with a temporary contraction in opportunities and pay packets—courtesy the economic slowdown— are persuading a growing number of MBAs to look at more unlikely careers. These range from films (making them as well as acting in them) to rural development to politics (where traditionally you could argue education wasn’t an imperative, forget an MBA degree). The unconventional beckons, and for these MBAs, the B in B-schools doesn’t necessarily stand for business—not the kind of business most degreeholders have in mind once they come out of their respective institutions.

For Prodyut Bora, an MBA grad from IIM-A, that B has translated into a science he didn’t learn at India’s premier management institute— politics. As it has for E. Sarathbabu, another IIM-A product, who has already fought one general election (at the age of 30) from South Chennai.

Bora, 35, works as a 24x7 volunteer for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which he joined in 2004. He did dabble in social services but wasn’t convinced that was the way to bring about significant change. “That’s when the idea of politics germinated in my mind,” says Bora, none of whose family members is remotely connected to politicians or policy makers. So, one fine day Bora shot off a letter to two BJP stalwarts— Arun Shourie and Arun Jaitley— whom he watched quite often on TV, articulating the BJP’s programme and policies. “I got a response from Jaitley’s office within 48 hours,” says Bora who immediately joined the BJP’s media cell. Bora says he is a nationalist. “I’m also against any form of dynastic politics in a democracy,” he adds as an explanation for joining the BJP.

Remarkably, more than a few of these MBAs who have switched streams have chucked up high-profile jobs to chase their calling. Bora, for instance, joined Hewitt Associates as a management consultant after getting his degree; and he also incubated a software firm and ran it for six years. Dasari landed a cushy job at Xerox India, then switched to Child Relief and You (CRY), a non-governmental organisation, before chasing her passion in cinematography. “It was fun working for a company (Xerox) known for its good HR practices,” recalls Dasari, who made the shift to the company’s New Delhi headquarters as a trainee.

But it wasn’t long before Dasari, the daughter of a photographer who runs a photo studio in Hyderabad, began to get restless. She felt that the sales team was receiving most of the encouragement and motivation from the top brass. Eventually, it got to the point when “I wasn’t too sure whether HR is what I should continue doing my entire life,”recalls Dasari, who quit Xerox abruptly. She tried her hand at sales but was quick to figure out that there was no full-time slot for her due to a job freeze. That’s when it struck her that the MBA and its apparent fruits (fat pay-packet, highprofile placements) were actually making her drift away from her dream. “When you are working, you realise that the scope to do something of your own is limited. Sometimes it becomes so frustrating and de-motivating that it slowly tends to kill the fire in your belly,” says Dasari.

But it was her six-month stint at a (lower-paying) job at CRY—where Dasari was virtually her own boss, handling the finance, marketing and advertising functions—that gave her something neither her degree nor her Xerox posting could: The confidence to work on her own. That’s when she decided to bid goodbye to the corporate world and take up what she was most passionate about— cinematography. For someone with no formal training or connections, Dasari has few complaints and zero regrets about quitting a cushy corporate job. She later completed a 3-year-course in cinematography at Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) to start her new career.

Unlike Dasari and Bora, Sarathbabu was in no mood to pussyfoot around in the corporate world. He was pretty clear about what he wanted to do. “There are millions of people who live in hunger even after 63 years of Independence. I know what hunger is and I want to work on this mission (of reducing hunger) till my last breath,” says Babu, 30, whose mother sold idlis to educate him.

One avenue for doing such work is by getting into politics—without any backing of a mainstream party and resources. In just three years after passing out of IIM-A, Babu contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as an Independent candidate from South Chennai in May ‘09. He didn’t get far, but that hasn’t deterred him. Babu says he will be back. Till then, he will continue to work with the underprivileged and run his company, Food King Caterers, which provides high quality food at canteens like IIM-B, BITS Pilani, and others. Babu also offers career guidance to youth in slums and claims to have helped some 60 of them become budding entrepreneurs.

Not all alternative MBA careers are altruistic. A few are far from it. Consider for instance, Siddharth Narayan, an MBA from the SP Jain Institute of Management, who worked in the Bollywood blockbuster Rang De Basanti, and who’s gone on to become a star in his own right. There’s also IIM-A alumnus Ram Mohan, a failed entrepreneur (as he calls himself), whose first budget Telgu film Ashta Chamma is being taught as a case study at ISB.

Not quite there—not yet—is Sandeep Rajora , an MBA from Pune University who has worked in ad campaigns for a host of brands and bagged several acting assignments. The son of an army man, Rajora quickly got tired of stints in the banking and corporate sector. In 2001, he went on to win the Gladrags Manhunt contest. The fairy-tale ride began soon after. He took a six-month timeout to try out a new career. Since then, he has figured in commercials for Raymond, Toyota Corolla, HSBC and ICICI Bank, and worked in popular soaps like KKusum and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki.

So, has the MBA been of any use at all for these offbeat careerists? “An MBA helps you think in a structured manner,” says Bora, who today heads the BJP’s IT cell. He has seamlessly expanded the IT cell to 20 states across the country. “I remember the words of my MBA professor who once told me: we teach you management, not business,” adds Bora. “It’s all about management at the end of the day,” believes Babu. Rajora pipes in: “A rigorous MBA degree helps you in understanding the whole dynamics of TV channels, production houses and the ad world.”

Like any true-blue MBA grad, these guys and gals also nurse ambitions. The only difference being that it goes beyond money, power and status. Dasari wants to be counted in the big league in cinematography. Rajora wants to be a star in a Bollywood hit. Bora wants to represent the BJP in Parliament. And Babu wants to win a general election on his own steam. As Bora puts it: “You join the army to one day fight a war; you join politics to one day fight an election.” His professors at the institute will approve.

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