Sri Zaheer: The Accidental Dean
Friday, October 14, 2022
“If someone had told me that one day, the most rewarding career I’d have was in academia, I’d have given them a perplexed look. An amused look. A ‘What are you talking about?’ look. If they continued by outlining the journey—from India to Nigeria to Boston to Minnesota, from physics to business to journalism to the academy—I’d probably just laugh.
“Growing up in a small town in India, I was influenced by my dad, a chemist by profession, and an innovator and risk-taker by nature. He set an example for me to keep experimenting, and to keep trying new things. At first, I set my heart on physics. But—to my surprise—my dad pushed business instead. It’d give me a better life, he explained. After earning an MBA, I started climbing the corporate ladder. Working as a systems analyst, moving to finance and leading an IPO, then working as an internal auditor for a multinational company were challenging, interesting, and even creative tasks. These roles taught me how to listen, a lesson I have applied countless times since.
“It helped me as a journalist for Business International in Nigeria, where we moved when my husband accepted a job there. It opened doors to the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, where teaching a sophomore managerial economics course opened a whole new career path, which led us across the ocean to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Joining MIT’s PhD program—not to mention becoming parents—brought a host of exciting new perspectives to life. Somehow, we navigated it all, landing in Minnesota in 1991. Now, 31 years later, we’re still here.
"I’ve learned that leadership is all about listening. I’ve learned that business is intrinsically a force for good. I’ve learned that stuff happens. Pretty good stuff, too, if you’re open to it. My path to becoming dean of the Carlson School was not by design. Let’s call it a series of accidents.
"Landing in Minnesota was the happiest accident! My family and I have been incredibly fortunate to call Minnesota home. The intellectual atmosphere at the Carlson School is unmatched, as is our connection to the dynamic, influential business community. Our students and alumni, spread across more than 100 countries, use business as a force for good every day. Our staff and faculty are deeply dedicated to the mission of developing human potential. It’s been the pleasure of a lifetime to lead the Carlson School for the last decade. Our school is strong, and it is thanks to the efforts of so many of you. No one knows what the future holds, but I’m confident the Carlson School, with all of your support, energy, and effort, will continue to be the northern star of business education.”
—Sri Zaheer, Dean, Carlson School of Management
On March 8, 2012, Sri Zaheer was officially named as the dean of the Carlson School, marking the beginning of her deanship. She served as interim dean prior to that, allowing University of Minnesota decision-makers a first-hand view of her qualities.
At the announcement ceremony, then University Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson explained the decision by saying:
“[Sri Zaheer is] the rare combination of someone who is renowned for her knowledge of international business and of the local businesses that drive our economy. Someone who is acutely aware of the virtues and needs of this school as it educates business leaders for the 21st century. [Sri] has stellar accomplishments in academia and in business, as a teacher and as an administrator, at home and abroad. [She is] adept at strengthening partnerships, and developing innovative research and business practices. She’s a dedicated and visionary leader who will enhance the school’s collaboration and partnerships with Minnesota businesses. She will help elevate the Carlson School’s national and international standing and will position the school, its students, and alumni for future of success. We have selected someone who brings the ideal skills, style, and sensibility to lead the Carlson School to be competitive with the rest, and the best, in the world.”
—Karen Hanson, retired UMN executive vice president and provost who hired Zaheer as the 12th dean of the Carlson School.
“Sri is a superb strategist. She has an outstanding ability to think holistically about the school in its competitive environment and identify new opportunities where the school can and should distinguish itself. She is then able to speak persuasively about these opportunities and to generate support for them. Being an academic leader has become much harder over the last decade as competition has intensified and political events and a global pandemic have had a substantial impact on universities. In my view, the Carlson School has been lucky to have Sri at the helm during this turbulent time.”
—Alison Davis-Blake, retired president of Bentley University and former Carlson School dean (2006-2011), who encouraged Zaheer to pursue administrative roles.
“Sri does nothing without passion. Sri empowered many of us at the Carlson School to take action and do the right thing for the school and the University of Minnesota. She was never parochial and completely supported our efforts to support all students across campus through our technology commercialization programs and opening of the new Toaster Innovation Hub in Walter Library.”
—John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship
“Sri’s courageous. One clear thing she brought to our bank is that she pushes us to do what we think is right, focusing on big important issues, and not be afraid. I really admire her courage individually, and the courage that she shares with all of us.”
—Neel Kashkari, president, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis
“One of the qualities that I admire most about my mom is her sheer ability to do. She never overthinks or agonizes about anything—she just has always had a bias toward action and incredible stamina, which allows her to do so much, so efficiently and energetically. It’s mind-boggling how many things she’s good at—apart from being a great leader, she’s an amazing painter, cook, physicist, and seemed to always have time to help with my homework when I was younger. Being a mom of two and leader of teams myself now, I am truly awed at how capable she was, and how she did it all so effortlessly. Not overthinking things and just taking action is a superpower of hers I would like to channel.”
—Freya Zaheer, Sri’s daughter and president, Sakara Life
“I have always been impressed that Sri is amazingly ‘even’ in any situation. There is a comforting predictability about her approach to dealing with issues, be they problematic or celebratory. Sri is very sincere in her communication style and to me, it is extremely effective. The responsibilities of the Dean at the Carlson School are complicated and I see Sri as very facile at achieving good outcomes for the school itself and its many constituents.”
—Bob Kueppers, former chair, board of advisors and retired Deloitte vice chairman
“Sri’s vision of the Carlson School as a globally recognized, academically excellent, relevant, and inclusive business school was the foundation of her success and enabled her to rally faculty and donors to realize this dream for the students. I have always counted Sri as a powerful colleague, dynamic effective leader, and, over time, she has become a close friend.”
—Marilyn Carlson Nelson, co-owner and former chairman and CEO of Carlson Companies
“Sri is not only intellectually brilliant, but also socially, emotionally, and culturally intelligent. She knows how to prioritize strategically and at the same time how to connect to others to make them engaged, excited, and committed to those priorities. Sri is an intellectually curious person, one of the few I know who have never stopped pushing themselves to learn new things and excel in totally new areas of activities. The range is very wide—from research, to university administration, to theater and the arts, managing the Federal Reserve, personal finances, being a total foodie and wine connoisseur. She quickly becomes excellent in anything she starts. I admire her capabilities, openness to learning, and confidence that are required for this. Sri is a genuinely good person. I have known her for 30 years, for most of which we have been very close friends. We talk, we share, we discuss and analyze things, issues, institutions, people. I have never heard Sri be mean and vile about others. Even when something or someone deserves criticism, she
does it with the utmost respect, caring, and integrity. I love this about her.”
—Tatiana Kostova, former PhD advisee and Carolina distinguished professor, Buck Mickel endowed chair, professor of international business, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina
"[Her] biggest achievement is finding a way to integrate the school with the business community in Minnesota and the alumni community the world over. That was a big change…now they feel ownership. They feel pride. I’ve talked to many business leaders in the Minnesota community…and frankly, [they] rave about Sri. And it’s not just [that] they [are] raving about her because she’s the face of the school, but it’s really, the school that’s become so much more central in their thinking and in their worldview. And it never was. So I think that [mindset change] really played a role in the outcome of the [Driven. capital] campaign, but also reveals the confidence that the alumni community, the Minnesota business community have in our school and in her leadership.”
—Aks Zaheer, Sri’s husband, professor and Curtis L. Carlson chair in strategic management
“I think Sri’s ability to connect with external stakeholders and make them understand the greatest needs of the school has had tremendous impact on our ability to survive and, in fact thrive, in a difficult environment for state business schools. The school has been fortunate to have her as a leader.”
—Alok Gupta, senior associate dean of faculty, research, and administration, professor and Curtis L. Carlson schoolwide chair in information management
“Dean Zaheer completely understands the importance of strong relationships with the business community. Most importantly, those companies hire many of the graduates that the Carlson School produces. Beyond that, these companies provide scholarships, funding for special programs and projects, sponsorships, etc. The Board of Advisors (BOA) embodies the quality and importance of those companies to the Carlson School. On her watch, the BOA has grown in size, in diversity of its members, and in the level of engagement in terms of attendance at our meetings, and companies volunteering to assist on Carlson School projects and priorities. I would say that the BOA is as strong and effective as it has ever been.”
“There are so many accomplishments to admire. Clearly, her ability to exceed her campaign goals is to be saluted. But, for me, her innovations are remarkable: the initiative to support veterans as MBA students and the creation of [the Carlson Analytics Lab] comes to mind as well as the Carlson Global Institute. Amazing ability to execute on her strategic plans.”
—Marilyn Carlson Nelson
“In addition to overseeing the Federal Reserve Bank and overseeing me, one of the key responsibilities of the board of directors is to bring us economic intelligence in our region. The fact that the Carlson School plays such a vital role in the business ecosystem—and the go-to source for talent in our region for our business community—and because she is dean, it makes her an ideal conduit of economic insight for us as we try to evaluate the community. As the dean, she is positioned to have relationships across sectors, the state, and the region. When we ask what we’re seeing in terms of wage growth, for example, Sri makes 10 calls and gets real-time information from 10 of the most important businesses in the region and is able to synthesize it and bring it back to the Minneapolis Fed.”
“There are many achievements to celebrate, including Sri’s leadership through the first University-wide fundraising campaign in many years. The Carlson School did very well in raising needed funds! She also was very keen to expand degree offerings as the business market’s needs and demands changed, in areas like data analytics. In business we often judge leadership by whether the organization is better off as a leader departs than when they arrived. I can say, unequivocally that in Sri’s case the answer is ‘YES!’”
“Sri became an enthusiastic champion for entrepreneurship. In her decade as dean, she has never declined an opportunity to speak at an event, meeting, or dinner. She will brag about MN Cup to anyone who will listen!”
“…Most of all, I’m thankful for Dean Sri Zaheer, who leads the Carlson School with the utmost determination…Our administrators make countless sacrifices every day to ensure that students have the best experience…Sri has made some profoundly positive contributions to our community.”
—Simran Mishra, ’19 BSB, former student body president and current MBA candidate at Harvard Business School, from remarks at the school’s centennial celebration at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2019
“My mom grew up in a small town in India and the various scholarships she won in school helped support her family. She moved to the U.S. in 1986 with two little kids on her own (my dad would follow a few months later), learned to drive, and started her PhD at MIT while raising us solo. As the dean the past 10 years and in her work on the Fed board of Minneapolis, she has advocated for countless people along the way and impacted so many. My mom really cares about expanding access to education and was able to triple the funds for scholarships to more than $5 million a year, thanks to large-hearted donors. I know this is one she is particularly proud of. The American Dream is a beautiful thing and I hope we can continue to welcome in eager and good people from all over the world, as the U.S. and Minnesota specifically welcomed our family.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 alumni magazine
Transitions present a time for celebration and reflection.
The Carlson School looks at past and present initiatives with an eye toward the future.