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From PhD to politics: An MBA degree takes a Broad Spartan on a journey of reinvention

By Omar Sofradzija, communications manager

PhD + MBA = SOS

That’s the formula Rajan Natarajan used to make quite an extreme career jump: from biochemist to business person to deputy secretary of state for policy and external affairs for the State of Maryland. The pivot came with the Executive MBA degree Natarajan earned from the Eli Broad College of Business in 2000.

“I never thought I was going to end up in these kind of things,” said Natarajan, who served as secretary of state from 2011 to 2015 and now serves as the commissioner for the Maryland Transportation Commission. “But one thing I always think about, my MBA unbelievably helped me a lot.”

Rajan Natarajan, left, and Lucy Maillette. Photo by Omar Sofradzija.
Rajan Natarajan, left, and Lucy Maillette. Photo by Omar Sofradzija.

Natarajan’s journey is a real-world example of how an MBA can empower a radical career switch, and not just aid an upward trajectory in a previous line of work.

“The MBA degree shaped my career, not only [through] my salary package and benefits, but the respect of society, the respect of leadership,” he said. “I was able to communicate effectively about the corporate world, [and the MBA provided] the understanding of the business transformation happening. It really helped me.”

“A business degree really gave me amazing confidence,” he said.

Natarajan decided to seek an MBA to ensure that his discoveries would translate into tangible societal benefits. He found trying to do so by working through business people was an exercise in frustration.

“They don’t know science; I don’t know business. I was debating what I should do, how I could really understand the business. I know science, I know innovation; but science alone is not enough to get to the marketplace,” he said. “I was excited to go to the lab, but I wanted to make sure anything I do goes to the marketplace, and somebody will be benefited.”

While at MSU, “I had to work. I had two kids,” and a wife. He received encouragement from Lucy Maillette, now the director of new academic initiatives at the Broad College. “She is truly an inspirational leader,” Natarajan said.

Right after completing his MBA, he was surprised to find his first business job was with an internet technology company focused on software development: an arena in which he had no expertise.

“I told the gentleman, ‘I don’t know anything about IT.’ He said, ‘I know about your approach and leadership,’” Natarajan said.

When he and his family moved to Maryland for a job opportunity for his wife, Natarajan decided to delve into an area that has always been an interest to him: that of public service. He networked with the administration of Baltimore’s mayor, who became governor, and brought Natarajan along.

“What I learned here [at MSU] I was able to apply in the practical workplace. But I never thought I would end up working for the state department, working as a deputy secretary of state … this helped me a lot, this foundation,” he said.

The MBA also broadened his perspective. As a scientist, Natarajan used to get frustrated by business people being dismissive of scientists’ ideas. Now, he understands how scientific discovery fits into a larger societal picture.

“I learned this business aspect of science,” he said. “If I meet any scientist, I tell them, look beyond basic science.”

He tells his former laboratory peers to focus on three questions:

  • Is it innovative, and useful to society?
  • Is it economically feasible, and cheaper than what is already on the market?
  • Who and where is the market?

Natarajan also would like to see entrepreneurial thinking be broadly introduced, taught, and developed at an early level, like high school. “Kids are highly talented. They think of ideas left and right. Very practical thinking,” he said.

Without the MBA, were does Natarajan think we would be today? Probably still in a lab somewhere, or maybe teaching community college. Noble jobs, yes; but not where he wanted to be: “If not for the MBA, I’d have a big frustration.”

Natarajan, born in India, also learned a lesson about the United States: “You can do what you want to do in this country.”

And having an MBA helps.


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