Dr. Tyagarajan Somasundaram, professor at the Rady School of Management, shares what he’s learned from years of studying global business strategy firsthand.
Thirty years ago, Dr. Tyagarajan Somasundaram had no plans to be a college professor. But today, he almost can’t see himself being anything else. “If I was not an academic as an occupation, I’d probably be an architect … If I couldn’t be an architect, I might even be an interior decorator. But I’d probably starve to death in the process because I’d do it my way as opposed to the way the client typically wants it.”
This frank, self-aware sense of humor is perhaps what makes Somasundaram, or Soma, as he calls himself, such an engaging and beloved professor. Using his vast arsenal of pop culture knowledge, Soma challenges his students to think critically about the variety and dynamism of the international market. Soma possesses the remarkable ability to fire back one-liners about Kim Kardashian while still making a point regarding the social functions of democracy. In these discussion-based lectures, students examine issues such as the representation of women in media in emerging non-Western markets or the degree of corporate responsibility for the steep prices of HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries. These thought-provoking case studies can cover seemingly unsolvable topics at times. Soma lends a voice of hope to the debate, implicitly suggesting that anyone in the room could at any moment propose a solution to one of the many issues conferred.
As a professor of a course about firms adapting to international differences, it is fitting that Soma himself has also learned to adapt to countless international differences in his life. Before his journey led him to San Diego, where he has now been comfortably settled for a few decades, Soma lived and worked across four continents.
Born in India to a military family, Soma traveled often in his youth. He spent his teenage years in London, where his father was a diplomat. After high school, his family moved back to India where he completed his undergraduate degree in economics and mathematics at the University of Delhi and earned his MBA in marketing and finance from Panjab University. He worked for consumer goods company Unilever for about two years before deciding that he wanted to leave the country. So he left, and for another year he worked with one of Unilever’s partners based in Nigeria. When he realized he didn’t like the situation he was in, he left again on a student visa, for Saskatchewan, Canada this time. He completed his second MBA at the University of Saskatchewan before his colleagues persuaded him to pursue a doctorate degree, which finally brought him to University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he received his PhD in marketing.
For students fortunate enough to take his class, Soma has brought his years of global perspective to UC San Diego.
Soma moved to San Diego from Milwaukee in March of 1988, and never looked back. “It was snowing in Milwaukee the day I arrived, but it was something like 75 degrees here,” he recalls, calling California a “pretty nice fit” for the PhD graduate and his fiance. He saw an opening at the University of San Diego and applied, and that “nice fit” turned into a tenured position at the University, where he has been ever since. When the fledgling Rady School of Management at UCSD was established in 2003, Soma was among those asked to teach its first MBA classes. “It was not called Rady School at the time. They just had offices above Pangea,” he explains. As Rady expanded to offer a business minor to undergraduate UCSD students — a groundbreaking concept at the time that marked UCSD’s first foray into business class offerings — Soma led the way in creating and designing one of its core classes, Management 112: Global Business Strategy. As it currently stands, Soma has taught global business strategy since its inception and had a large hand in opening up UCSD from being such a science, technology, engineering, and math-heavy school.
Perhaps it is evident from the multitude of degrees he possesses, but Soma is a man with a keen intellect who believes learning has no topical limits. Soma has many hobbies and is incredibly educated and passionate about each one. He loves to paint; he’s interested in design. He enjoys astronomy, photography, and of course, travel. “I’m not sure if I’d say I’m a foodie, but who doesn’t like good food?” he remarks.
Soma’s humility speaks to an understated sophistication. Despite his frequent jokes about his wife having to select his entire wardrobe for him, Soma has never come to class in anything less than business professional, usually with a pop of color via a colored button down. It’s very apparent from speaking to him that Soma has a refined taste that is reflected in his various hobbies. With regards to architecture, he especially takes pleasure in minimal designs that fit nicely into the structure’s surroundings. He is a big fan of fellow Wisconsinan Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie style” (one look at Wright’s “Fallingwater” and you’ll see why), and admires the elegant simplicity of traditional Japanese building design.
“If you contrast a palace in Europe with the place the shogun might live in, what strikes you is how incredibly beautiful and how incredibly minimal the shogun’s residencies tend to be. They’re very particular about essentially blending into nature … it’s just extremely elegant. I think there’s something to be said for that, that purity of form and shape, and in some instances, even color.” He expresses that the decadent, ornate styles embraced by European builders are not for him — “Oh, a gargoyle would kill me,” he quipped.
Soma’s strong deference to nature also manifests when he speaks of his favorite past places to call home. “I liked Saskatchewan a lot … at that time it always struck me as an incredibly friendly place and a place that was actually very well set up for their environment.” He also appreciates minimalism in location, too, preferring destinations that are sparsely populated and offer plenty of wide-open space.
All things aside, it is still very clear that in his heart, education is still a near and dear matter to Soma. Few people doubt that the key to a better world lies in education, yet we have struggled to make this a reality worldwide.
“Many people possess knowledge. But how do we transfer that, and how do we do that efficiently, so that others can, in a sense, benefit from our wisdom?”
He speaks of countries who have managed to close the educational gap between the elite and the middle and lower classes, and references various educational models in Korea, Singapore, and Finland. He suggests that it’s not as simple as allocating more funding to schools, a viewpoint that American students and elected officials are quick to adopt. Having attended boarding school in the U.K., Soma received a different brand of secondary education than what students from the States may be used to. He and his friends at the time all attended schools that deeply valued education and focused less on extracurriculars. Classes were rigorous, no frills, and at advanced levels. There were no elective subjects, but it was an extremely high quality education that placed firm emphasis on building fundamentals. Every country has different ways of approaching education, he observed, but you certainly need good fundamentals.
So, what’s a man who’s spent half his life doing business around the globe, and the other half of his life teaching students about it have to say about it all? Soma maintains a strong optimism for human goodness.
“At the end of the day, merit actually does count … if you do good work, it speaks for itself. While there’s [a short term impression] that people who play games or organizations that try to exploit people will take advantage of situations and so forth, I think in the long run, goodness and merit do win over.”
“People are fundamentally good — people are trying very hard to do the right thing. I think, like most of us, we fail. But our heart is fundamentally in a good place.”