Where Passion Trumps Experience: Ranjan Dash

Where Passion Trumps Experience: Ranjan Dash

Aug 28, 2017 | Team MM

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If you want to be successful, you have got to think big and take risks. Just take it from the man who, hailing from a small village and enjoying a simple lifestyle, has counted maneuvers in the fields of both entrepreneurship and higher studies. Ranjan Dash is a graduate of the 1998 batch of REC, Rourkela from the Department of Ceramic Engineering. One of the earliest entrepreneurs from NITR, he co founded and served as the CEO/CTO of Y- Carbon INc, a company involved in the development, and manufacturing of specialty activated carbons. Having published more than 15 articles in scientific journals and trade magazines, and delivered over 25 invited talks at major international conferences, universities and research institutions, he has numerous laurels to his name. Currently serving as a Staff Scientist at SABIC, he interacted with Team MM over email for a brief but gratifying interview. Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

Monday Morning: A brilliant mind shows signs from the early stage itself. Going back down the lane, tell us something about your life before joining REC.

Ranjan Dash: I was born and brought up in a village near Attabira in the district of Bargarh, called Hillipali. Because the village did not have a good school for proper education, my parents decided to send me to The Kosala School, which was one of only a few residential English medium schools in Odisha in those days. For my parents, my education was of paramount importance. So, after I had completed my 10th exam, we moved to Sambalpur, where I attended Gangadhar Meher College for the 11th and 12th grades (commonly known as “+2 Science” in those days). Because I was more inclined towards mathematics, physics, and chemistry than towards biology and zoology, I decided to explore engineering as a career path, even though my father made some efforts to convince me to become a doctor like him.

MM: Was pursuing Ceramic Engineering a conscious choice or a compulsion?

RD: I chose to study ceramics based on my own research; it was not a compulsion. A few weeks before the counseling (which was where I had to choose an engineering discipline), an article on the future of ceramics was published in Competitive Success Review magazine. This article had a lot of influence on my decision to study ceramics. I was extremely fascinated by ceramics, and materials in general, and I still am.

I feel bad when ceramics engineering majors in India who want to pursue a career in ceramics are forced to switch sectors and find employment in other fields. Somehow, despite the numerous important contributions which ceramics and materials, in general, have made to many different fields, very few people have even a basic understanding of what ceramics and materials engineers do. One reason for this is that product end users usually don’t care much about what material a product is made of. For example, many people know about the computer revolution, but very few know about the contribution that ceramics and materials have made towards it. Can you imagine computers without advanced materials and ceramics?

Most people don’t know why “Silicon Valley” has the word “silicon” in it. The cathode material which stores energy in lithium ion batteries, optical fibers that enables gigabits of data transfer across continents, and piezoelectric transducers used for ultrasound diagnostic are all based on ceramics. Isn’t that exciting? I sincerely hope we find more opportunities for ceramic/materials engineers in India, specifically.

MM: Share with us your experiences in the erstwhile REC Rourkela, the memories that you’ll cherish throughout your life.

RD: The four years I had at REC went by very quickly and they are one of the most memorable times in my life and proved to be vital in starting my career as well. I used to stay in M.S.Swaminathan Hall of Residence, which was close to the back-post. Although the food in Hall 5 was the worst I have ever had in my life, I would make up for it by visiting the back-post, where one could buy inexpensive Maggi, samosas, and badas. I also frequented The Taste Restaurant in sector 2 which has some of the best Chowmein I have had to this day. Street food always came to the rescue during those times.

The movies screened in AV hall were quite an experience. We would spend more time dancing and whistling than watching the movie! We also used to watch lots of movies the day it would be released. I vividly recollect the moments when we watched DDLJ movie in Uma Talkies. The cultural fest was another memorable experience. We spent a lot of time playing cards and carom. We also used to have several picnics throughout the four years.

Being a part of the first batch of the Department of Ceramics Engineering, I had lots of eventful memories related to the department. When we first joined NITR, there was no building for ceramic engineering, and there weren’t even any ceramics laboratories. We watched the department being built and grow through the years. Since we had no seniors in our program, we had no reference points within NITR for what we were supposed to do. Therefore, we would get extra attention from the faculties (including Prof. B. N. Samaddar, Prof. S. Bhattacharyya, Prof. S. K. Pratihar and others), who really went out of their way to make sure that we were thoroughly prepared for our careers. The bond, the first batch shared with the faculties was remarkable. They would arrange industrial visits which improved standards of learning and opened us up to new experiences. The first batch took summer training quite seriously. The experiences I had visiting companies around Rourkela and my summer training at Tata Refractories Ltd and Parryware proved to be a cardinal part of my career. Looking back, I cherish my time at NITR. It helped me to mature and enhanced my ability to think critically.

MM: You were concurrently pursuing an MBA as well as a Ph.D. at Drexel University. How did you manage the workload? Considering the fact that you were the first student at Drexel to complete an MBA and Ph.D. simultaneously, how would you describe the journey?

RD: Generally, things like this are difficult to plan. A lot of things had to fall into place to allow me to pursue a MBA-PhD at the same time.  Prior to my entrepreneurial endeavor, I worked as a Materials Scientist for Maxwell Technologies (San Diego, CA) and FuelCell Energy, Inc. (Danbury, CT). Early in my career, I worked as manufacturing engineer for India’s largest refractory manufacturer, Tata Refractories Limited. When I started my Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel, I never thought I would also do an MBA in Organization Management.

Prior to pursuing an MBA, I and some of my graduate colleagues were working on a business plan for a competition. We used to go to LeBow College of Business and the Baiada Center of Entrepreneurship for advice. I then decided to take a class on innovation management in the business school, during the winter of 2003. Those classes were really impressive and I decided to take up more such classes. I kept taking business classes until the idea of pursuing an MBA crossed my mind. I introduced this idea to my Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Yury Gogotsi, who encouraged me to pursue MBA alongside my Ph.D.

I have been asked the question of how to pursue a joint Ph.D.-MBA degree many times – mostly by Ph.D. students. My answer is that you need to get your Ph.D. work on track before you can even consider pursuing an MBA. Sometimes, it takes all the effort you can muster to get your Ph.D. work on track, and in those cases, you may be over-burdening yourself by working on an MBA at the same time. In my case, I was married and my wife would take care of all of the household chores, allowing me to focus only on my research and courses. I used to work extremely hard to do both a Ph.D. and an MBA – 60-70 hour weeks were common. You can also obtain an MBA after completing your Ph.D., if you can’t obtain both at the same time.

MM: What prompted your decision of pursuing MBA? How has pursuing an MBA added to your accomplishments?

RD: I was, and still am, extremely interested in business management, particularly technology management, people management, and entrepreneurship. I took up this interest while working for Tata Refractories Ltd (TRL). I found it fascinating to observe how some managers were much more effective than other employees and was always curious to learn the reason behind it. In 2002, I got an opportunity to train at Tata Management Development Center, Jamshedpur for few weeks. This is where I first heard about management gurus like Michael Porter, C.K. Prahalad and Lee Iacocca. I started following management books and magazines like “Competing for the future” and “Iacocca: An Autobiography”. I remember having long hours of discussions with TRL colleagues on how to solve business problems. Those interests remained with me and I guess popped up at Drexel.

As such, I believe that technologists can be more effective if they have some business knowledge. My MBA and accumulated business acumen have helped me a lot in my career. I can’t see myself doing the kind of job I currently do, without an MBA or business exposure.

MM: How has been your association with Kalinga Ventures so far? With NITR coming up with many start-ups in recent years (MySmartPrice.com, PennyIndia.com, Phoenix Robotics etc) how do you think NITR can excel on the entrepreneurship front?

RD: Kalinga Ventures (www.KalingaVentures.org) is a community organization which was started by the Odia community of US and Canada to create more entrepreneurs from within the Odia community. Odias are successful in many spheres of life including art, literature, science, and technology. However, there are not many of them as entrepreneurs, which was why Kalinga Ventures was started. It is a platform where prospective entrepreneurs can drive experiences at a very early age. We host a business plan competition at the annual Odisha Society of Americas, where middle-school aged (6th grade) and older youth can participate and win up to $1000. So far, the response has been great. I have been associated with it from the beginning, and have also chaired its core committee. There have been several discussions within the alumni community to enhance the entrepreneurship community of NITR. I personally see a huge potential for entrepreneurship in NITR. There is no better time to start a company than during one’s undergraduate days. Undergraduate students can try out different things without the fear of failure. The wide range of technical expertise within NITR can be of great value. There is no fundamental reason why students from NITR cannot create successful companies. What we need, is a startup ecosystem to support and foster entrepreneurs. Such an ecosystem takes time and requires involvement from experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators. I do think that alumni can play an important role in this.

MM: How recently did you visit NIT Rourkela and what did you feel about your visit?

RD: I last visited NITR in September 2011. I was in India this year and had planned to visit NITR, but I could not make it there.

MM: What is your take on the role of alumni for an institute of national importance like ours? How do you think the present scenario of alumni interaction can be improved?

RD: Alumni interaction with the institute is crucial for both the institute and alumni. It is a two-way street where both parties have to be engaged. The level of alumni interaction has improved over the years, but we still need to do better. The NIT Rourkela Overseas Alumni Association (NITROAA) was established in 2013-2014 and has been actively functioning since then. On a personal level, I have interacted with and helped students who were considering graduate studies in the US, were looking for a job, or simply needed advice in their career. Several of my fellow alumni are very eager to help students, a fellow alumnus, and the institute as well.

We need more connecting points and platforms to allow more alumni to engage with the institute. The institute level platforms like NITRAA and NITROAA can only help to a certain extent. I strongly believe that Department Level Alumni Advisory Boards (DLAABs) can help in keeping more alumni, students, faculties, and institute administrators connected. This year, Dr. Sukant Mohapatra (Mechanical, 1981), Sandip Dasverma (Mechanical, 1965), Dr. Shantanu Behera (Ceramics, 1998), and I submitted a proposal on setting up DLAABs to the institute, and we are happy that the proposal was approved. We are executing the proposal and we hope that in a year we will have at least one such advisory board.

I encourage students to reach out to me on my email (RanjanKumarDash@gmail.com) if I can be of any help in their career.

MM: What’s the necessity of having a DLAAB? Enlighten us about its functioning and provide some examples of its activities?

RD: Institute level alumni associations (e.g. NITRA, NITROAA) are common features of most universities. However, they provide very little to the alumni engagement at the departmental level. Each department has specific needs, which require discussion, analysis, and implementation at that level. The DLAAB will foster a closer interaction between department & the alumni. Similar organizations have been successful at several US universities. The DLAAB’s success will require engagement from the department, the students, the institute, as well as the alumni. We envision that each DLAAB will organize 3-5 activities each year.

Below are some examples:

  • Facilitating the development of an annual report to summarize the department’s accomplishments and activities.
  • Identifying subject matter experts (SMEs) among alumni. Enhancing interaction between the institute, various educational departments, and SMEs. Facilitating collaborations between faculty, students, alumni, and prospective employers.
  • Developing a mentor-protégé program to foster relationships between students and alumni.
  • Enhancing career opportunities for students by arranging internships, references and job placements.
  • Facilitating information sharing by alumni through seminars, alumni visits, etc.

MM: You have occupied numerous positions of responsibilities throughout your career. How did you handle the pressure and the disappointments? What are some of the things that you had to learn along the way?

RD: To some extent, work related pressure has a positive impact on your career. Work pressure is only an issue when it becomes excessive. Over the years and after many failures (which I like to think of as learning experiences!), I have found that having priorities in life other than work helps me to effectively handle pressure and disappointments. It also helps me to carry out my work without expecting more than I should. I spend more time with family, friends and pursuing my hobbies than I used to in the past. Meditation has also helped me. Work-life balance is extremely crucial for enjoying work, and for delivering quality work in the long run. Life is too big to be spoiled by work related failures. Also, think of your failures as learning experiences, since they teach you more than your successes can.

MM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do? Any inspirational message for our readers?

RD:

Invest time and effort in finding things that excite you; and work towards them.

I believe that your undergraduate and graduate years are the perfect time for exploring interests and deciding on what you want to do in life. You can view college as your opportunity to take risks and to try out different things. In general, most students make decisions about their career without much thought or exploration. You should be open minded and get opinions from teachers and experienced professionals in areas of interest. I have found that trying out things (like internships, company visits, and talking to experts) can help in really understanding what you like and what you don’t. Reading books and watching videos in the area of interest can also help. Try to see if you can find mentors who can provide career advice. Alumni can be great mentors. While your interests can change with time, it is better to decide on a few things that you want to do in your career rather than be directionless in your career.

Emphasize skill development rather than GPA: Most students pay a lot more attention to getting good GPAs than on skill development.

Your performance in the real world depends on skills rather than grades. Your GPA isn’t the best indicator of how you will perform in the real world. Employers complain that they cannot find skilled people to fill their job openings. They do not complain that they cannot find students with good GPAs. The so called “skill gap” represents a problem for industry and a potential opportunity for motivated students.

Students should try to spend time and effort in developing skills, while working towards a decent GPA, instead of working to obtain a fantastic GPA while largely ignoring skill development. Jobs, internships, and involvement in projects and community organizations can help you in developing your skills.

Also, make sure that you have fun. NITR is a great place to create great memories and to make friends for a lifetime.

Alumnus Speaks

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