When she arrived at the Yale School of Management from India in 1984, Ranji Nagaswami ’86 was only 20 years old. She was book smart, but shy. Her professors knew she read the material and produced good work, but she rarely raised her hand.
“I didn’t know how to be in class. I didn’t have the confidence to ask questions. My critical thinking skills were absent. If I had to give myself a grade, I’d give myself a ‘D,’” Nagaswami said during an orientation talk at SOM on August 24 for Master of Advanced Management, MMS in Systemic Risk, and MMS in Global Business and Society students.
Then a professor offered to help her to step outside of her comfort zone, she remembered. “That’s when I learned that there was an element of SOM that is extraordinary: the community. They wanted to help, and I had never asked for help in my life. They helped shape the person I later became.”
Nagaswami’s career—she is currently CEO of Hirtle, Callaghan & Co.—has spanned both public and private sectors, including two years as the chief investment officer for New York City overseeing the city’s $150 billion employee retirement systems as well as time at Corsair Capital and Bridgewater Associates.
She credits Sharon Oster, the Frederic D. Wolfe Professor Emerita of Management and Entrepreneurship, with recognizing her talents. Oster noticed Nagaswami was silent in class and invited her to talk about her shyness in the classroom. Oster told Nagaswami she’d begin calling on her in class, but only after Nagaswami made eye contact with her. That small step, Nagaswami said, helped to bolster her confidence and made it easier for her to succeed in an area where she had previously been uncomfortable.
Nagaswami encouraged students to seek help from their peers and professors to address their weaknesses, but also to hone their own strengths and to be confident of their personal brands.
“The job of making ourselves compelling is a lifelong job. You will always need to be your own best advocate,” she said. “Make yourselves interesting, communicate who you are and what you do well. The whole world is in sales: selling ideas and values. You should see your life here as positioning yourself in a thoughtful way and making your skills helpful to other people. Use this time here and test yourself in those ways to build your narrative: use that combination of human, intellectual, and business skills to tell a compelling story about yourself.”