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Tarun Kushwaha: Making sense of data

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School - Faculty - Tarun KushwahaBecause marketing professor Tarun Kushwaha wants to disprove a stereotype about Indians being chronically late, he makes a big point of starting his classes precisely on time. He expects his students to be in their seats – and they know it.

So Kushwaha was fuming when only a handful of his MBA students were seated on the last day of his class in 2014. As he lamented the missing students’ lack of respect and was just about to give up on them, in they all walked in – sporting mustaches like the distinctive one Kushwaha wears. Everyone guffawed, including Kushwaha. He’d been punked.

“It is common to have a mustache in my native India,” he says. “Although I’ve been in the United States a long time now, my mustache is one thing I haven’t given up. It was very funny to see my students walk in late wearing mustaches while I was going on a rant.”

An ability to laugh at himself and his deep commitment to his students earn accolades – including the 2013 Weatherspoon Award for Excellence in MBA Teaching. “Professor Kushwaha is an excellent professor and clearly loves the subject matter,” wrote a student who nominated him. “His positive attitude and love for the subject material comes through in his teaching, and it makes a difficult subject a bit easier to learn.”

Kushwaha teaches classes on marketing analytics, data analytics and the newly designed Data Analytics and Decision Making core course in the full-time MBA Program. In addition, he teaches a data analytics elective for online MBA@UNC students. He also co-designed the Big Data and Business Analytics program he teaches with a team of colleagues for UNC Executive Development.

Kushwaha’s teaching methods work, says Jan-Benedict Steenkamp, Knox Massey Distinguished Professor of Marketing and area chair. “He teaches our students the necessary quantitative skills to prepare them for the data-rich environment in which they have to succeed,” says Steenkamp. “Many students are a bit scared of quantitative methods, but he explains them clearly and makes them fun to learn, all without compromising on rigor or depth.”

Before launching his academic career, Kushwaha worked in advertising and media planning for one of India’s largest consumer packaged goods companies. He earned his MBA in marketing from Nirma University’s Institute of Management and his bachelor’s degree in physics from St. Xavier’s College at Gujarat University.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School - Faculty - Tarun KushwahaKushwaha joined the UNC Kenan-Flagler family in 2007 straight out of the PhD program at Texas A&M University, where he also earned a master’s degree. He was initially drawn to UNC Kenan-Flagler by its well-known marketing scholars but quickly recognized that this business school was the whole package for him.

“The students are the brightest minds out there,” says Kushwaha. “Chapel Hill has the niceties of a small college town with the benefits of a large city, afforded by its proximity to Durham and Raleigh.”

Still, a piece of Kushwaha’s heart will always be in India. That is why he feels proud to take MBA students there for a Global Immersion Elective. He is both nostalgic when he conveys India’s rapid evolution and fascinated to see his native land through the eyes of newcomers.

“A fish does not always know the nature of the water,” says Kushwaha. “My students often ask questions that I never would have thought to ask myself. It forces me to think about these ‘why’ questions.”

His research passion is collecting and analyzing data to help managers make more informed decisions. He develops models to study firm and consumer behavior with the goal of linking marketing actions to financial outcomes. “Marketing is thought of as a cost, and many companies do away with it when trying to save money,” he says. “But it is actually an investment.”

Kushwaha has researched the impact of recalls on future product reliability and future accidents; how national culture influences consumer financial decision making behavior; how apparel retailers deal with demand shocks in their global supply chains; and the effects of customer relationship management (CRM) outsourcing on  shareholder value.

“His work embodies what makes our department great,” says Steenkamp. “He investigates managerially highly relevant topics and does this with rigorous empirical techniques, which means his findings can withstand the test of time.” In fact, Kushwaha’s research papers have won awards, including the American Marketing Association’s best paper in the inter-organizational track.

Kushwaha spends his free time with his family. Although he enjoys discussing politics and pursuing photography, he quips that he has no free time thanks to his young son and daughter. He also likes to ride his motorcycle, but is fairly certain the arrival of their second child signaled the success of his wife’s campaign to get him to sell his ride. Considering how full his schedule is, he admits he probably won’t miss it.

At his core, Kushwaha is a team player. He plays an active role in the UNC Kenan-Flagler community, including serving as faculty advisor to the MBA Cricket Club, case competition judge and aids STAR Program project teams with tackling market research problems. And his relationships with students are front and center. He serves as a member on the doctoral committees of several marketing and operations PhD students, who he views as his peers. All of his students recognize that taking one of his classes is a unique opportunity.

Josephine Manlangit (MBA ’17) singled out his core course as her favorite in an interview with MBASchooled. “Our first assignment was to analyze the sales of all tablets on over a 24-week period and make an integrated suggestion on how to increase the sales performance of Dell’s tablet category,” she says. “We are also learning how to utilize data to make impactful and effective visualizations. I can see how the skills developed in this class will be of use in my future career.”

What more can you ask for in a professor? From practical lessons in a McColl classroom to a Wipro factory floor in Delhi, robust research that makes an impact on business practice, a desire to keep learning and even the ability to appreciate a joke at his own expense, Tarun Kushwaha offers the best of all worlds.