Jagdish Sheth is Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing at Goizueta Business School, and in his over 50 years of scholarship, he published hundreds of research papers and books, including the 1969 marketing classic The Theory of Buyer Behavior (with John A. Howard). Professor Sheth took time to speak with Business Librarian Saira Raza about his inspiring autobiography The Accidental Scholar, which is available to borrow at the Goizueta Business Library. This is Part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Goizueta Business Library: When you first decided to continue your education after high school, you had to convince your oldest brother that it would be good for your family’s jewelry box manufacturing business. In fact, for several years you kept making that promise that you were going to come back, but you never did. What led to that decision to pursue a career in academia instead of returning home to your family?
Jagdish Sheth: I had a second brother who was more educated, a bit of a philosopher, and he was encouraging me to continue my education because I was a good student. He was the editor of a popular children’s magazine in India called Chandamama and a superintendent of a boarding school, so he knew the value of education and the potential for getting more out of a human being. So there was a big difference between my two brothers. I decided to continue my education, and once I did finish after five years, my older brother realized that I may not be coming back. But I still wanted to please him because he was the breadwinner for the family. I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling my obligation. So I became a bit of a consultant to the family business by telling him that the best thing to do is to mechanize.
It was actually one of my brother’s customers in Mumbai who suggested sending me to America to get an MBA, which was a new degree at that time. Getting his support in this venture was ironic, but very good. I had this idea that I would concentrate in production management, and then find somebody to give me the technology to mechanize the family business. These were all dreams. I had no idea what America was all about. But I was dreaming that all this stuff would happen.
GBL: You were able to come to the U.S. for your studies with help from your family and your friends. What was it like to come here in the 1950’s? What were your expectations and what kinds of things surprised you?
JS: I had absolutely no expectations because we had no internet in those days. I never knew anything about MIT, Harvard, or the other well-known universities. I went to the University of Pittsburgh because it was one of those recommended by a student advisor at my undergraduate university, and I received a complete fellowship. On top of that, the program was 11 months, so my cost of living was only one year instead of two years. I was more focused on economic considerations rather than the reputation of the institution. But it was the best thing that could have happened. Pittsburgh is a private university, and at that time it was recruiting senior well-known professors to fill this aspiration of becoming the “Harvard of Pennsylvania.” I had a very good host family that helped me in the transition, but it was all a real culture shock. Overall, I found the people were nice and welcoming. At Pittsburg, I was the only foreign student in a one-year lock step program. Given that, I was treated pretty well by everybody. My colleagues immediately began to adopt me essentially and educate me.
I do remember landing in NYC by boat from Naples after nine days’ journey. I was just amazed to see tall buildings. I had no idea! I had flown for the first time in my life from Bombay to Rome, then Rome to Naples. And then when I went to Pittsburgh, I found that this country was so different. Everything was different. The food habits were different. I had decided to remain vegetarian to fulfill the promise I made to my mother. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t eat Western meat.
My biggest overwhelming experience was I never studied two text book per course in a semester. For four courses, that made like 6 or 8 books! I had always studied the reverse – just one book for two years. So that was overwhelming. I thought, how do I read all this stuff and keep and memorize the content!? That was a very unique experience.
GBL: Your work, as you describe it in the book, seems to cross over with political science. For example, you wrote the paper about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how consumers are moving towards higher levels of motivation. When you were testing the Howard Sheth Theory, you used elections as your testing ground. What is it about these themes that appeal to you?
JS: When I reflect back, I’ve always loved history and reading biographies of people. I found that the underlying thing that appeals to me is understanding the psychology of human beings – not so much the individual, but rather the aggregate, such as groups, friendships, institutions, and things like that. That meant I could study consumers, employees, or even citizens. And that is where I went more into the political arena. The seeds were planted in that paper I wrote on how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be generalized from the individual to institutions. What we studied as consumer psychologists then is really what economists today would call behavioral economics. There are known rational aspects of economic behavior, but there are is also an emotional component to consumption behavior.
GBL: You have now spent the majority of your life in the U.S., and your children grew up here. One thing you noted in your autobiography that attracted you to Atlanta when you were offered a position at Goizueta was the thriving Indian community. What are some of the ways that you’ve kept the connection with your culture even after living here so long?
JS: The connection didn’t really come until after we started having children. I need to give more credit to my wife for this. To her, it really felt like you don’t have to give up your culture to be in another culture. The old European idea of assimilation in America was if you’re Italian, you teach your children not to speak Italian, you speak English. Greeks went through the same cycle. Irish went through the same cycle. When we came from Asia there was a very strong belief that we have a distinctive culture of our own, which can teach children some values we don’t have to give up. Because I’m not a Christian in faith, and because I’m a vegetarian, the distinction was clear. We wanted to have this hybrid model of raising our children and therefore keep connection with the old world in many positive ways. We made sure that our children went back to India during summer every two years, which is all I could afford. Unlike many refugees that come and can never go back to their country, we were able to keep that bridge. We had the freedom to go back and keep in touch with our family and friends.
Then I began to understand that India has a lot of potential, but I wondered how do you unlock its potential as a nation? That became a theme in my mind. And I came to the conclusion that like all other nations, it depends on the policy makers – not on the free markets. Policy makers can make changes either by necessity or by good leadership, but however it happens, India can be unlocked into enormous potential. And that really began to sink in much stronger in my later life.
I went back to India in 1968 as a professor, just to get a feel. At that point, there was still the idea that I would go back to India permanently. Thank god it didn’t happen. Because I think this nation has the knack of getting more potential out of you than any other nation. I don’t know what it is. It definitely makes you stronger. It’s not easy giving. All immigrants know how hard life can be here. But at the same time it gives you the opportunities. Usually in many other places in the world, you may have the struggles, but not the opportunities for whatever reason. I think that is the very unique thing about this country. When the opportunity knocks, it does not recognize gender; it does not recognize ethnicity; it does not recognize religion surprisingly. I thought it would because the nation is Christian primarily. But today, we can see people of all origins, if they want to strive and achieve, this nation says you’re welcome. That to me is why this nation will never have a sunset. Maybe setbacks. But no sunsets. It will revitalize itself. There is an institutional, structural, social, and cultural mechanism in place to revitalize itself. The revitalization won’t necessarily be by the same people. It may be by different people. But the nation will survive.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Goizueta Faculty Interview with Jagdish Sheth, coming soon.