What COVID-19 showed us is that business issues like productivity are deeply entangled with issues like technology and health access, or gender dynamics and work-life balance. It made clear something which has always been implicit—that business is part of a larger system.”
As these connections come to the forefront, a well-rounded business education becomes even more necessary to understand the intricacies of a career in the field.
In Professor Sharma’s experience so far, it’s the opportunities to place business in its larger context that attracts her students to Kogod in the first place. This fall marks her first semester as a professor, and she’s spoken to students from all over the country to ask why they chose to attend the university.
“There’s this consistent theme that what really excites them is Kogod’s focus on more than simply academic achievement,” she explained. “We treat the student holistically, and it brings in students with a real fire for making positive change in the world.” Kogod’s central location in the nation’s capital and its rampant opportunities for a real-world experience both in and out of the classroom attract students who already understand the business world's broader context and want to approach its challenges through a new lens.
Sharma can relate to the desire to view business problems from as many perspectives as possible. Before coming to the United States for her PhD, she spent most of her life in India. Reflecting on her upbringing, she realized that her interest in social responsibility began in her own backyard, though she didn’t know it at the time. “India is amazing, full of talented people and opportunities, but it also has its fair share of inequalities and environmental issues,” she explained. “But when immersed in that context, it’s like the fish not knowing the water. It really took coming out of that context and going to a new country to help me look back and realize that my interests stemmed from my experiences growing up.”
After earning her PhD, Sharma continued to hone her talents in assistant professor roles at the University of New Mexico and Georgia State University. In both positions, she was surrounded by people from various backgrounds with a common interest in making a difference. She especially credits these schools with expanding her horizons and further cementing her commitment to social responsibility in business.
“While working at Georgia State University, there was this intersection of public policy and business,” she explained. “It gave me a different way to understand business as a force for good because my students came from both the policy and business sides.”
From there, Sharma took on her current position at American University’s Kogod School of Business in hopes of being part of a broader research community. She knew it would be a perfect fit between the university’s focus on sustainability and the students’ interest in creating meaningful change. As a new faculty member, she’s thinking about ways that she can personally foster a positive environment that encourages students to be passionate and involved.
As I find my place here, I’m asking myself how I can help students sustain their fire for making positive impact. As they get deep into their academic work, keeping that passion for making positive change is vital. That’s my guiding question as I engage with Kogod students.”
To her current students and those she hasn’t met yet, Sharma’s advice is to remember the broader world and embrace the idea of business as an aspect of society as a whole. Though sustainability and social responsibility questions can feel enormous to solve, it’s important to remember that small changes add up over time—especially when many people make those changes.
“People want a healthier planet, thriving communities, and equitable opportunities,” she said. “There’s a common goal there. So even if you don’t always agree on the ‘how,’ you can move your gaze to the common goal, which usually dislodges those tensions.”
Though understanding the larger context of business worldwide is critical, Professor Sharma says that it can also be a difficult adjustment. Everything is connected in ways that may not always be obvious at first glance.
“We must try to fully understand and interrogate how these issues all intertwine, which requires a shift from a very rational cause-and-effect style of thinking to more complex, systemic thinking,” she said. “It’s not easy, and it can be very uncomfortable to shift the way you think about things. But I hope that Kogod’s students can embrace that discomfort and learn to be a systems thinker so that they can create a bigger impact than being solely focused on what’s in it for your business.”
By leaning into these complexities and facing them head-on, Kogod students can prepare for a career where they’re not just keeping their own business in mind but also the world in which it exists, so that they can play a part in creating a sustainable world for everyone.