Northeastern University holds Global Leadership Summit in Mumbai

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, left, speaks with Ravi Raheja, group president of the development firm K. Raheja Corp., during the Global Leadership Summit in Mumbai, India. Photo by Sunil Thakkar for Northeastern University

MUMBAI, India—On Saturday, the Northeastern global community gathered in Mumbai, a city of 20 million occasionally referred to as the “Maximum City” for its dense layout, relentless pace, and social diversity. This Indian cultural and financial hub offered a fitting backdrop for the university’s third Global Leadership Summit, a day of boundary-pushing discussions about innovation, sustainability, and civic participation in the era of artificial intelligence.

Mumbai’s historic Taj Mahal Palace hotel, once the first sight for ships entering the city’s busy port, served as an apt location for a conversation about cultural change, disruption, and globalization. Indians still share its apocryphal origin story, in which a titan of industry built the Taj after being denied entrance to a nearby “whites only” hotel.

Here, Northeastern graduates, faculty, prospective students, and parents gathered from across the globe with ground-breakers in entrepreneurship to discuss the technological and cultural changes that require companies and institutions to operate internationally.

Northeastern is a world leader in this approach within higher education. It has developed a globally integrated university system, with locations across North America and in London; more than 265,000 graduates in 179 countries worldwide; and students who take advantage of experiential learning opportunities in 146 countries.

It’s an approach reflected in the university’s academic plan, Northeastern 2025, the blueprint for a global network of people, programs, and experiences, that embraces lifelong learning, prepares learners for the changing nature of work, and brings together people of different backgrounds and experiences.

“Higher education was built on a tradition that divorced itself from the world,” Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, told the audience. “The idea was that you studied and then you confronted the world. Whereas what we are saying is very simple: The world is too interesting to ignore.” 

Richard D’Amore, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees and a 1976 graduate of  what is now called the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, also greeted attendees, saying that Northeastern is “redefining higher education with an approach that is relevant to a new world.” He told the audience: “We are the disruptors.” 

Embracing that spirit of disruption, the day’s speakers focused their remarks on forging new career pathways that give back to the world through humanitarian work, environmentalism, hospitality, entertainment, and technology. 

C.P. Gurnani, chief executive officer of the multinational Tech Mahindra and father to a Northeastern graduate Ashish Gurnani, joined Raj Echambadi, Dunton Family Dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business in for a thoughtful and frank conversation about his business career. He detailed the calculated risk that his company took in 2013 by acquiring Satyam Computer Services, a technology firm that was on the verge of collapse amid charges of falsifying data. 

The acquisition led to a turbulent time for Tech Mahindra, which faced open litigation and government investigations. Gurnani created a war room where he held transparent briefings with his management team about their challenges, which he said instilled a sense of purpose in the organization’s leadership.

“If you’re able to communicate and show a level of confidence that tomorrow will be better, I think that works like magic,” Gurnani  said.

Ravi Raheja, group president of the development firm K. Raheja Corp., described his company’s unconventional business model in the Indian real-estate ecosystem, from “going green” to being among the first to bring a leasing model into the country. As developers primarily of commercial real estate, such as malls and hotels, Raheja Corp. has created 25 million square-feet of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings that meet U.S. Green Building Council standards and use energy-efficient designs that conserve power and water. 

Raheja emphasized the value of prioritizing social responsibility for the next generation of leaders, even when it’s difficult. 

“Fifteen years ago we had to apologize for going green, the idea was so ‘out there,’” he said, recalling that he told a banker at that time that he “did not become a tree hugger. I still want to make profits.”  

He described his hiring practices, saying he prefers people who are “hungry to learn” and have overcome challenges in their lives. The company removes names from applicants’ resumes before reviewing them, because Raheja said, “there are a lot of biases on gender, religion, and in India, biases on caste. Removing these biases is something we’re passionate about.” 

Northeastern held its inaugural Global Leadership Summit in 2018 in Paris and the second one last year in Shanghai.

In addition to the summit, the agenda for Mumbai included three other days of events described by Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for University Advancement at Northeastern. Kicking off the events on Thursday, she said, the university held a ‘Social impact-athon’ that awarded $20,000 to  Vacha, a non-governmental organization that focuses on issues of women and girls through educational programs, creation of resources, research, training, campaigns, networking and advocacy. The event was facilitated by Rebecca Riccio, the Khaled and Olfat Juffali Director of the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern. 

On Friday, the Forum of Young Global Leaders brought together Northeastern’s next generation of change-agents for a day of panels with leaders in the fields of finance, entertainment, and even chess. 

MacGillivray also announced Sunday’s Women Who Empower program featuring leading entrepreneurs, which launched a month-long celebration of International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and a shared commitment to empowering people across the university’s global network. 

At Saturday’s Global Leadership Summit, attendees heard narratives of resilience that served as a reminder that “disruption” takes many different forms. In a moderated talk with trustee emerita Nonnie Burnes, Anu Aga told the story of losing her husband to a heart attack, her five-month-old daughter to an undetected illness, and her 25-year-old son in a car accident, before overcoming self-doubt to take over her family’s large-scale engineering company, Thermax Limited, serve in India’s Parliament, and help lead an educational non-government organization. 

“I urge you to give a thought not just to your career, but also finding your deeper meaning and wider purpose in life,” she said. 

Continuing that theme was D. R. Mehta, the founder of an organization called Jaipur Foot that provides free, cutting-edge mobility aids, such as prosthetics, to people from underserved communities. Mehta, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, said that Jaipur Foot now operates not just in India but in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Following the talk, Aoun joined Mehta on stage, where he suggested a collaboration between Northeastern University’s College of Engineering and Jaipur Foot. Mehta left the stage to a standing ovation.

The day wrapped up with two animated talks by leaders in the fields of hospitality and entertainment. Kapil Chopra, former president of the luxury hotel brand The Oberoi Group, called on the Northeastern community to bring the “pie factor,” or passion, innovation, and enthusiasm to all of their projects going forward. Chopra said he relied on those qualities to create his signature Postcard Hotels, which liberate consumers from the tedium of check-ins and check-outs, replace ubiquitous hotel croissants with regional Indian breads, and offer welcome cocktails crafted with local ingredients such as feni, a cashew liquor from the Indian state of Goa.    

Devraj Sanyal, the chief executive officer and managing director of Universal Music Group, India and South Asia, ended the day’s discussions by saying that to meet the needs of the global market, the attendees should “hustle, hustle, hustle,” take risks and be relentless in their pursuits. After he played a viral video mashup of a Justin Bieber song with a Bollywood hit, he discussed the importance of combining the local with the global for his company’s continued growth. He also played a video featuring dynamic young rappers from the Dharavi Dream Project, a non-profit organization that discovers, nurtures, and promotes hip-hop talent and self-expression in Dharavi, a large Mumbai slum area.   

“If you ask yourself what unites all the speakers, it’s the fact that they are all innovators. But also, they showed us something else,” Aoun said as the day concluded. “They showed us that innovation by itself is not enough. Each one of them said innovation without heart is not going to be satisfying. And for us at Northeastern, this is exactly the message that we wanted to convey.”

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