Babson Magazine

Fall 2016

A Conscious Awakening

At times faced with limited choices, Raj Sisodia kept seeking new opportunities, which led him exactly to where he wants to be.

When Raj Sisodia reflects on how he came to be a marketing professor and a leader in the Conscious Capitalism movement, he calls many of his choices “opportunistic stumbling.”

Professor Raj Sisodia

Photo: Webb Chappell
Professor Raj Sisodia

Presented with options not necessarily to his liking, Sisodia would make the most of what was available. He studied engineering in college because he excelled in math and science, and, at the time, it was one of the few paths to a viable career in his homeland of India. Working as an electrical engineer in quality control on a hot factory floor after graduating, he decided to apply to business school and earn an MBA because his salary would double and he could work in an air-conditioned office. Given finance or marketing as options for majors, he chose marketing because he didn’t like finance. “In those days in India, that was the reality,” he says. “The economy was barely growing. There were few options, and therefore you take the most pragmatic choice.”

As such, Sisodia learned to act when an opportunity arose. One day during business school, for example, he came down to breakfast in his dorm. It was a holiday, but 10 of his classmates were dressed up. They were headed to the U.S. Information Agency to pick up GMAT applications so they could apply to earn a PhD in business in the U.S. “I said, ‘You can do a PhD in business? I didn’t know that. Give me five minutes,’” recalls Sisodia.

Sisodia had lived in the U.S. for two years as a child when his father, a researcher and professor, moved his family to Salinas, California, for a job. In fact, before heading back to India when Sisodia was 12, his family also had lived in Barbados and Canada. Sisodia felt a special, deep connection to the U.S., although he never thought he would find a way to come back. “I thought that door was closed,” he says, “and suddenly they’re telling me there’s a thing called a PhD in business.”

Along with his 10 friends, Sisodia took the exam a few weeks later. “As it turned out,” he says, “I was the only one who ended up coming here to get a PhD.”

Sisodia applied to about a half-dozen schools, to which he was accepted, but received a full scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. “OK, I’m going to Columbia,” he thought. “Coming back here was kind of a fulfillment of a dream.”

After earning a PhD in marketing, Sisodia began his career as a professor. He acknowledges that becoming an educator was “somewhat accidental,” but as he began teaching and doing research, he realized there are aspects of marketing that he likes and admires, as well as aspects about which he has qualms. “Like many tools, it can be used for good. It can be used to promote people’s well-being and quality of life. But it can also be used to manipulate and control,” he says. “So I had concerns.”

He decided to focus his research on his objections. At the time, his mentor was Jagdish Sheth, a professor of marketing now at Emory University. The two shared similar concerns about marketing ethics, effectiveness, and efficiency, and so began conducting research together, publishing books and research papers for more than a decade. Their work culminated in a conference and book called Does Marketing Need Reform? “We had a bunch of leading scholars contribute to that,” says Sisodia, “and the conclusion was, yes, something has gone awry.

At that point, I was stuck in this mode of focusing on the problem. But then Jagdish gave me the best advice I ever got. He said, ‘Raj, in this country, people want to hear about the solution. They don’t want to hear about the problem.’”

From that moment on, Sisodia and Sheth completely flipped their thinking and began to focus on marketing excellence. Initially, they researched companies that didn’t spend a lot on marketing but had a strong relationship with customers. “We came across Whole Foods early on,” he says. “Soon we discovered that their success really was not limited to what they did in marketing.”

Not only were Whole Foods customers loyal, but so were its employees. The work culture was one of trust and care. The supermarket also had long-term, stable partnerships with suppliers. Further research turned up more companies with similar philosophies. Says Sisodia, “These companies are totally oriented toward all their stakeholders.”

The pair discovered other common traits among these companies. “We found they have a reason for being that went beyond making money—a higher purpose,” says Sisodia. “Profits are essential. You have to have them to survive, but that can’t be your sole purpose.” Leaders of these companies tend to be passionate and involved, he continues. “They care about the purpose,” says Sisodia, whatever it may be, “and they care about the people.”

Even more surprising, says Sisodia, financial analysis of the public companies showed them dramatically outperforming the Standard & Poor’s 500 index over a 10-year period. “There’s something more significant here than we thought,” says Sisodia. “It’s a matter of aligning everybody together and then releasing their extraordinary potential.”

But while this other way of doing business existed, no one was talking about it. Then in 2007, Sisodia and Sheth published Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. “The book changed my life,” says Sisodia. It led to a meeting with John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, and the eventual creation of Conscious Capitalism, a nonprofit that promotes a business philosophy of higher purpose, stakeholder orientation, conscious leadership, and conscious culture. “I felt like I had come alive in my work for the first time,” says Sisodia, “and I had discovered my calling.”

Since then, Sisodia has worked to further the Conscious Capitalism movement, publishing an eponymous book with Mackey in 2013 and helping open 25 chapters of the organization in the U.S. and 10 more in other countries. He also teaches the course “Conscious Capitalism” at Babson and is the F.W. Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business and Whole Foods Market Research Scholar. “When you talk to Babson students about conscious leadership, that’s really relevant because they already can see themselves as leaders,” he says. “Entrepreneurs are the true heroes of our world. They are the ones who move humanity forward and make things happen.”