By Lauren Pauer
Photo by James Kegley
Paul Almeida is constantly in motion.
Between meetings, he walks the halls of the Rafik B. Hariri Building, waving down faculty, staff, and students for quick conversations.
During meetings, he pops up, mid-sentence, to highlight a piece of art hanging near his desk that illustrates a point he’s trying to make.
At events, he happily works the room, smiling broadly at familiar faces and excitedly shaking the hands of those he’ll soon get to know.
Almeida, a longtime strategy professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business who became dean and William R. Berkley Chair on Aug. 1, admits to being restless. He’s not good at taking vacations, he says, because he eventually sneaks off to do work.
On a broader level, such restlessness can encourage change and growth. As we work to do more, we work to do better — for ourselves, our organizations, and our society, he says. It’s a philosophy grounded in the Latin word magis and frequently invoked in the Jesuit tradition. The term has been a driving force in Almeida’s 22-year career at Georgetown McDonough — and it’s driving his vision for the business school. Below, he shares that vision with Georgetown Business.
Tell us about the influence a Catholic education had on your childhood. You grew up in India and attended Jesuit schools there.
I went to four Catholic schools. The last, St. Vincent’s in Pune, had the biggest influence. It’s an old all-boys Jesuit high school, founded in 1867. One of the priests, Father Schoch, made a great impression on me. He really conveyed the richness of Jesuit thinking and values and the importance of not just living in this world but making a difference to our world.
Did you appreciate that at the time?
I was an odd kid, so I did appreciate it. I loved to learn. Father Schoch helped me understand that I needed to aspire to better things, not for myself but for others. That was the first time I had heard the idea of magis — to do more, to do better.
My parents are people of great integrity and values. While my strong connection with Catholicism came from home, my strong commitment to doing right by the world, and restlessly trying to make the world a better place, came from the Jesuits.
In addition to your research on strategy and innovation, you’ve consulted with and offered seminars to many organizations trying to help them make the world a better place.
Yes, I spent 15 years engaging with other institutions, trying to make a difference. If you really believe in what you know, and you believe it can make organizations better — whether they’re nonprofits like AARP, or multilaterals like the World Bank, or multinationals like Rio Tinto, or government agencies like USAID, OPEC, or the Department of Agriculture — we can, and we should, reach out and share what we have. And in doing so, we learn ourselves.
Let’s talk about one of your areas of expertise, innovation. It’s become a buzzword in the business world.
Except that I began studying it before it was a buzzword.
What does innovation mean?
The first thing is that we don’t have to take the status quo as given, and we don’t have to have history as our only, or primary, guide. We can look to see where the world is going, assess what it means for us, and choose our path. And the choosing of our path, in itself, implies innovation. Why? Because it means that we can choose where we can compete, we can choose how our students are taught — not necessarily because they’ve always been taught this way. So it’s a mindset to embrace and accept the future. It’s also a dedication to saying, “We’ll do what we can to make the future work for us, for our students, for our faculty, and for our staff.”
Is Georgetown McDonough innovative?
I think we have a good history of innovation. Nearly every school’s MBA program goes abroad. We were the first school to do that with our Global Business Experience. And we did it in a sophisticated way. It’s not tourism — it’s actually working with companies from different regions. The Executive MBAs have taken it a step further to create global capstones where students, by themselves, address big issues facing companies or organizations in different parts of the world. For example, one student team studied the refugee crisis from the point of view of businesses in Germany, another looked at the hospital situation in Ethiopia, and a third studied the luxury goods market in Hong Kong and China. Then, they came back and shared their experiences with one another so everyone developed an understanding of different global issues. In addition, look at the Master of Science in Finance program. We believe it is the first premium online program in the world. And in our research, we ask big questions and create knowledge that humanity needs to progress.
It’s simply that we don’t take the status quo as given or necessarily the best way. It’s often a good guide, and it’s good to acknowledge that organizations change slowly. We are creatures of habit, and organizations are even bigger creatures of habit. By acknowledging that, you increase your chances of actually moving ahead.
What do you think are our biggest challenges at Georgetown McDonough?
We face many of the same challenges as most business schools — a maturing industry, global competition, and technological change. These changes could be perilous if we ignore them, but if we will acknowledge them — and we will — and make proactive adjustments, the future holds great promise for us.
What kind of adjustments?
We are going to identify our niche — and that doesn’t mean it must be a small niche. We can look at technology and say, “That’s a challenge.” Or we can say, “Technology is this wonderful opportunity to make a difference, to be able to teach our students so much better.” There are challenges in the changes the environment offers. And there are immense opportunities if you’re innovative — and I believe we are innovative, and we have courage, and we have enthusiasm.
It’s like a street in the winter. In front of my house, one side always has all the snow, and the other side is sunny so the snow gets cleared. We can choose to walk on the sunny side. I think we just don’t always realize what the sunny side is — we need to always look for it. We must avoid plodding along the same path asking, “How do we walk better in the snow?” We don’t have to.
What role do you see alumni having?
A huge role. Who or what is Georgetown? Georgetown is more than just the buildings and the students who are here. Our alumni are defining us by where they work, how they work, what they do, and how they make a difference. We do not want to limit our attention and activities to what just goes on here. We must embrace the alumni community by engaging them and by continuing to be of service to them by facilitating lifelong learning. One of the insights I gained from my research is the power of informal networks and how communities of interest can build and influence each other.
Your son is an alumnus, having graduated from Georgetown in May, and your daughter is a sophomore in the college. What have you learned as a Hoya parent?
I’ve seen their hopes, their enthusiasm, and their anxiety. I’ve seen the fullness of their lives and the number of directions they are pulled — their curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities. As an institution, we should keep striving to not just train our students well for their jobs, or even careers — those are both critical — but for life. I didn’t have that deep perspective before my kids went to school here.
You started your career as an engineer in India.
Yes, I worked at Tata Group, which is probably the best-known Indian company. What I really liked about them was their commitment to management values. They looked after their workers — they created housing for them and a bus system, and they had a lake at their factory where you could go fishing. They also provided management training. For the first two years, you rotated to different areas, and you would attend seminars about leadership.
Tata also exposed me to the intersection of engineering and international business, because I had to examine how we could build vehicles — we were an automobile firm — for Africa. And in doing that, I learned how taxes, different country’s laws, and marketing influenced business. I began to say, “OK, engineering’s cool. I’m an engineer. But business is cool as well. And the intersection is even cooler.”
You received your MBA at the Indian Institute of Management and your Ph.D. at Wharton, where you started your research and teaching. Why did you join the faculty at Georgetown McDonough?
I decided to join Georgetown mostly because it was a Jesuit school in Washington, D.C. I still think those are the two biggest strengths we have. We need to embrace Washington, D.C., with everything it is — not just the political establishment, but the understanding of how business relates to politics and policy; the implications for trade, investment, and law; and the embassies, multilateral institutions, military, defense industry. … There’s so much here. There’s not a better city, and we can be, in many ways, the center.
We also need to embrace our Jesuit principles and values, our identity, and our mission. This includes our ties to the other Georgetown schools, which will enrich our students’ educational experiences. This also includes a global mindset. Being global comes with being in D.C. and comes with being Jesuit. The Society of Jesus is one of the oldest multinational institutions in the world.
If we embrace these aspects of ourselves and continue to strengthen our programs and our scholarship, then we will be better to ourselves, better to each other, and better to the world.