Leading from legacy
By the time Neeli Bendapudi was in first grade, she was sure of two things: She wanted to be an educator, and she believed the University of Kansas was a very special place.
When Bendapudi, KU’s newly appointed provost, was growing up on the southern coast of India, she helped her mother with her sisters’ educations while her father, Ramesh, began doctoral work at KU. When he returned to India, he brought with him stories and pictures that sparked the “Jayhawk legend” in the 6-year-old’s mind.
By that time, it wasn’t just her siblings reaching out for academic help. “I was a little bit of a tutor at my home with all the neighborhood kids,” she says. “It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed, being the teacher’s helper.”
Bendapudi’s passion for teaching hasn’t changed, but the scope of her work has expanded.
Like her father, she holds a doctorate from KU, where she has been dean of the School of Business dean since 2011. Bendapudi’s chief accomplishments during her tenure as dean? Leading the school to record enrollment, launching an online MBA program, and raising over $60 million for the new business building, Capitol Federal Hall. Bendapudi envisioned a place where students can prepare for the global marketplace, and the facility contains the latest in technology and industry.
Bendapudi’s leadership at KU combines business strategy with educational practice. She has consulted for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Deloitte & Touche, and Cessna, among others — and she brings to her new role an ability to adapt to change quickly along with experience building and relying on teams.
“There’s an understanding in the business world that problems are too complex for any one person or group to solve, and that dynamic and diverse teams are required to address complex issues,” Bendapudi says.
“KU is truly a diverse, global campus. When you come to KU the world comes to you.”
— Neeli Bendapudi, KU provost
Complexity is something Bendapudi says students today know all about. “Millennials are far different from the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a technology-infused world where everyone is connected.”
Her advice to KU students? Engage beyond affinity groups – those social circles comprised of people who think, act, and look just like us.
“To be the kind of leaders who will change the world, we must be fully ourselves and, at the same time, learn to value and make space for the different experiences and opinions of others,” Bendapudi says. “KU is truly a diverse, global campus. When you come to KU the world comes to you.”
For Bendapudi, it’s not a just a statement – it’s her life story. She keeps her father’s 47-year-old KU identification card as a remembrance. Three weeks to the day she became provost, her father passed away.
“We have an expression in my culture — loosely translated, ‘a home that you’ve eaten in, you must not harm.’ It means when you go somewhere and they offer you food, you have deep gratitude for that place,” Bendapudi says.
“Before he died, my father, Ramesh, reminded me that KU is what put food on our table by enabling a better life for us. He told me to ‘take care of it.’
“I plan on honoring his advice.”