Rita Thakur moves theory to practice in giving her students real world success
by Cody Luk
photography by Karla Rendon
Brandon Edwards, University of La Verne senior, faces a dilemma. He is gauging business decision risks on a theoretical operational management and information technology level. But this is not a classroom exercise. For him and the company he represents, it is real. Brandon is evaluating Joel’s Automotive Repair in Upland, California, which volunteered to have a team of La Verne students use value chain analysis and management information systems to optimize business processes and thereby minimize costs. The results will mean more profits.
Brandon, a business administration major with a concentration in finance, also is immersed in a real world investment banking internship. “Many of the skills that I have taken are learning how to network, be comfortable in a room with important people and to learn the fundamentals of business,” Brandon says. “Because of the classes I have taken at La Verne, I am comfortable and confident going into any field that I choose.”
For Rita Thakur, associate dean of the College of Business and Public Management and professor of management, this theory to practice mantra runs through her College. Rita has long felt that university professors should not just teach theory classes but also apply them. Students, she says, need to take on real life issues and make real life business decisions. That builds self confidence. Without self esteem, some, as graduates, would apply for low entry-level jobs instead of higher management positions. “We were giving them degrees but not giving them confidence,” Rita says. “We want to tell them they can do anything once they graduate college. That’s why I started the Skills for Success Programs.” Rather than studying within the confinements of textbooks, business students also learn from a set of academic and co-curricular programs. This is Rita’s teaching philosophy, actualized in her College. Rita walks through the University of La Verne College of Business and Public Management area and remembers the Alpha Beta market and adjoining TG&Y dime store once on the same footprint. She reminisces on the changes during her 37 years at La Verne, first as a business professor and now as associate dean. Although the University has changed dramatically, Rita remains as dedicated to the school and the students as ever, with her same mindset that “students always come first.”
Rita was born in Ahmedabad, India, to Dr. Chhotubhai V. Patel and Dr. Janki Manjeri. She grew up in Jinthri, a small village in Gujarat state near the northwestern region of India, with a climate similar to Southern California. Her family strongly believed in education. “Who I am is because of my parents,” she says. Her dad, known as “C. V.,” was the director and chief surgeon of the 1,000 staff member, 700 bed Jinthri TB Hospital. Rita’s mom Janki was also a physician, known for dedicating much time toward educational philanthropic projects. She supported more than 5,000 children in their high school and college endeavors—financially and otherwise. “My parents worked and gave their lives to make a difference in the lives of other people,” Rita says. “[My mom] always knew education would make a difference. Education is the best equalizer.” Her grandfather, Venibhai P. Patel, also had a strong educational vision. Venibhai was a farmer with a third-grade education; nevertheless, he sent all his children and grandchildren to school, even the girls, at a time when it was almost unheard of for girls to be educated. Rita excelled in her educational efforts, and at age 14, she became an undergraduate student at PP Institute of Science in the hunt for a bachelor of science degree in math and physics. That led to her participation in 1965 in a three-month exchange program to Pennsylvania, Missouri and New York.
Growing up with the boys
In 1966, Rita was the first and only female student in Saurastra University studying for a bachelor of law degree. She later found herself the only female lawyer in the city. “It didn’t matter to me because I grew up with boys, so my parents never differentiated girls and boys,” she says. “I just did what I did, and I just did it because I wanted to.” She practiced criminal law but aspired to lead in corporate law. This aspiration led to Missouri State University in 1972 for her master of business administration in management. “I’m very glad I changed because I love what I do,” Rita says. After graduation, she moved to Nebraska to study for a doctorate in management at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in 1974. There, she finished the coursework but not her dissertation. Despite this, Rita says she gained more than she expected. It was at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln where she met Shri Thakur, her future husband, at a party she initially did not want to attend. “People kept insisting I go, even though I did not know anyone,” she says. There, Shri saw Rita for the first time and knew immediately she was the one he would marry. But Rita did not even talk to Shri. He was very quiet, and she was very outgoing. In the cold mornings, she would walk to the bus stop to go to school. Shri found out and started giving her car rides. “I knew he had an intention,” Rita laughs. Three months of car rides later, they were bundled up in their coats, sitting in the car in front of a lake on a sunny but cold March Nebraska day. Shri told Rita he would like to spend the rest of his life with her. He did not have a wedding ring. Rita says they have been happily married for more than four decades. “He didn’t even ask me out,” Rita says. “He just gave me rides. And then he would ask me ‘if you would like to have a cup of coffee?’ So we would go out for a cup of coffee. It was more of a mutual understanding.”
Summer 1974, Shri received a job offer in Pasadena, California. Rita moved with him, and they were married a few days later. Shri is from Mumbai, India. “I wanted to marry somebody I can relate and spend my life with. We don’t have the same language, same culture or same customs, but it works out,” Rita says, saying India has 28 different languages. She notes she is from a westernized family while Shri is from a traditional family that only wants him to marry someone from the same culture. Because Shri knew his family would not approve of the marriage, he did not even tell them about it. Rita recalls that on a beautiful sunny morning on Dec. 26, 1974, she and Shri were married at the Universalist Church in Pasadena in front of 30 guests, most of whom they did not know since they were only friends of Rita’s brother Dilip Patel. Following, they had lunch at the only Indian restaurant in the area.
Rita started teaching management at Ambassador College in Pasadena for two years. In September 1978, she took her first step on the University of La Verne campus as an assistant professor of business management. It was an impactful decision that changed her life and the lives of the people she has touched. Rita says her most important consideration was how much she could interact with students. As a teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska, her classes were big, and she did not get to know the students. “I want to make an impact and know students and find out their dreams—what they want to do, and where they want to go. At La Verne, there are so many first generation students, so it is nice to get to know them, help them and work with them. I wanted commitment to students. It’s all about how you can help students.
In the late ‘70s, Rita remembers that business was just another department. “La Verne was so small at the time. All the faculty could fit into one room. We used to have coffee for everyone at 10 a.m., and everyone came.” The business department was under the social science division, with five faculty members. The department morphed into the School of Business, then the School of Business and Global Studies. Then, with the addition of graduate and off-campus regional programs, it was re-born as the College of Business and Public Management.
Rita is a powerful leader in faculty governance. In 1997, faculty members, lacking a unified voice to administration, wanted college governance changes. Rita served as the chair of the Faculty Senate Task Force and helped draft the bylaws that changed the governance structure. She was named the first president of the Faculty Senate and as a member of the Senate executive committee, she met regularly with the president and his immediate associates in planning administrative direction. The Faculty Senate also coordinated all faculty committees. “We became a team between the faculty and administration,” Rita says. “Faculty Senate’s purpose was making faculty feel important and feel united and develop working relationships with administration and faculty together.” Rita stayed in the Faculty Senate until she was named associate dean. She also chaired the Faculty Salary Committee and is proud that she developed the first three-year salary plan with former University President Stephen Morgan. While Rita remembers that she and Steve had many disagreements at the time, it was through their ways to resolve those issues that they became close friends. “Now, we eat together, and we travel together,” Rita says. “He’s my dear, dear friend.”
Setting the philosophy
“The Rita Thakur Skills for Success Program,” named after Rita by President Morgan and Gordon J. Badovick, former business school dean, is a big component of the College of Business and Public Management. In their freshman year, La Verne students take a Connect for Success Mentoring course to transition from high school to college. Students connect with student mentors and learn academic, personal and career goal achievement skills. The following year, students take Achieving Professional Success, designed to teach skills in preparing resumes, conducting interviews, public speaking, social etiquette and dining etiquette. Students learn their strengths, values and beliefs and develop skills needed to obtain internships and jobs.
The junior year curriculum includes the Integrated Law and Ethics Program, the Integrated Business Curriculum Program and Professional Mentorships. The Integrated Business Curriculum allows students to gain the opportunity to run a real life business, based on a business plan that leads to bank loans up to $5,000. Students are concurrently enrolled in four major classes and apply the theories they learn to their real-life business. The Professional Mentorships Program connects each student with a business professional. In their senior year, students receive hands-on experiences in the Integrated Management Information Systems and Operations Management Program by performing value chain analysis and by using management information techniques on a real company. The semester findings are presented to the company’s senior management members. Students also intern in a company relevant to their career field through the Professional Internships Program. The Business Consulting course, taken the junior or senior year, is another hands-on opportunity for students to apply their knowledge to a real life situation, acting as consultants in analyzing a company. Lastly, students take Business Seminar and compete nationally in a web-based business stimulation game by applying the theories they learned. Rita says she created the unique programs with the intention students would graduate with a resume full of real life experiences instead of only a list of courses. “I hope to have 98 percent of all students who graduate from the College of Business and Public Management to have a job waiting for them in the area they want before they graduate,” Rita says. “I hope to accomplish that in the next five years.”
Rita’s program, implemented in stages, was supported with a $2.47 million Title V Developing Hispanic Serving Institution grant received by the University from the U.S. Department of Education in 2007. La Verne was one of five colleges to receive the grant. Rita was the one who proposed the grant, and she was in charge of managing the application process. “I think when you’re in a classroom, it’s a lot of fun,” Rita says. “You’re with a lot of students, but when you’re in a classroom, you influence just those students. With the associate dean position I do, you touch the whole student body even if they don’t know it. I can develop programs and improve the programs. Even though I miss the classroom and meeting with students, I think it’s more rewarding because of what I’ve been able to do.”
Nevertheless, her personal touch is there. Rita helps students, especially those with personal or academic issues. She asks the academic advisers to tell her when a student is struggling. “These days, there’s so much more mental illnesses and issues, stress relieved issues and family related issues, and there’s so many students who need support and somebody to believe in them,” Rita says. “For students who are not doing so well, they need somebody there to say, ‘I’ll support you.’” Financial hardships too confound students. Hearing the news that a student dropped out last year for financial reasons, Rita talked personally to financial aid officials. As a result, enhanced aid came his way; the student since graduated. “That’s what we have to do; that’s what La Verne has to do,” Rita says. “It doesn’t matter what major they are. They’re all our students—they come to La Verne.” Her care extends to the dining hall. She recalls that Ahmed Ispahani, professor of business sciences and economics, saw a student eating and asked the student whether it was his breakfast or lunch. The student said it was his only meal since he could not afford more than one meal. Following, Rita and Ahmed talked to Davenport staff, and they both contributed to purchasing a meal plan card for the student. “How can I eat three meals and a kid is going hungry,” Rita says. “When we talk about social justice, we all have responsibility to do something.”
“Working in La Verne has given meaning to my life and the opportunity to be me. I am able to do things that are important to me and to make a positive difference in the community. I’m grateful to La Verne for allowing me to do that. I’ve done everything that my heart wants me to do. How lucky can a person be? To have a wonderful family, the most wonderful dean to work with, a wonderful team, and the University that allows me to do things that give me meaning to my life—how can you be more fortunate? I love this school. It makes such difference in the lives of students. It’s going to stay here—whatever I’ve done for the school—long after I’m gone, and I’m really, really happy about that.”