Entrepreneur takes a novel approach

Preethi Govindaraj.

She won a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence and was named MBA Student of the Year. She spent a year in Singapore on a Fulbright fellowship. She owns her own business. She’s even writing a book. Not bad for a 28-year-old.

Preethi Govindaraj ’02, MBA ’05, has certainly accomplished a lot, and she credits her upbringing for planting the seeds of her success.

“I had the good fortune of having unconventional parents,” Govindaraj says. Although raised in the Buffalo area, she spent many months a year in her parents’ hometown in India. “I remember being pulled out of school, often before final exams, to go and live in India for several months,” she says. “I definitely gained a bicultural perspective. The experience helped me become a lot more flexible, accommodating and open in my views.”

This openness extended to her undergraduate experience as a marketing major who took a heavy concentration in the liberal arts. “I always felt like the liberal arts taught you how to think,” she says. She used this belief as the jumping-off point for her senior research thesis, and, eventually, her business—and book.

For her thesis, Govindaraj interviewed 20 business professionals about the usefulness of liberal arts. She found that they believed a lack of humanities education created difficulties in the workplace.

“The major problems they had with their employees were an inability to adapt, to change, to think,” she says. “I thought how great it would be for employees to learn different things and apply that knowledge to their professional responsibilities and career development.”

Thus, the idea for her business was born. Minerva, a corporate training and development business with a strong emphasis on the liberal arts, was launched in 2006, a year after Govindaraj received an MBA in entrepreneurship from the School of Management.

Minerva incorporates tools such as literature, film, music, mythology and art into training in diversity, communications, sales, teamwork, customer service and change management for its international business clients.

For example, in a seminar on presentation skills entitled “Scheherazade’s Gift,” the trainers use the legendary storyteller of 1001 Arabian Nights to explore storytelling techniques to “help presenters move beyond PowerPoint,” she says.  

Govindaraj’s sister, Deepa, is her business partner and has a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in the sociology of education, both from UB. Deepa is also the co-author, along with Robert Daly, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at UB, of a book Govindaraj is writing about how humanities education has helped prominent individuals in fields such as business, industry or sports.

One person the authors interviewed is Marv Levy, the former coach and general manager of the Buffalo Bills, well-known for his erudite manner. “He explained how his English and history background has helped with certain skills in football, such as communication, pattern recognition and ethics,” she says.

Other interviewees include Douglas Peterson, CEO of Citigroup Japan, who majored in math and history; Patricia Nazemetz, corporate vice president, Xerox Corporation, who majored in  math and philosophy; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO, Hewlett-Packard, who has a background in medieval history.

Govindaraj says running her business is a lot more work than she ever anticipated. “The entrepreneurs we met in class weren’t kidding when they said you’d work 80 to 100 hours a week, at least initially.

“Now we are down to more normal 60-hour weeks,” she says. “But, with that ‘extra’ time you are always thinking, what more could I be doing to help the company?”

Written by Cathy Wilde