Coming to America
Starting a company takes a lot of resolve and Branislav Vajdic showed it early. He left his native Yugoslavia, showed up on the doorstep of the University of Minnesota and talked his way into graduate school.
This drive, along with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, propelled Vajdic to the forefront of the Silicon Valley technology industry. His education at the University of Minnesota spawned a career designing cutting-edge products for Intel and heading a medical startup.
“To this day, the professors I worked with have an impact on me,” Vajdic said. “What I learned from the University of Minnesota has stayed with me and been applied in every day of my professional life.”
The University of Minnesota has long been a magnet for students from around the world. Last year, the University enrolled 4,120 international students and scholars. More than one third of those come to the College of Science and Engineering. Various engineering majors and computer science are the top programs for foreign students.
“We think it’s an indispensible mix in the big picture here at the University,” said Paula Brugge, associate director of admissions who oversees international undergraduate student admissions.
“As we become a smaller and smaller global society, the more exposure our University community can have with other countries and cultures, the better. This enhances the learning environment and helps our students become more competitive in a global society,” she added.
It’s estimated there are 30,000 international University of Minnesota alumni and many of them from the College of Science and Engineering have become scientific and technical leaders across the globe.
The following three stories of foreign-born College of Science and Engineering alumni show how their educations have helped to create successful ventures that have impacted the world. Vajdic emigrated from Yugoslavia and became a prominent technologist in Silicon Valley. Susan Rani, born in Korea, used her degrees in civil engineering and business to start her own engineering firm in the Twin Cities and mentor young professionals. Ajay Pandey, a native of India, leveraged his Ph.D. in computer science to reform government in his homeland.
Branislav Vajdic: Engineering with Heart
Vajdic made the journey to Minnesota back when the world seemed not so small a place. He grew up in communist Yugoslavia. He was groomed to follow the career path of his father, a surgeon and medical school professor. To the disappointment of his father, Vajdic’s interest turned to engineering. The young man also had an even more headstrong idea: for reasons that he still can’t quite explain, he became determined to study engineering in the United States.
But that wasn’t so easy because Vajdic lacked the necessary academic credentials. Although he had excellent grades, he had earned his undergraduate degree at a new university that was unknown to the outside world. He wrote to several American universities, but they told him they could not accept his credentials.
So Vajdic decided to go knock on the door of universities and prove himself in person. He finished his degree on a Thursday and the following day he was on a plane headed to the United States At the time, Yugoslavia was not a hardline communist country and allowed citizens to travel.
He landed in Minnesota in January 1979 and showed up on the doorstep of the director of graduate studies, the late Allen Nussbaum. Vajdic, then 24, spent the next few weeks speaking with professors, taking admission tests and validating his credentials. Another grad student offered to let him crash on the living room couch. Minnesota was his first stop because the University had shown the most willingness to work with him; the visit went so well that he cancelled plans to visit other schools. By the end of the month, he had earned a spot in the graduate program.
“The bottom line is the University of Minnesota cared,” he recalls. “I felt this was really the place where I could get an education and be surrounded by people who were extremely helpful and friendly, which made a big difference.”
Vajdic earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and conducted research into the burgeoning field of chip design with professor Al Tuszynski. He toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in academia, but one of his professors, Ray Warner, a former executive at Motorola, suggested Vajdic would be a better fit for business.
“He saw some of the initiatives I had at the University might be more in line with an industrial person than an academician,” Vajdic said. “He was absolutely, 100 percent wise. I have to thank him more than anybody else.”
Apparently others in industry agreed. By the time he graduated with a Ph.D. in 1984, Vajdic had six job offers. He accepted a position with Intel.
At the time, the semiconductor industry was growing rapidly as personal computers proliferated and the Internet became ubiquitous. Vajdic led Intel’s flash memory and Pentium development teams. He rose to become senior director of technology development in product design and assumed he would happily remain at Intel until his retirement.
But then his career took a turn that might have made his doctor father proud after all. In 2004, Vajdic became an angel investor in a new medical technology company called New Cardio, which used new software to develop a more sophisticated model from electrocardiogram (ECG) data.
The more he learned, the more excited he became that the new technology could be commercialized into a game changer because it creates a more precise three-dimensional model with existing ECG data. In 2006, he resigned from Intel and became the CEO of New Cardio. His decision to join the company—as well as every major business decision he makes—is shaped by a habit instilled by his graduate school mentors. When confronting any issue, he asks, what is the impact of solving this problem? Is it a theoretical exercise with little impact, or could it have profound applications?
“That’s one thing I’ll never forget,” Vajdic said. “That’s probably the most profound advice I got. It stays with me practically every day.”
Susan Rani: A Model Engineer
Susan Rani is a civil engineer who built her own engineering firm from the ground up. But first she had to build a life in a new country.
Rani combined her civil engineering and business degrees from the University of Minnesota to find success on two fronts: operating a successful firm and diversifying the profession. Entering the field at a time when there were few engineering firms owned by women and minorities and few role models, she founded her own firm and mentors young talent. And Rani Engineering has demonstrated its talent by winning contracts for major projects such as the 35W bridge, the Weisman Art Museum expansion and the Central Corridor light rail project.
Rani arrived in Minnesota at age 11, alone and knowing no English. Until then, she had lived with her grandfather in Seoul, Korea, which she recalls as a primitive city with dirt roads and ox-drawn carts. There was no indoor plumbing and most families used outhouses. It was not an auspicious environment for a future civil engineer.
Rani’s father had left Korea to study at the University of Minnesota before she was born. In 1971, he sent for his 11 year-old daughter.
Rani had never been on a plane and the journey across the Pacific was bewildering. She spoke no English and carried an envelope printed with her name and destination. She met her father for the first time at the airport.
“I felt like I had been thrown into the Jetsons,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to work a toilet. I had never slept in a bed.”
In fact, on her first night in the United States, she fell out of the bed.
She credits the English as a Second Language program at Minneapolis public schools with helping her adjust to her new country. She received one-on-one tutoring and collected thousands of flash cards with words and phrases. “The hardest part was American humor,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t until I had been here over 20 years that I could understand Saturday Night Live.”
Rani worked hard and by the time she finished high school she was qualified to enter the University of Minnesota. “The [engineering] program was tough back then,” she recalls. “I went through the program with perseverance and hard work.” To pay for her education, she worked stuffing envelopes for the University Foundation, spinning blood in a hematology lab, and selling popcorn in the old Memorial Stadium.
“For the most part, I did not consider myself an international student,” Rani said. “But I went to international functions because I found them fascinating—and that’s where I met my husband.”
Rani’s husband studied electrical engineering at the U. Today they have two children, one of whom now attends the University’s College of Liberal Arts.
Rani graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1982. Although her father also was an engineer, he discouraged her from the profession because of the discrimination she may face. Undeterred, she pursued a career in civil engineering. Her first job took her to California, where she worked as an engineer on nuclear power plants and later for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I didn’t know what earthquake engineering was,” she said. “But I could pick up the building codes, study them, and pass the California license, which included earthquake engineering. The University education helped me do that. It gave me confidence that I could understand the concepts and pass the most difficult exam in the United States.”
Rani continued challenging herself. She returned to Minnesota, earned an MBA from the Carlson School of Management while continuing to work and have her first child. At age 33, she started her own company.
“There weren’t any role models for me at the top of an organization,” she recalls. “There were no female or minority upper managers who could guide me along. What I saw was a glass ceiling for women engineers. In order for me to grow, I thought I had to give it a try.”
Rani Engineering has grown to 17 employees. Rani prides herself on establishing a woman and minority-owned engineering firm. She has hired a number of young graduates and aspires to be the kind of mentor she wished she had as a young engineer.
“The most satisfying part about running a business,” said Rani, “is seeing people develop.”
Ajay Pandey: Data-Driven Reform
Years before India emerged as an information tech powerhouse, Ajay Bhushan Pandey saw the potential for technology to transform his country. He has used his computer science Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota to bring new reforms and efficiencies to the government of India. By making smarter use of data and technology, he has helped improve the efficiency of government, electrical distribution, tax collection and access to public services.
Pandey spent 14 years working as a career civil servant with the Indian Administrative Service. By the mid 1990s, he had a sense that information technology could become a powerful tool for reform and efficiency in government. When he became eligible for a mid-career sabbatical, he took a different path than most of his civil service colleagues who tended to earn degrees in fields like public policy. Instead, Pandey pursued computer science and chose the University of Minnesota because of the strength of its program.
“I had some kind of futuristic idea,” he recalls, “that one day computer science would play a key role in transforming the country.”
His graduate studies focused on data mining, databases, software engineering and networks. In one research project—which later became his Ph.D. project—he examined a software engineering approach in which tasks are assigned to two-person teams. Instead of being redundant, Pandey found these teams actually performed better and made fewer mistakes.
In 2003, Pandey earned a Ph.D. in computer science. He returned home to find his country being transformed by technology such as mobile phones, PCs, the Internet, broadband connections, and Internet banking.
He was well positioned to make the most of these advances. Pandey served three years as managing director of Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd Maharashtra, which is the largest electrical distribution company in India and serves 10 percent of the country.
He applied his computer science skills to attack one of the utility’s most vexing problems: its huge losses. The company billed for only about 65 percent of the electricity it supplied; the remaining 35 percent disappeared into a “black hole” due to malfunctioning meters, tampering or neglect.
Using data mining techniques, Pandey and his colleagues analyzed patterns and identified the root causes such as malfunctioning meters, tampering, and inspectors who hadn’t bothered to actually do meter readings. These findings sparked a series of reforms, including third-party verification and requiring inspectors to use photos to document meter readings. According to Pandey, losses have been reduced to 20 percent.
Similarly, in his new job as chief information officer of Maharashtra State (Indian civil servants rotate between departments every few years), he helped the tax department analyze data to detect abnormalities and reduce tax evasion.
His department advises 30 government agencies and Pandey hopes to use information technology as a tool for easier public access and more transparency in government. He has shepherded departments towards an e-vision for electronic government.
Pandey still retains close ties to Minnesota. His wife, Namita Sahay, who earned a master’s in computer engineering from the University, works as a software engineer at Medtronic and Pandey often returns to the Twin Cities to visit.
Pandey says he approaches problems with the template he learned as a Ph.D. computer scientist: review the current standards, identify deficiencies, solve them, and explore the future scope.
“I tend to think very logically,” he said. “OK, why is this happening? Can one use technology to deal with the problem? How it can be done in a very different way?”