International scholar Willy Das is quite familiar with thinking outside of the box. She takes risks, always looking for the next opportunity to grow. So much so that she took a chance on moving to Lehigh with a month’s notice to be a postdoctoral researcher.
Das is originally from Kolkata in eastern India, though she moved often in her youth due to her father’s changing jobs and eventually settled in the state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa. She has a bachelor's degree in engineering, with a focus on electronics and implementation, from the Odisha University of Technology and Research and a Ph.D. in entrepreneurial studies from the Indian Institute of Management Raipur.
As she pursued her doctorate and primary data work, Das traveled around India to interview founders, visiting North and South India as well as Bangalore, the capital of India’s southern Karnataka state, which is considered the “Silicon Valley of India" for its high-tech industry, research and engineering institutions.
Through her graduate school, Das discovered an opening to work in the U.S. for Lehigh University. Directly after defending her thesis in October 2021, she joined Lehigh as a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Business.
“I basically had one month to pack my bags, and then get out of my country for the first time,” Das said.
Connecting Academics and Entrepreneurs
While she was working on her Ph.D., Das did research and wrote for academic journals. However, she found that this academic research did not always successfully reach the hands of practitioners, such as entrepreneurs and policy makers. That realization is the inspiration behind her current work.
“The work that we're doing in academia is not always super intuitive for entrepreneurs, and it’s not always relevant to them,” Das said. “The idea of this entire post-doc was to generate findings that can be used by practitioners, and the overall aim of what we do is to (make) entrepreneurship equitable.”
Das’ father is an entrepreneur with his own small business. One phone call with him during her Ph.D. days struck a chord that played a significant role in the direction and meaning of her research.
Das remembers one of her papers getting accepted in a major journal at the time. She was ecstatic, wanting to tell her father right away. The conversation again exemplified a disconnect between researchers and entrepreneurs, which she suspected may be a recurring pattern of miscommunication.
"I shared my findings and his first reaction was, ‘That's great. I'm so proud of you,’" she said. "But his next thing was, ‘But I already know that.’ So that really struck me.”
Could academics and entrepreneurial thinkers save time and achieve greater efficiency with closer communication and collaboration? For this reason, Das said that she continues to research how to bridge the gap between practitioners and academicians.
Das believes that people need to change how they think about entrepreneurship because every day they confront events that demand problem-solving and creativity. She said our daily decisions force us to be creative when we have to make “something out of very limited resources.”
“At the same time, (we have to) make sure that everyone has resources,” Das said, “(and) is getting resources in order to start something new, in order to have a better future... so that's the work… I mean, not to sound super ambitious, but it's kind of a way of changing the world, right?”
Das says that she and her colleagues share the goal of providing the opportunity and resources for people to start their own businesses, collaborating with marginalized entrepreneurs such as people of color or women. She currently works in the College of Business's Management Department and for Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an education-industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on the West Coast. Das said the first thing that the center does is define entrepreneurship as not only opening a venture and generating revenue, but also as a mindset.
The StartUp Academy summer internship program, also offered at Lehigh, works to network top-performing students with early-to-mid startups in Silicon Valley so that they can adopt and benefit from entrepreneurial thinking. Das emphasized that the program is open to those of all disciplines, not just business majors, for the first time this year.
“We're going to have students who are from arts and history and might have no intention of starting a business,” Das said, “but at the same time, they want to know what entrepreneurship is about.”
Finding a Community beyond the research
Upon arrival in Bethlehem, Das was pleasantly surprised to learn that Lehigh University offered a heavy amount of support and resources not only in the academic realm, but also for cultural adjustment.
The sense of community at Lehigh pleasantly shocked her as she stepped on campus for the first time.
“Everyone is trying to help you in some way or the other,” Das said. “Even the vice provost. People here make you feel at home, in spite of being so many miles away from home. Everyone reaches out and asks, ‘How are you settling? Is there anything else we can do?’”
Das said that the overwhelming amount of support at Lehigh surprised her because she has been to a lot of universities in pursuit of her studies, such as the National University of Singapore and many Indian universities, but never expected this.
The diversity at Lehigh also amazed her. Regardless of political tensions, she noticed it had zero effect on the closeness and comradery of international students and scholars.
“We have a lot of border tensions with China and Pakistan,” Das said of her home country. “And here at Lehigh, all of us are friends, it doesn't matter which country you are from… Lehigh kind of brings people together. So at Lehigh, you are just Mountain Hawks. You're gonna be together.”
Das highly encourages international students and scholars to attend events to meet people, find commonalities and appreciate differences. She believes campus events are a great way to grow your network while deconstructing barriers the world has built. The Global Union, for example, hosts events that introduce attendees to diverse cultures, food, traditions and norms, Das said, which is an opportunity to make friends.
“It's kind of super easy once you get there, so my advice would be get more involved with every event that's happening in the campus,” Das said.
Das recommends that international students begin their exposure outside of their home country by engaging with the Lehigh experience.
“I've said it before, it makes you feel at home. So you're not going to be incredibly homesick, or you're not going to miss home, because you're going to have a community here that you can call your own.”