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Office Hours

An Economics Sleuth

From inequities in India to inefficiences in the U.S., Kankana Mukherjee delves into the mysteries of business economics.

Kankana Mukherjee

Kankana Mukherjee.  Photo: Webb Chappell

By Donna Coco

In a small town named Shillong in the green hills of northeast India, Kankana Mukherjee grew up wondering about the economic differences between her beloved home and the West. “My childhood was very beautiful, and we had the privilege of going to good schools and colleges because they were run by missionaries from the West,” she says. At the same time, India was not as developed as it is today, so even though her family was considered middle class, the standard of living was starkly different from the affluence she observed in Western countries. “I felt like, I am going to a good school. We are doing all the right things. Why are there these differences?” she says.

An inquisitive child, Mukherjee also found herself drawn to data and numbers. “I always wanted to support my understanding of things with data,” she says. To earn pocket money in high school, she tutored the younger neighborhood kids in mathematics. “I liked to teach because I thought I could explain well,” she says, “and I found that I was learning in the process.”

So when college came around, studying quantitative economics was a natural choice, she says. Now an associate professor of economics at Babson, Mukherjee earned three degrees in economics—a BS, MS, and MPhil (master of philosophy)—from a university near her hometown. After finishing her MPhil, Mukherjee married, moved to Delhi, and took a government job with the Ministry of Agriculture, where she worked for two years. She wanted to serve her country, she says, and better understand its economy, which at the time was still largely agriculture based. But the job didn’t challenge her intellectually, being less about research and more centered on bureaucratic tasks. “I realized a lot of the cutting-edge methods for economics research were coming from the U.S.,” she says, “so I knew to really empower myself that I’d want to study there.”

Mukherjee and her husband, an engineer, also had started a family, and they wanted their son to have access to the education and opportunities offered in the West. Together they decided to apply to the University of Connecticut, Mukherjee to earn a master’s and PhD in economics, her husband a master’s in engineering. Both were accepted, but Mukherjee came to the U.S. first in 1990, bringing her toddler son. Finances, responsibilities, and sheer logistics didn’t allow her husband to follow until several years later.

Arriving at UConn, Mukherjee found that families were not allowed to live on campus, so she rented an apartment nearby. With no license, she and her son had to take buses everywhere. Indian restaurants didn’t exist in her area, and she couldn’t find the ingredients she needed for Indian dishes at the local grocery stores. Classical Indian music, which was a huge part of her life back home, was not accessible via the Internet as it is today. “I missed Indian food, Indian music. But my biggest culture shock was suddenly a lack of social and family support. When I first came, I felt like I was in the middle of an ocean,” she says, “and I didn’t know anybody.”

However, that quickly changed. Mukherjee befriended other foreign students, with whom she felt a common bond. The professors were encouraging and helpful, understanding the constraints she faced raising her son by herself. During meetings, friends would pitch in and take care of her son. “Soon a bond developed so closely with my friends that the culture shock which was there disappeared,” she says.

Excitement about her studies and the ability to delve more deeply into research helped with the transition as well. “For me, research is like solving a mystery,” she says. “Even from childhood, I see a problem and I want to find my own way of solving it. So my research involves thinking of a question and then finding the data that I need. In the process, you unravel that mystery. Often, you find the way you were proceeding didn’t lead to the right answer. So you come up with different iterations that ultimately lead you to solving the mystery. I find that very exciting.”

Mukherjee chose to focus her research on how firms in a given industry can operate more efficiently, and she describes her approach as an intersection of economics and operations research. Using data analysis, she creates benchmarks that show which firms are seemingly the most efficient. “But now here are the interesting questions,” she says. “Maybe certain things are specific to my organization or the way we operate or the way we procure things. We also may be under different regulatory conditions than the other firms, and as a result I’m unable to achieve that efficiency. Unraveling what leads to differences in efficiency can inform policymaking and improve overall productivity.”

Mukherjee also knew that she wanted to be a professor. The profession would allow her to perform research and teach, the two of which she considers intertwined. “One leads to the other, you know?” she says. “You have to raise the most interesting and pertinent questions in research. Those questions often come from discussions with others—colleagues, students. So I love teaching.”

Having arrived at Babson in 2009, she now teaches several economics courses, sharing her knowledge and curiosity with undergraduate and graduate students while continuing her research. “I was always interested in Babson,” she says, wanting to work for a college that embraces cross-disciplinary, global research. “There is no other place like it.”

Although Mukherjee has been living in the U.S. for almost 25 years now, she hasn’t severed her ties to India. Much of her current research is focusing on industries there. As the country grows economically, she’s analyzing how disparate policies among the states are leading to unbalanced growth. She’s also interested in energy inefficiencies in manufacturing. “It leads not only to an inoptimal cost structure, but it also is not environmentally sustainable,” she says. And then there is family. Her in-laws live in Delhi, and her father still lives in Shillong. So despite the many long hours of travel, Mukherjee goes back once a year. “Shillong is always like a dream for me,” she says. “It is a very beautiful place.”