Alumnus Shares Lessons

At one time, numbers scared him, admits Murli Buluswar, who struggled with math in the regimented learning environment of junior high and high school. But he overcame that fear "one brick at a time," he said Feb. 5 at Bluffton University, en route to a bachelor’s degree in economics from Bluffton, a master’s degree in economics and statistics from Auburn University and now, the position of chief science officer for AIG Property Casualty.

Delivering the annual Presidential Leadership Lecture on campus, the 1991 Bluffton graduate said "it's ironic that here I am, leading a team of data scientists whose sole responsibility is to use data to make better decisions in one of the biggest companies in the world."

Buluswar, who also holds a MBA from the University of Chicago, added that life struggles have taught him "that nothing you do is permanent." His story illustrated one of what he called "the five axioms that have shaped my belief system"—resilience, along with confidence, creativity, optimism and social intelligence.

He cited the late Steve Jobs as an example of the power of both resilience and confidence. He noted that Jobs dropped out of college and went through lean times—including being fired from Apple, the company he had helped found—before he "changed the world" through his technological innovations.

Jobs continued to believe in himself and those innovations, including the iPad, resisting negative forces that would have had him walk away from such a thing as a computer without a keyboard, Buluswar said.

Jobs persevered "because he believed in creating a vision for himself," the speaker told his largely student audience. "Those who have really made a huge impact ... gave themselves room to visualize, to imagine," he added later.

Buluswar defined creativity as trying to understand the world through a different lens. He and his team at AIG are attempting to do that as they deal with the question of how to make the world safer, he said.

AIG insures large, commercial trucking fleets. Having learned that most tractor-trailer accidents are caused by driver fatigue induced by vibration that creates malaise, and greater risk, Buluswar and his colleagues have reached out to a firm working on reducing that vibration and related noise. They are working together to build seat cushions that absorb it and, as a result, also with long-haul truckers to measure how their fatigue, and accident rates, may be declining, he said.

Buluswar, a former vice president at Farmers Insurance, told the students that college gives them a foundation and an introduction to concepts. After graduation, though, they will have to "connect the dots" differently, giving themselves room to be creative and curious, he said.

One of his lasting memories of Bluffton, he recalled, was how his economics professors—Dr. Sally Weaver Sommer, now vice president and dean of academic affairs, and Dr. Ronald Friesen, now a professor emeritus—would choose a headline from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times and ask their students to apply concepts they had learned in class to solve the problem outlined in the headline. They challenged him and his peers to expand their thinking, for which he remains grateful, he said.

Also as part of his five-point "recipe for success," Buluswar made a case for social intelligence—connecting what one knows to the surrounding world, with emphasis on empathy without judgment—and for optimism.

Noting that knowledge and opportunity are infinite, he urged his listeners to be ready for the opportunities that come their way, and to look for and find the good in the world around them. He suggested, too, that they keep thinking about the future and how they can bring about positive change.

"If you're not looking ahead, odds are you're not going to be in control of your destiny," Buluswar said.

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Bluffton public relations, 2/6/13