Born and raised in the small, remote village of Kalpathy, India, Dheeraj Ram has quite literally come a long way.
His hometown has had a large part in shaping who he is, forming a personal commitment to work hard and channel his determination toward reaching his goals.
“Competition really drives me, both externally and internally,” says Ram, “but more so from an internal standpoint.”
That motivation for bettering himself first led him seven years ago 1,700 miles north of his home to Mahindra United World College, where he would attend high school at the Pune, India, location of United World College’s 18 global high schools. When it was time for his next step, he decided to come to the U.S. to study at UVA.
He took on a double major, studying Economics and Statistics, and rounded out his College coursework with a minor in Leadership at McIntire. It was a choice that was quite unexpected for him, but one that would greatly contribute to his professional and interpersonal skills—and is still proving to be a boon to him in his first post-University job.
Fortitude and Sacrifice
Ram counts himself “incredibly fortunate and privileged” for a support system that has helped him along his journey.
He’s had the benefit of constant positive reinforcement and guidance from his family in India, and all of the teachers, professors, and close friends he’s made along the way. But make no mistake—it hasn’t been an easy path.
“Growing up, we did not even have running water for days on end due to severe summers and water shortages,” he recalls. But even at a great distance, his family has helped him to keep moving forward.
“My mother, father, and sister have been instrumental in instilling in me a sense of being milestone-driven, learning new life lessons, and leaving a positive impact on the institutions and places that I attend and live in,” Ram says. His successes have come at a price—one of personal sacrifice.
He recalls the expenses and challenging lengths required to travel back home every year, and how the pandemic led to being prevented from attending his sister’s wedding. “I have missed countless cultural festivals, family occasions, and weddings, both within the family and of friends,” he says, explaining that his absence from these milestone events has been cause for deep reflection. “It is an echoing reminder that I need to continue to persevere, learn from my personal and professional opportunities, and focus on my holistic development as a mark of attaining justice for these sacrifices. When I win, everyone who has helped me wins too,” he says emphatically.
The Practical Aspects of Leading
One vital lesson that Ram was taught repeatedly over the years concerns knowledge: In order for it to be worthwhile, it must be applied to daily life.
“While there are many intelligent economists, historians, statisticians, and other experts in the world, there is a certain lack of representation of these intellectual minds when it comes to decision-making,” Ram points out, explaining that challenging global situations like the pandemic require more leaders ready to overcome the issues at hand.
He began thinking about the subject in the spring 2020 semester, when he took Leadership Across the Disciplines with McIntire Professor Jeffrey Lovelace. He credits Lovelace’s own leadership experiences that he shared with the class for piquing his interest in the subject. Ram saw how leaders play crucial roles in creating consensus, analyzing complex situations, and presenting their views to diverse audiences.
“As a person who is passionate about humanitarian affairs with an economics and statistics background, I believe demonstrating my leadership abilities would be crucial to have a positive impact on our society,” he says, noting that the minor also helped him to understand the importance of being a team player and the value of learning from others. “Both of my majors included many classes that involved a significant amount of teamwork on assignments and projects. The Leadership Minor gave me a framework to understand how to navigate different personalities and dynamics to achieve the objectives.”
While Lovelace’s course provided a vital introduction that ranged from servant leadership to transformational leadership and other styles readily adaptable to a variety of situations, former McIntire Professor Christina Black’s Persuasion and Influence course and McIntire Professor Paul Seaborn’s Leadership Practicum were also highlights of the program for Ram.
“[Professor Black’s] class was particularly useful in my stint as one of Executive Board members of Bharatiya Council, a CIO at UVA launched in 2019 by me and my friends to showcase, represent, and celebrate Indian customs and culture in an authentic manner,” he says. “It helped me express my personality and what I stood for through a leadership style.”
Regarding Seaborn’s class, he enjoyed focusing on a client to analyze their leadership strategies as well as learning about leadership from former deans and current CEOs leading major firms across industries.
While studying in the Leadership Minor, Ram had the opportunity to put many of the strategies into practice as he was serving as a Resident Adviser and Senior Resident.
“My three years of student leadership was also riddled with collective challenges,” he says, referencing the pandemic and having to pivot in order to lead virtually. “What stayed constant was the importance of a nuanced personability and authenticity in the role. Growth comes from places of discomfort. While I wish that I could have learned these lessons in more favorable circumstances, a significant part of me also believes that I would not have appreciated them if not for the discomfort that I experienced.”
He believes that a hallmark of being an effective leader is reflected in followers who carry forward the ethics, behavioral standards, and direction of the leader—eventually putting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves. “In addition to being a role model, it is crucial to be a motivator and cater to individual aspirations,” he says, pointing out that as an RA charged with a leadership role for 24 UVA students, he understood that it was necessary to be an engaged participant of the group and to interact with individuals to foster trust. “Not only was I making myself more available and establishing my presence in the hall, I was also involving myself in their daily lives by joining in on streaming matches and video games and having deep conversations into the night,” he says.
As a result of his efforts, Ram was delighted to see four of his residents follow his lead in the following academic year: “I feel fortunate and grateful to have worked with residents who were conducive to my leadership style and became leaders themselves.”
A Future Leader
Now living and working in Washington, DC, as an Associate at Berkeley Research Group (BRG), Ram says his new life in another new town is the latest chance to forge his future from “a blank new canvas.”
While he’s been given the opportunity to manage a workstream, onboard a new employee, internally present on multiple occasions, and lead committee events and meetings, he has been honing his presentation skills that he learned in the Leadership Minor to prepare for the time when he’ll be presenting to external clients and leading larger initiatives at the firm.
“The practicality of the Leadership Minor attracted me the most, and knowing how to lead in today’s world is a crucial quality,” Ram says. “It helped me understand myself through active and consistent reflection but also taught me how to express my leadership style. Thus, I feel that the minor guided me to chart out a path for personal and professional development across my involvement outside classes at UVA and also prepared me for the world outside college by teaching me ways to carry myself. I think any undergrad who is remotely interested in either learning about leadership or holistic development, or just wants to become a better student leader, should pursue this minor.”
So while Ram insists the minor provided a framework to better himself, the lasting results of it run deeper: “Above all, I think the leadership minor has made me a better professional and a more compassionate person.”