A conversation with Dr. Rajiv Shah

Photo by Alex Hamilton Chan

Photo by Alex Hamilton Chan

Hi everyone! I wanted to post a few words about a spur of the moment interview I had with Dr. Rajiv Shah. For those of you who missed out on his amazing talk on April 5th at MIT, Dr. Shah is the administrator of USAID and has done remarkable things in Washington and around the world (his CV is too incredible to summarize in a few words). Towards the end of his speech I realized it might be cool to get a chance to speak to him, so I walked with him and his “posse” to his car and asked him a couple questions on the fly (in my haste and, to a certain extent, fear of the federal government, I didn’t whip out my iPhone or ask someone for a recorder, so unfortunately this isn’t a transcript).

Question 1: You said in your speech that you’re already very impressed with what MIT is doing on several levels with ID and research and technology. But what more would you like to see in the future, 10 years down the road, with IDEAS, Global Challenge, MIT, etc?

Dr. Shah emphasized the need for collaboration between colleges and universities, and especially he called for a “network of institutions to come together.” He believed that, “MIT is setting a standard, and colleges like Berkeley are doing good work,” but there is certainly a need for more unification. During his talk, and even speaking to him afterwards, he made it clear that he admired the technology and innovation-driven culture of MIT and its contributions to international development. He concluded by saying that “the passion and desire is so great,” at schools like MIT but ultimately, “we need portals inviting students to come together.”

Question 2: Clearly students are getting involved but research for technologies makes a difference ten years down the road. Do you have any advice or suggestions for students who want to make a more immediate impact or affect policy decisions in Washington?

I asked this question because he mentioned during his talk that technology will ultimately “bend the curve,” or turn a flat and linear growth trend into a near-exponential one. But he also mentioned the flip-side of bureaucratic red tape and the debate in Washington. His immediate advice to students is to:

“just get involved and be loud!”

He also indicated that, “students have helped shape out our national priorities.” And finally he concluded with a recommendation that students “get experience abroad” by studying and working. He believes that students have a lot to say and he saw this even as a student at Penn.

His closing remark prompted me to ask my last question.

Question 3: What kinds of changes have you seen since you were an undergrad or a doctoral student and what do you think about these changes?

He was generally very impressed and thrilled with the changes that have come about in the last few years (he was in grad school much more recently than one might guess by looking at his CV).

“Twenty years ago, to find development experts, you’d go to USAID, and that’d basically be it. Now you have, big corporations like PEPSICo, organizations like the Gates Foundation, and garage inventors like you find here at MIT.”

Overall, he just wants MIT to stay passionate, stay interested, and stay involved. I’d finally just like to thank him for speaking and tell all the people reading to get excited for the next month. In true MIT fashion, MIT150+IDEAS+Global Challenge=an awesome ride!

2 Responses to “A conversation with Dr. Rajiv Shah”


  • Dr. Shah’s point emphasizing the need for higher academic institutions to come together is taken seriously by the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program: In fact, next week at Northeastern University we are co-hosting the Second Bernard M. Gordon Engineering Leadership Meeting with eight other institutions across North America.

    The purpose of the meeting is to expand the domain of engineering leadership education by sharing compatible best practices, case studies, and materials.

    In addition to engineering leadership programs at Northeastern University and MIT, programs from Tufts University, UC-San Diego, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Penn State University, University of Florida, Iowa State University, and the University of Toronto will attend the event.

    The meeting will feature a panel of students from NU, MIT, Tufts University, UCSD and Penn State University who will share their program experiences and provide feedback related to its relevance in industry.

    Breakout sessions will include in-depth discussions about specific practical and pedagogical approaches each program is taking to advance engineering leadership at their respective institution and beyond.

  • That’s good info – thanks Bruce! Do you have some links you might share with readers, and can you reflect a bit on how you’ve seen Gordon intersect with international development?

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