Sujata Kumar has never been your average student. Not as a young lady in India or as a back-to-school adult in central New Jersey over the last six years. By year’s end she will become one of the first graduates in the state to earn a master’s of business and science (MBS) degree from Rutgers, and she will have steamrolled her way to another goal, completing an intensive 43-credit program in a span of 16 months. For her the journey is about believing in yourself, having the right outlook, continuing to learn, and embracing what the world offers, no matter the format in which opportunities have come to her.
Kumar’s life has taken her through more than just classrooms. She has sampled international travel, moved across the globe, built a new life in New Jersey while raising four children, and pursued five different degree programs, three in the Garden State.
Kumar, who lives in West Windsor, even started her own interior design/remodeling business, Tower Consultancy, in 2008, just before the brunt of the recession. But her passion is to work in the biotech industry, and that has taken priority in the last five years.
“While running my business I always knew science research was where my heart was, so I wanted to go back to school,” Kumar says. “I began looking at degrees I could do in a short time, because I had spent two to three years building the business. I saw the Rutgers MBS and said ‘Oh my God, it could be just for me’ because I had business experience and I’ve always loved science. What better thing could I get?” she says.
Rutgers’ MBS, now in its second year, has 20 different concentrations for thos eseeking a professional master’s in science. Getting in requires a bachelor’s degree in a science major, good GRE scores, an undergraduate grade point average of at least 3.0, three letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. There are more than 200 students in the program. Kumar’s path toward neuroscience costs her $839 per credit for her 43-credit degree. That adds up to a little more than $36,000.
The MBS is far from Kumar’s first stab at college as an adult. She earned a bachelor’s in science from Rider in 2007 and took graduate-level courses at Rutgers in 2007 and 2008. Her MBS program fuses together a science curriculum offering concentrations in biotechnology, chemistry, and drug development with traditional businesses school fare in management, marketing, finance, and technology courses. In July Kumar completed a class in intellectual property, which she says introduced her and her classmates (many of whom work in biotech and drug discovery) to the protection of patents under IP law.
“Even if you’re a scientist you should know the impact of what you’re doing because everything has an effect,” she says. “Discoveries take a long time, and IP has a lot of implications for the use of products.”
Kumar took the condensed-schedule summer course together with a three-credit internship at Neurotez Inc., a biotech company located within the 46,000-square-foot CCIT (Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies) building, a biotech incubator at 675 Route 1 in North Brunswick.
Neurotez studies treatments for degenerative disorders of the central nervous system. Its concentration, currently in the clinical trial stage, is a product to treat Alzheimer’s. Kumar’s responsibilities mainly involve market research, and each time she goes to work she’s filled with optimism — her long-term interest is neuroscience research and finding ways to help people through this field.
Making time for all her pursuits and responsibilities has been a real challenge, but one that she seems to have overcome. The business, the internship, her various classes, and household work made her decide to keep three different bags handy in order to stay organized.
There is a considerable gap in age between Kumar’s oldest child, who is currently interning with NASA and studying for an advanced degree of her own, and her second oldest, a teenager. However Kumar’s three younger children are just three years apart.
Kumar’s husband, who is supportive of his wife’s educational interests, has worked in New York seven days a week for close to two decades. As she has dedicated 100 percent of her efforts first to the children and now her business and academics, he has soldiered on as the main provider through all circumstances, leaving little time to be in charge of the kids. Kumar has always managed her home team, but she made changes to focus on studying.
After making the decision to invest her time and pursue a college education, she sat down with all her kids, two boys and two girls, and outlined the things they would need to do at home, plus her own time constraints, availability, and course load. She even brought them the idea of a shared homework time. Kumar says this encouraged her kids to not only know when to seek mom’s guidance, but to turn to each other for help, work as a team, and be prepared for the unexpected.
“Shared responsibility is important,” she says. “They know who is supposed to do what, even if I’m not there, and if something happens they have to take care of each other. Or, they know what to do if I’m late.”
When needed, Kumar’s oldest offers some substitute-mom support, despite being out of the house at NASA. She lives in Hoboken, but if a need arises and mom is mired in her coursework, business projects, or the duties of her internship, the younger siblings know to call on their big sister.
In effect Kumar has already carried on a family legacy, passing down female leadership within the family unit and in one’s professional endeavors.
Kumar grew up in the Indian state of Madya Pradesh under the tutelage of a trailblazer: her mother, who completed a Ph.D. at age 40 and taught Hindi at the university level until her death. Kumar drew inspiration from her mother, which meant growing up with a different mentality than her female peers in the 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s.
“Young ladies in India were not nearly as career-driven and integrated into the workforce as they are today, aspiring to serious professions that were once only for men,” she says. “My mother never raised me like traditional Indian girls.”
Kumar’s mother was brazen and outgoing. She gave lectures and taught in front of large classes in universities, including her daughter’s college. One time when Kumar was a college freshman she was settling in for a Hindi class lecture and the professor was absent that day. Her fellow students were surprised when a new substitute showed up to teach the day’s lesson, but no one was as in awe as Kumar was with the substitute, who turned out to be her mom.
“She started asking students in the class to speak up with ideas on a topic. Then she looked around, saw me, called me out and said, with a smile, ‘I know you have something to add,’” she says.
Kumar’s maternal grandfather and great grandfather were both great scientists, she says, while her grandmother completed a college degree after the age of 50 — rarity among Indian women in the mid-20th century and even today .
Another factor in Kumar’s upbringing is a strong will fueled by her experience in athletics. Kumar wasn’t held to being a tidy, prim-and-proper little girl. She did tomboy things, especially by India’s standards. She often took to climbing trees to pick fruits that are unavailable in America (and she misses them). At school she excelled in math and science, but she also competed in sports and racked up several accolades for athletics.
In India during her childhood hardly any female athletic stars on Kumar’s level existed in any one sport, let alone those playing multiple sports. She set a new bar in every sport she tried and gained encouragement to try more through this early success.
Kumar was a captain of collegiate teams in basketball and cricket, ultimately being selected for national competitions. She also played badminton and ran 100-meter races. The accomplished athlete was propelled by a positive, can-do attitude, and strength through perseverance.
Kumar’s childhood involved much moving around as well. Her father was a judge. In India, since the position serves a governmental job, the family moved many times, all within the state of Madhya Pradesh. Kumar had to attend whichever school was in the vicinity at the time, sometimes leaving a class and entering new ones in the middle of a school year.
She attended Bhopal University in her home state and earned a bachelor’s in science (similar to a pre-med major in America), and concentrated on genetics. After being selected as an academic representative, Kumar was also chosen to play in national competitions in basketball.
At one point she envisioned the next few years spent playing sports on a professional level, although it was virtually unheard of for females in India in the 1980s. It wasn’t meant to be for Kumar, and neither was her childhood dream of becoming a doctor.
In an ambitious turn towards her father’s profession, Kumar entered law school at Bhopal University and completed one year of a J.D. program.
Unexpectedly, that first year after earning her bachelor’s would also be her last as a bachelorette. Kumar soon married a ship captain, and the newlyweds would literally sail their way through the last seven years of the 1980s.
Leaving behind career opportunities in law and athletics was a tough reality for Kumar, but her consolation prize was to set sail on the high seas. Kumar was granted permission to accompany her husband, who was working for an Indian cargo and container shipping line, to sail with him around the globe. Kumar fondly recalls stops in Singapore, Thailand, China, and the Philippines on routes through the South China Sea and through the Suez Canal to Italy, Egypt, Mogadishu, Mozambique, and Dar es Salaam.
Eventually her husband took a job with a British shipping company, opening up yet more routes. He also captained passenger ships and oil tankers for a while. It wasn’t unusual to be stationed at a port city for several weeks or even a month, and Kumar learned much from absorbing the various cultures and people of each place — even if she never did get to visit Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Life on board a container ship was strenuous. Kumar says that for nearly two years at a time the voyages continued from country to country — and the young family returned home for perhaps a month within that period. While Kumar and her husband saw precious little of their home nation, they did get to sample their current one. Many trips to U.S. and Canadian destinations were part of the picture — through the Panama Canal to the West Coast, and along the Atlantic seaboard to Philadelphia and the southern shipping hub of Savannah, Georgia. When her husband had deliveries related to the oil industry the couple would stop in Houston and other southern Texas ports.
After seven years at sea, the time came to choose a place to live. “We could have settled anywhere,” Kumar says. They settled on New York because of the educational opportunity Kumar’s husband would pursue. In 1990 the Kumars started life anew in Jersey City.
Kumar worked in payroll and receivables, tallying up journal entries and balancing books through a general ledger. The upper-level personnel worked mainly with accounting software such as QuickBooks, and Kumar was given the opportunity to learn under her boss. In the broader view she gained insight into how businesses operate and manage their finances. All of this came into play when she started her own business three years ago.
As a temp Kumar assumed many responsibilities, and she soon worked her way up to a full-time position as an accountant. Kumar told her employer that she would learn quickly and sure enough she made good on that promise.
“I learned all the basics which I never had a chance to learn before,” she says. “This was a new life, and I think I led a protected life in India, far different from over here. I finally learned what the real world was like and it was disappointing at times. I thought we would never have to struggle, but we worked hard and never shied away from it,” she says.
The family lived in Jersey City for about 10 years and ultimately moved to West Windsor in 2000. Education, as it was in the Jersey City move, became “the only real criteria” for moving to West Windsor. The Kumars wanted their children to attend good schools.
After moving to West Windsor Kumar dedicated all of her time to raising her children. She became a PTO mom, participating in every activity, bake sale, and event and often taking the lead in several school causes.
As a full-time mom Kumar also took a new interest in her religion. She started attending and volunteering at the Radha Krishna temple in Lawrenceville, which opened in 2001. Kumar says her family wasn’t very religious growing up but she wanted to be more involved in her faith for a few personal reasons. Her prime motivation was for her kids. With an all-American upbringing ahead of them, Kumar wanted to give her children a sense of their culture and ancestry. Kumar says the whole family has visited India only once, in 2002.
In 2006, when the youngest of her children entered kindergarten, the time came for Kumar to focus on her career goals again. She sought to study science once again, and because 20 years had passed since she earned her bachelor’s in India, Kumar recognized the need to be up on the latest developments and embraced the future of science education. She entered Rider University to study for a bachelor’s program with an option to complete it in one year’s time if she went at bullet speed. Kumar took on the maximum course load of six classes per semester, and completed her degree in science, with a concentration on neuroscience.
“My Rider education was a personal challenge because I thought that if I had to study, I had to be in line with current science,” she says. “I really tested myself to see whether I still had these skills or not.”
By the spring of 2008 Kumar had completed three classes in her first year of graduate studies in neuroscience at Rutgers. While taking the initial courses at Rutgers, Kumar started working as an assistant in one of UMDMJ’s laboratories. There, for the first time, she learned about the lab procedures in America.
Timing, however, interfered with her degree course, just as it did with her law studies a quarter century earlier. The recession hit, took its toll, and a change of direction was required. Although she was unable to continue with the neuroscience program, another opportunity lay in wait.
Kumar had discussed home and office interior design projects with her colleagues. Using the business skills she had acquired from her accounting experience and studies, she saw a chance to fill a need. Confidence in her abilities let her business take off.
“Once I started off I got all sorts of calls from people who new me and others who had all sorts of jobs they were looking to get done,” she says. “I was doing things related to design and decor and they asked me to remodel. I said “OK, let me try.’ Then we did it,” she says.
Kumar says that she has never felt any different from other students in college classes, whether as the young daughter of the instructor back in India, as an adult and mom of four in undergraduate classes, or as a small business owner in the MBS program.
At her core, Kumar sees opportunities, plans the way, and takes action swiftly. She doesn’t rely on smartphones, iPads, or any technological innovation to keep track of all her goings on. She writes things down on her wall calendar at home.
“Being a mother I have learned endurance,” she says. “You know that you have only so many hours in the day and this is the schedule ahead.”