To celebrate his 80th birthday, Jagdish Sheth‘s family collected at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth the evening of Sept. 1.
“Celebrating birthdays of 80-year-olds is an Indian tradition,” Rajen Sheth, Professor Sheth’s son, told Global Atlanta. “Not all Indians make it to that age.”
Sheth family members traveled from both near and far to attend the event, which became “super-sized,” in Rajen Sheth’s view, in honor of the Charles H. Kellstadt professor of marketing at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University.
Even Mr. Kellstadt, the former chairman of chief executive of Sears, Roebuck & Co. who endowed Professor Sheth’s chair at the Goizueta school and who died in 1975 the year after the Sears Tower was completed in Chicago as the tallest building in the world, might have been surprised by the reach of the Sheth family. Aside from the Atlanta area, they came from Europe, South America and even Singapore, to celebrate.
But the core 40 family members were just the initial count of what may be termed as Professor Sheth’s larger family that includes his academic peers, his clients, his former students and his many acquaintances who have been drawn to his personal magic.
“Dad draws from so many categories,” Rajen Sheth said. “He thinks in ways that most people don’t and he has done so consistently over so many years. People ask what is he going to be thinking about next. He crystalizes ideas, explains frameworks and lays out the future in a way that few do effectively.”
The evening event was a sight to behold with 600 guests streaming in to greet their old friend, to get their photo taken with him and to recall shared experiences.
Amidst the flashes of smart phones and cameras taking photos were the video cameras alert to the festive atmosphere taking place around him in what was appropriately called the Infinite Energy Center.
They also shared among themselves their personal experiences with the professor as they munched their way through a welcoming smorgasbord of Indian food including steamed chick pea flour topped with green chili and coconut, creamy lentil and Panang vegetable curries among many others.
Whatever the source of Professor Sheth’s energy, be it his fascination with human psychology, his love of work or his Jain religion, it has been a wonder to his family members and friends.
“He doesn’t play golf. His pastime is his work, Rajen Sheth said. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy life or go to the movies. But work is a priority. Every morning, even during vacations, by 7 a.m. he is dressed, fresh and ready to start the day. And in the evening, after a long day of work, he heads to his office at home to write, to study or to think.”
Rajen Sheth, as with many others, wonder how he can lecture in India throughout a day, return to Atlanta and be ready to go again without missing a beat. “He doesn’t experience jet lag,” Rajen Sheth added.
Jagdish Sheth’s life began in Burma (now Myanmar) where his father had migrated to set up a business as a rice merchant. In the wake of the Japanese invasion in 1941, the family emigrated to Madras (now Chennai), India, when he was a toddler, the youngest of six children including three brothers and three sisters, in one of the last boats headed out.
Upon his father’s death, his eldest brother became the family leader and launched a jewelry business. Meanwhile the young Jag excelled at school. According to Rajen Sheth, on one exam taken by 90,000 other students, he scored the highest of them all.
The second oldest brother, who eventually became a teacher, encouraged his younger brother’s studies. Eventually the future Emory professor set his sights on an education in the U.S., ostensibly so he could learn to help his eldest brother further develop the family company which was becoming successful with the manufacture of specialized jewelry boxes.
He chose the University of Pittsburgh because it required only 11 months of attendance to acquire a master’s degree in business, but it was there that he became fascinated consumer psychology and marketing and launched his professional career by developing his “Theory of Buyer Behavior,” a book of that title that he co-authored with his mentor Professor John A. Howard.
Despite the hundreds of scholarly papers and 40 books that he has written since then, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor or willingness to join his grandchildren in fun. In a videoed recollection by his daughter, Professor Reshma Shah, who also teaches at the Goizueta school, recalled that as a young child she had asked him if he would play a game in which she switched roles with him being the child and she being the professor. He agreed to do so, she recalled, and then he didn’t stop talking.
While immediate family members provided warm hearted accounts of their lives with the professor, heavyweights also weighed in.
For instance, Azim Premji, the Indian business tycoon and philanthropist who is the chairman of Wipro Limited and is informally known as the ‘Czar’ of the Indian information technology business, sent a video congratulating Professor Sheth for his accomplishments, adding that he looked forward to seeing him during his next visit to India. Professor Sheth served on Wipro’s board of directors for more than a decade and played an influential role in the company’s expansion to Atlanta.
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Indian conglomerate that operates in more than a dozen industries, in his video toasted the professor with a raised glass of red wine.
The accolades also poured in from former President Jimmy Carter and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who sent written accolades that were displayed with the many certificates of honors that he has accumulated over the years.
“He has been awarded every lifetime achievement award in the field of marketing,” Rajen Sheth said. He also acknowledged the relationships that his father has developed with Mr. Modi while visiting India or with Mr. Carter given their mutual interest in Emory University.
In addition to racking up professional honors and developing personal relationships, the professor also has focused on “giving back” through the Sheth Foundation and the Sheth Family Foundation.
According to Rajen Sheth, the Sheth Foundation has primarily focused on promoting marketing research and academic initiatives, while the Sheth Family Foundation has been supportive of education, wellness and sustainability.
Following a series of dance and vocal performances, congratulatory remarks, a family skit and a cake cutting accompanied by a speech by the professor in which he urged everyone to reach their full potential, it was getting closer to midnight and time for everyone to go home.
What would the family do for an encore? Rajen Sheth said that the birthday celebration in the United States had been fitting and accomplished successfully. “But, yes, there are other celebrations scheduled in India when he goes there in January in no less than six different cities.”
For Professor Sheth’s official website, click here.