Professor creates opportunities for future leaders

Pierson Cepeda, Assistant Web & Social Media Manager


As a professor of management in the College of Business Administration (CoBA), Dr. Rajnandini (Raj) Pillai has been a passionate faculty member at CSUSM for almost 18 years, developing innovative ways teach leadership.

Originally from Mumbai, Dr. Pillai moved to Buffalo, New York to earn a doctorate in organizational behavior from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Before moving to New York, Dr. Pillai attended an orientation for foreign students at the United States Information Services in Mumbai that focused on adjusting to life in the US.

“I was told by an American psychologist that it would be very different (from India) in the US and friendships that I made in my doctoral program would not last beyond Buffalo. Of course like all general stereotypes, that proved to be not true for everyone.”

Although Dr. Pillai went through an adjustment period, she developed bonds during her time in Buffalo that remain strong today.

“I still get Christmas cards from friends in Buffalo although I have not seen them for several years. I am also still in touch with some of my fellow doctoral students who are now professors around the world.”

As she was required to teach under her doctoral program, Dr. Pillai developed a passion for teaching that remains the same until this day. Initially, however, she was anxious about her first teaching assignment.

“ I had never taught before and certainly not presented in a foreign country to foreign students! I wondered how I would be received by a class of 50 undergraduate students in Buffalo.”

It wasn’t until she began teaching that she found herself to be a natural. Her enthusiasm was infectious for her students and their excitement fueled her passion.

At CSUSM, she feels that she owes a responsibility to each new group of students to be as enthusiastic about her subject as she was when she first started teaching.

A small sample of different teaching methods she utilizes include using current events to inform her topics on leadership, new interactive assignments for each group, and exercises that help students become more mindful. She has just started using contemplative pedagogy in her classroom as a result of collaborating with a few faculty members across various disciplines as a Faculty Learning Community.

Dr. Pillai treasures student feedback and enjoys celebrating their accomplishments at commencement every year and sometimes invites former students, who have become business leaders, back as guest speakers for her classes.

She also occasionally receives letters from her international students that experience the beneficial effects of her teaching as they return home.

During her tenure, she has been recognized for the merit of her work. In the 2010-2011 academic year, she received the Harry E. Brakebill Distinguished Professor Award, the highest faculty distinction at CSUSM.

“It was one of the many high points of my career here at CSUSM. I particularly enjoyed addressing the Spring Assembly and sharing my journey with my colleagues at the university.”

Dr. Pillai is a founding member and executive director of the Center for Leadership Innovation and Mentorship Building (CLIMB), where she has helped create programs meant to foster leadership in students and connect them with business leaders in the community.

In the Executive’s Chair, one of the CLIMB programs, welcomes business leaders as guest speakers. Past speakers include Dr. Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm, Jerry Sanders, former Mayor of San Diego and Judi Missett, CEO of Jazzercise. These programs take place every Tuesday in Markstein Hall 125 from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. and are open to the public. More CLIMB programs can be found online at

Dr. Pillai said leadership is most effective when leaders can be trusted and are perceived to be fair and just. She recognizes that leadership styles differ across cultures and focuses her research on change oriented leadership and cultural differences in leadership behaviors.
“I have always believed that leadership can make a difference. A great vision and an ability to execute it in a manner that improves the world around you translates across cultures.”