A life and a career spent finding the right solutions

Radhika Kulkarni

Radhika Kulkarni ’81 Ph.D. has scaled some of the most impressive heights of the advanced analytics universe: for ten years she was Vice President of Advanced Analytics R&D at industry leader SAS Institute, Inc.; she is a Fellow and Past President of the Institute of Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS); and she has won the WORMS Award for the Advancement of Women in Operations Research and Management Science for her contributions to the advancement and recognition of women in the field.

Kulkarni has also experienced much happiness and success in her family life, with a marriage of more than forty years (and counting) to fellow Cornell ORIE Ph.D. alumni Vidyadhar Kulkarni ’80 and the birth of three sons, who have all graduated from Cornell.

It is likely Radhika Kulkarni would have risen to the top of the advanced analytics world whether or not she came to Cornell in 1977. But life truly is a stochastic process, and it is hard to say with certainty how a change in one variable early in a process affects the eventual outcome. For Kulkarni, there is one variable she can look back at and state with certainty “that—that event right there--dictated so much of my life that followed.”

After earning her B.Sc. in mathematics at Presidency College in Madras and her M.S. in mathematics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Kulkarni knew she wanted to earn a Ph.D. in the United States. She wrote to several of the top universities in America requesting a temporary waiver of the $20 application fee. She made it clear in her letters that, if admitted, she would pay the fee when she got to campus.

Cornell was the only university to agree to this deal. As a result, Cornell was the only place Kulkarni applied near the end of 1976. By the fall of 1977 she was in Ithaca, starting her doctoral studies in mathematics. And by the fall of 1978 she had switched to operations research and was working with her advisor Professor Robert Bechhofer.

“The kindness of Cornell has made a real difference in my life,” Kulkarni said. “They were willing to waive the application fee and then when I switched departments, Mathematics was willing to fund my second year, even though by then I was in OR. And then they made it possible for me to complete the final year of my doctoral program after I had moved to Georgia with my husband.”

Much later, Kulkarni discovered even one more way Cornell’s kindness had played a role in her life: her husband Vidyadhar applied to Cornell for his doctoral studies because the university had been willing to waive his $20 application fee, as well. If Cornell had not waived those $20 fees, the couple never would have met.

After earning their doctorates in successive years, Radhika and Vidyadhar had to solve the well-known academic two body problem. For them, this eventually meant a professorship in operations research at the University of North Carolina for Vidyadhar and a position with SAS as an individual contributor in the operations research department for Radhika. Before she was hired, SAS’s OR department consisted of only one person.

Over time, Kulkarni’s role at SAS expanded. She was given responsibility for growing the OR department and for rewriting SAS’s optimization software from scratch. She became senior director of advanced analytics R&D and then vice president of advanced analytics R&D—a position she held for ten years until her retirement from SAS in 2018.

Kulkarni has been active since her retirement. In fact, she said her husband jokes that the only way he knows she is retired is that she no longer gets a paycheck, even though she is as busy as ever. She served as president of INFORMS in 2022 and has also been active in efforts to increase data science literacy and expertise in college students. Kulkarni serves on the Cornell ORIE Advisory Council, where her biography notes, “She also seeks to have a large impact across many different departments, schools, and colleges and to inspire inter-disciplinary collaboration. Such collaboration is a key requirement for success in finding the right solution for critical business problems.”

In keeping with the ideas of collaboration and having a wide impact, Kulkarni’s advice to current ORIE students and recent graduates is a distillation of something she has practiced her entire career: “Make sure you understand the big picture. Don't be focused on just what you want to do or what your job is. Understand where it fits into the whole landscape, because that will help you explain what you're doing to everybody, and it'll help you to understand perspectives from others so that you can incorporate them into what you're trying to do.”

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