Bridging Industry and Academia – An Interview with MIT Industrial Liaison Expert Dr. Graham Rong

By David Li, translation by Li Tan

Graham Rong is the chairman of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Under his leadership, the CIO Symposium has become one of the most influential forums for the IT industry, attracting CIOs and other top executives from numerous major international corporations to this annual conference. On December 9, 2011, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Dr. Rong at his office at MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) center.

As a senior officer of the industrial liaison office, Dr. Rong puts heavy emphasis on strategic enterprise, innovative leadership, and global development. He holds the advisory positions in many organizations, including the Alumni Association for the Sloan School, Massachusetts IT Security Research Center, and 128 Chinese Union of Technology Enterprise (128CUTE). During the one hour interview, Dr. Rong introduced the MIT ILP program and reviewed his career experience intertwined between academia and industry.

College Education in China

According to Dr. Rong, he was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu province of China, a city known for its national business development in modern Chinese history. He belongs to the same family as the once Chinese Vice President Yiren Rong, also known as the “red capitalist” during his time. In 1977, Dr. Rong entered Jiangnan University, situated along the great Lake Tai. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in textiles, he subsequently obtained a Master’s degree in computer applications. After staying at the university to teach, Dr. Rong went abroad to study in Canada in 1989.

Advanced Training in North America and Europe

“When I went abroad alone, my kid was only three months old. I did not see him again until three and a half years in Canada.” Dr. Rong recalled. When I just arrived at the University of Guelph in Ontario, my life became zoned in lab, office, and my apartment. Living with many Canadian students, I learned much from the local culture. Later on after I procured a car, I would drive to the Chinese consulate about 80 kilometers away to borrow movie tapes for Chinese student community.”

After obtaining his PhD in computational mathematics and modeling from University of Guelph,
Dr. Rong went to University of Edinburgh to serve as an European Union research fellow. Dr. Rong excitedly introduced his project at the university utilizing supercomputers to simulate large scale flow problems in granular materials. “Because of my involvement, bringing the connection from North America and Asia, the project became an international collaboration. We held research conferences in China.” He mentions achieving many breakthroughs in this multidisciplinary field of research. Along with the chance for many academic publications, the research project trained him to bring together and organe collaborations on the international scale.

In 1996, Dr. Rong arrived at the United States and held key positions at Harte-Hanks Corporation, and subsequently Vignette Corporation. For someone who has been doing academic research in schools, adjusting to working in a company environment took time. He suggests people who just enters the industry that, “Establishing good interpersonal relationships is crucial. The company event and organized socials must be attended. Soft skills are often more important than hard skills, one cannot be confined to just working in the office.”

Dr. Rong selected one instance when he worked at Harte-Hanks, when he saw the long time requirement for product development, and the necessity to pay clients for feedback on the product, he brought forward the concept of collaborating with the client for product development, reducing the cost for client involvement. This allows for receiving timely feedback from the client while giving them the opportunity to participate in the design of the new product. After the idea was accepted and implemented in the company, the company achieved good profit, and the idea helped raising his reputation inside the company. Dr. Rong mentions that this is a classic case of interpreneurship.

Bond to MIT

In 2005 Dr. Rong was accepted by the Innovation and Global Leadership Program of the MIT Sloan School of management, this has become another turning point in his professional career. This program has a very low acceptance rate, requiring more than 10 years of professional working experiences. When asked for his intention for joining the Sloan program, Dr. Rong said the he discovered that with his technical background, he needs to develop further in management abilities with systematic study.”

“I’ve never left MIT once I got here.” said Dr. Rong with a smile. He said he liked the unique innovative and entrepreneurial environment, one that allowed someone to do academic
research while engaging in the outside business world. Therefore, he started a business
developing semantic web software and offering innovative leadership consulting.

In the past three years, as the chairman of the MIT Sloan CIO symposium, Dr. Rong spent a great deal of his time organizing the conference. The forum received a large amount of positive feedback from all participating parties, as it helped business innovation and establishing connections between MIT and the business world. He expresses sincere thanks to MIT alumni who offered him help during the conference. Dr. Rong emphasizes that the conference should pay special attention to inviting Chinese corporation executives.

At the same time, he points out that, converting to digital platforms, adapting to an innovative and global strategy are the most imperative aspects of company management and development in the upcoming decade. Students and experts can all focus on these areas when choosing their college major and future career direction. Dr. Rong was at the Harvard China Forum annual meeting in April 2011 discussing how to start up new businesses with prominent Chinese business leaders.

In 2011, Dr. Rong also gave guidance to the inaugural MIT China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (MIT-CHIEF) organized by the MIT Chinese Students and Scholars Association (MIT CSSA), and the second Sloan School Asia Business Forum conference organized by MIT Sloan business students. His experience in organizing high-level conferences and in global collaboration has been proven to be a critical asset to MIT. For more information on MIT ILP, please visit: http// .