By Malcolm Burnley
The year is 1998, the dot-com bubble has not yet peaked, and the future host of Mad Money, Jim Cramer, is at a Goldman Sachs conference, speaking about the future of technology and the media. Cramer talks about ripping up the subscription to one of his favorite print business journals while praising the untapped potential of internet-only publications like TheStreet, the online-native challenger to the Wall Street Journal that he started.
In the canon of Cramer antics, this was a tame performance. But it spoke loudly to Mukul Pandya. At the time of the conference, Pandya was tasked with a simple challenge from the administrators of his new employer, the Wharton School: Build a publication from the ground up to rival the influential likes of Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, and do it from Locust Walk. Pandya was an established business journalist, having written for national outlets including the New York Times and The Economist. At Wharton, he would essentially be a one-man show taking on a collective 100 years of brand-name credibility in those other two publications. But a report on Cramer’s rant at the Goldman conference lit a creative fire. “If I had been a cartoon,” Pandya says, “that’s the moment the lightbulb would have gone off above my head.”
Less than a year later, Pandya would convince Wharton to forget about a glossy magazine in favor of launching an online-only journal. In retrospect, given the woes of print journalism, the choice seems obvious. But in the moment, Pandya’s full embrace of the internet was visionary, especially for a publishing outfit in academia.
“That Wharton needed its own journal was not a particularly original idea,” says Pandya. “But what if you could imagine a publication created for the web—not so much a magazine as a knowledge-capturing-and-distribution system that utilizes the web?”
Knowledge@Wharton launched in May of 1999, and today, Pandya oversees what can only be described as an indelible extension of the School and one of its greatest ambassadorial assets. It functions as an importer and exporter of Wharton’s most precious commodity—ideas. It also embodies the institution’s dedication to lifelong learning, a journey of intellectual growth and curiosity that extends far beyond graduation day. “Knowledge@Wharton has translated our research for the benefit of management and media in real time, understandable language, and convenient format,” says Jerry Wind, Lauder Professor Emeritus of Marketing. “It speeds up the dissemination and enhances the impact of our discoveries globally to diverse, new, and important audiences.”
K@W, as it’s often called, attracts three million users across the world. In 20 years, it has evolved into a full-fledged brand: It publishes 10 articles a week; hosts a daily two-hour radio show on Wharton’s Business Radio channel on Sirius XM; contributes white papers on management theory; releases a dozen podcasts each week; and distributes more than 500 free lesson plans on its site for high-schoolers.
It would be easy to call Knowledge@ Wharton an empire if not for the fact that Pandya is impossible to see as an emperor. He’s more like Cramer’s soft-spoken alter ego, exuding humility and a reticence to grab the spotlight at every turn. But K@W deserves a bow.
“I like to use the metaphor of a lighthouse,” says Sanjay Modi, the IT technical director of K@W and the longest-tenured member of the staff. “As the school has gone through different campaigns, different strategies, Knowledge@Wharton has always been a beacon of the intellectual capital that’s generated here.”
As a child in Bombay, India, Pandya couldn’t stop dreaming. Maybe it was a result of growing up in a household rich in stories, given that both of his parents were professors of English literature. “I decided from an early age that in no way was I going to follow my parents into academia, so I went into journalism instead,” Pandya says. “And look where I ended up.”
When he greets me in the lobby of Steinberg-Dietrich Hall, Pandya looks the part of a veteran journalist—bristly white mustache, glasses, and a sweater over a collared shirt. Moments later, he takes control of the interview like a pro, too; before I can ask my first question, we’re dishing on Jhumpa Lahiri books, and Pandya starts interviewing me. His insatiable thirst for knowledge is the fuel in the K@W engine.
Pandya received his master of economics degree from the University of Mumbai in 1979, then spent two decades as a writer and an editor. He worked as the latter at the Economic Times, the largest business daily in India, followed by a stint at BusinessWorld, a national magazine that he compares to Business Week. In the fall of 1989, he moved to the U.S. and began working at an upstart business journal in New Jersey; he also freelanced for major outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pandya first set foot on Penn’s campus during his second year on that job, for professional development training at Wharton’s annual business-journalism seminar, which offers abbreviated courses with faculty.
Wharton had special significance rooted in Pandya’s childhood. One day when he was young and confused about his future, his grandmother took him to speak with a family friend who worked in Bombay as a banker. Pandya wanted advice on career tracks and asked the banker about studying at a place like Wharton. “He looked at me and said, ‘You know, places like Wharton are for people who are either very smart or very rich. You should be more modest with your aspirations,’” Pandya recalls.
He was crushed. “So when I eventually got here, I never forgot what it feels like to be told this world has amazing places of learning but they’re not for you. The idea that we can take knowledge from this institution and make it available for free to everyone who wants to learn—that became my driving passion.”
In the initial four months of planning that would lead to K@W, Pandya faced a daunting challenge: to capture the institutional knowledge of Wharton with a brand-new publication, then grow its reach globally—and to do so at a moment of massive disruption in the traditional business model of publishing. Even with decades of experience, Pandya needed all the help he could get. He enrolled as a client in the Wharton Small Business Development Center, and with the help of two graduate students, he produced a business plan charting a path to growth for the would-be publication.
He benchmarked K@W’s potential reach against the circulation of Wharton’s existing print newsletters and estimated—perhaps overzealously, he admits in retrospect—that he could hit the 3,000 mark in year one of K@W. Within 48 hours of launching the site in May of 1999, K@W had already amassed some 800 subscribers to its newsletters; it crossed the first-year goal in three weeks. Before the end of year two, 99,000 people in more than three dozen countries had signed up. K@W’s success clearly wasn’t a fluke.
“It’s not that other business schools didn’t have online publications, but they were digital copies of the print publications,” Pandya says. “When they sent it off to the printer, they would also send it to the webmaster, and he’d turn it into a PDF and put it online. The digital was just sort of a replica of a print product. But I was thinking about doing the opposite.”
If Pandya embodies the freethinking spirit of K@W, then Dan Loney, the host of K@W Radio, represents its voice.
Back when Pandya was conjuring up his grand idea, Loney was working for the Charleston Alley Cats, a Single A baseball team in West Virginia, as a broadcaster. He spent a dozen years as a play-by-play guy, grinding it out in the minor leagues of pro sports. “It was 152 games in 162 days,” Loney says. “And I had responsibilities with marketing and had to handle my own advertising.”
Loney eventually made his way to Princeton, New Jersey, first as a broadcaster for Ivy League athletics, then as a host for Wall Street Journal radio, based a few miles outside the university. In 2014, a friend forwarded him a job posting for a Wharton satellite radio station that was on the cusp of launching. Loney submitted his résumé and met with Pandya, and five years later, he’s up at dawn and in Huntsman Hall to do 10 hours of live radio, interview 30 to 40 guests, and voice a dozen podcasts every week.
“It’s been good to have that in my professional DNA,” he says of his minor-league barnstorming days. “I know the expectations of what I need to bring to the table every day.”
When Pandya launched K@W, the word “podcast” hadn’t yet been invented. Now it’s an inseparable part of the brand. On any given day during Loney’s two-hour show, you’ll hear a lineup of guests that might include your favorite Wharton professor, a former Fortune 500 CEO, and an expert on international relations who teaches on the West Coast. There’s the same wide range of subject matter found in K@W articles, along with a preference for Wharton-grown talent, but the radio content skews toward a general audience.
“We’re allowed to go wherever we want to go,” says Loney. “Mukul loves the content we do, and he makes suggestions every once in a while, but he never tells us no, you can’t do something. It allows us to go with our creative juices and put stuff out there.”
In fact, increasingly, K@W’s website revolves around the circadian rhythms of the radio show, recorded every weekday morning at 10 a.m. and airing twice a day on Wharton’s Sirius XM channel 132. Members of the editorial team derive a good portion of their content from listening to segments of the show and adapting them into articles for the web. These complement the traditional well of stories generated from groundbreaking research, interviews from within academia, and original think pieces written by business experts around the globe.
Any close watcher of K@W over time has noticed how much broader the subject matter is than the name implies. “We approach everything with a journalist’s sensibility,” says Rachel Kipp, K@W’s associate editorial director, who’s been working with Pandya and senior editorial director Steve Guglielmi for nine years. (Senior managing editor Steve Sherretta and senior editor Deborah Yao round out the editorial team.) Kipp, like a lot of the staff, came to K@W from a news outlet; she worked at a daily paper in Delaware as a business reporter. “We’re not on the Wharton beat as much as we’re on the knowledge beat,” Kipp says.
One of the most influential and well-read stories in the history of the site was a current-events analysis of India’s demonetization policies in 2016. K@W’s editorial philosophy is simple: If you can feature Wharton at any turn, great, but that’s not the sole sensibility of the site. Readers (and listeners) are as likely to find insight from a finance expert at Yeshiva University as they are to hear from a Wharton professor with new research or an alumnus who’s making news on Wall Street. “Until you’re in business journalism, you might not realize that this nexus touches everything in life,” says Guglielmi. “I think a lot of the success of editorial has to do with the depth we bring to these topics. That helps us stand apart.”
Back in 1999, Pandya wrote a 14-page manifesto laying out his editorial vision for K@W—an artifact that’s buried on a dusty hard drive somewhere these days. Yet despite the evolution and expansion of K@W—which now has a full-time staff of 14—he thinks the brand has kept a steady course over the past 20 years. One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of bylines on the K@W site, a stylistic choice made by Pandya right off the bat à la The Economist. “The faculty are the superstars,” Pandya says of academia. “And beyond that, what’s said is more important than who says it.”
For Wharton alumni, K@W serves as a way to stay connected to the School—anytime, from anywhere—and to continue to learn from its top thinkers. “The original editorial concept, which has not changed, is that the reason we exist is not to communicate information,” says Pandya. “It’s to communicate insight.”
You don’t come to K@W to read breaking news about a mega-merger; you come for day-after analysis of its pros and cons. You come to unpack the business implications of Brexit. You also come to explore the kind of faculty research on topics like pattern-based thinking—minus the footnotes—that will make your head spin.
Initially, K@W focused on translating 80 to 100 faculty research papers per year into digestible content for business practitioners while linking to additional resources (and the original research) for those who wished to drill down further. This layering of content was innovative, and one of the unique advantages of the internet that Pandya immediately intuited. Meanwhile, he found a seemingly endless stream of opportunities to capture knowledge from Wharton: heads of state and CEOs speaking at the School, conversations on books with faculty authors, original articles leaning on in-house sources.
The success of K@W gave Pandya the leeway to staff up with more writers and editors, including Robbie Shell, who was editorial director for 15 years. In 2003, K@W launched Spanish and Portuguese versions of its website, followed by a Chinese edition in 2005, an Indian version in 2006, and eventually an Israeli and Arab product as well. (These regional sites were combined into a single global edition in 2012.) While the majority of the content is disseminated from Philadelphia, interest has grown around the globe. Along with then-vice dean Barbara Kahn (now a professor of marketing at Wharton) and various alumni, Pandya also started developing a high-school version of K@W in 2007.
Then the stock market crashed. “We had gone to a number of financial institutions who expressed interest in Knowledge@Wharton High School; then the world fell apart,” says Faquiry Diaz Cala C97 W97, who worked with Pandya and Kahn on the project. “None of those institutions were around to support financial literacy and entrepreneurship at a time when it was needed the most.”
During and after the Great Recession, sharing Wharton’s knowledge was even more vital. In 2011, KWHS finally launched, with content from the flagship site repurposed for young adults along with lesson plans that are free for teachers. The reach of KWHS is something to marvel at: It now has more than 250,000 users and remains one of the fastest-growing K@W assets. This year’s annual investment contest—which, unlike most mock stock-market competitions, awards students not for making the most money, but for essays they write on what they learn from the process—boasts some 2,000 teams of high-schoolers and culminates in May with an international gathering of finalists in Philadelphia. “The KWHS ecosystem has grown out of the desire of students and educators to not only study concepts like innovation, investing, and fintech, but to also give life to their curiosity and critical thinking,” says managing editor Diana Drake.
The program supplies professors with fresh audiences for their work and molds the next generation of prospective students. “The concept of an Ivy League university is not accessible to a lot of people,” says Diaz Cala, “but [KWHS] breaks down those barriers.”
It’s a chilly Monday morning after the Super Bowl inside the Wharton Business Radio studio, which is located in a tucked-away corner of Huntsman Hall. In the control room is producer Patricia McMahon, who’s on the line with a former CEO of Verizon Communications. “Is it EYEvan or ee-VON?” McMahon asks, jotting down the phonetics of the name for the live show. One room away, with his headphones on, is Loney. When he hosted the first K@W show five years ago, Wharton was the only Ivy League business school with a channel on satellite radio.
Right now, Loney is delivering a monologue on free-market excess, having cited a headline about a 25-pound tub of mac-and-cheese for sale at Costco. Just before, he was discussing interest rates with a former Federal Reserve chief; Loney segues from Ivan Seidenberg, the former Verizon exec, to two particularly charismatic thinkers at Wharton, marketing professors Americus Reed and Patti Williams. Half of this show hadn’t been booked when the producers left on Friday. “It’s a wacky and wonderful and cool process,” McMahon says of orchestrating the daily program along with fellow producer Monique Nazareth.
Within a month of celebrating K@W’s 20th birthday this May, it will be time to pop the cork on some champagne again, to honor the radio station’s fifth anniversary. Although analytics are hard to come by in the world of radio and podcasts, Pandya considers the show to be an unparalleled success. Along with the rest of Knowledge@Wharton’s offerings, it’s proof of how far K@W has come since its launch—one that, like its founder, was both humble and ambitious.
“I could never have imagined that we’d be doing podcasts, that we’d be doing high-school programs or a daily radio show,” Pandya says. “It’s been a combination of staying true to the mission of knowledge-sharing and being educational in our approach. A lot of times, people think this is a way for Wharton to build its brand. But the brand-building is the result of getting the education part right—it’s the effect, not the purpose of what we do. That’s a very important distinction.”
Malcolm Burnley is a correspondent for the Fuller Project for International Reporting and a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
Published as “Celebrating Knowledge” in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Wharton Magazine.