As I walk into her office, Goizueta Business School Professor Usha Rackliffe wears a St. John’s style dress, garnished with pearls and a peacock broach. A student sits with her, going over an exam. The student looks up, and asks if she should leave.
“Of course not, darling,” Rackliffe replies. “I have complete trust in you, just shut the door behind you as you leave.”
And with that, she grabs her bag and leads me to Highland Bakery, where we sit and talk for an hour over coffee, eggs benedict and a cinnamon bun. Throughout our conversation, multiple students and faculty members come up just to say hi, and Rackliffe excitedly greets each one. This is typical for Rackliffe, as she prides herself on being cheerful towards everyone she meets.
“We aim to be bright, and we aim to brighten everybody’s day, including our own,” Rackliffe said.
This is one of the many ways Rackliffe’s presence has impacted Emory’s campus since accepting her position as assistant professor in the practice of accounting in fall 2015. Previously, Rackliffe held the position of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, where she managed the seven billion dollar budget for the thirty-five public universities in Georgia at the time. After her tenure as CFO, she spent four years as a full time faculty member in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.
However, finance and accounting are not the fields in which Rackliffe saw herself working. In the late 1980s, she left her home in India to pursue a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi.
“Growing up in India, I would listen to a lot of foreign radio stations. I would listen to BBC, Voice of America and one [station] from Australia,” Rackliffe said. “The radio was my window to the world … You’d hear about life in different cultures and read about different stuff and think, ‘Wow, there’s so much happening beyond just where I am.’”
Moving across the world without family was a difficult process, as she had to adjust to a culture which starkly contrasted her own. Before coming to America, Rackliffe had never been on a plane nor spent a night away from home. Looking back on her first experiences in the United States, she fondly remembers her first visit to New York City.
“Even though you know so much, have read so much about the world, you don’t really know anything until you get off that plane,” Rackliffe said. “So up until then, the only thing that I really knew about New York was from the movie Saturday Night Fever … But then you come to America and you see that it’s every bit as extraordinary, exciting and energetic as the movie depicted.”
Although not everything about her immigration was easy, Rackliffe is glad she took the risks that she did.
“It’s a beautiful country, and I’ve loved it,” Rackliffe said.
Along with her degree in journalism, she has an undergraduate degree in business, a Masters in Business Administration, a Juris Doctor degree and is a Certified Public Accountant.
“[Having many degrees] is like opera singers,” Rackliffe explains. “Opera singers have range. So this is like my repertoire: I can do many things.”
Even with a background as diverse as hers, Rackliffe is always open to exploring new opportunities. A motto of “fluid and flexible” has guided her life ever since she decided to forgo journalism after working at the editorial desk for two weeks at The Atlanta Journal Constitution. She felt that she could do more exciting things with business, and that choice completely changed her path.
Years later, while she was working as the CFO for the University System of Georgia, Rackliffe again chose to change directions.The job was high-stress and kept her extremely busy. She would often work 12-hour days, including weekends.
“I’ll never forget, on my daughter’s last day of first grade, the teacher had sent all of the pictures from the year, and she [was] flipping through all of them,” she said. “There was not one single picture of me, because I was never there. Mother-daughter tea? Jerry [Rackliffe’s husband] was there. There was mother-daughter pumpkin carving; all the moms and Jerry [were] there. He always had to step in. I thought to myself that this is my miracle baby, and I don’t get to see her at all.”
After this realization, Rackliffe decided to leave the CFO position and take an offer to teach at Georgia State.
“When an opportunity comes along I have to think, ‘Woah, is this something I’d like to do?’ And if I say yes, I’m going to go try it and see if it works, and that’s how you learn things,” Rackliffe said. “That’s the beauty of life, it’s like going to a buffet. You see different things and may think, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of that.’ But it’s really an eye opening experience. You always have to be open to possibilities, and that’s really been the story of my life.”
Four years later, she accepted the teaching position at Emory University and has loved being a part of the community here.
“I have to pinch myself; I’m so excited. I can’t believe how wonderful this place is. It’s everything I thought it would be and more,” Rackliffe said.
She has also fallen in love with teaching and working with students.
“If you can light that fire and inspire a student … That is what I live for,” Rackliffe said.
This motivation is what drives Rackliffe to go above and beyond as a professor and mentor to her students. From her policy of giving her cell phone number to students in all of her classes to coming in on Fridays even though she doesn’t have class, she truly portrays the kind of work ethic she wants to inspire in others.
“Do things for the right reasons, and trust me, you will feel that sense of purpose and accomplishment,” Rackliffe said. “It’s like you’re walking on air for the rest of the day.”