Sulekha Ramayya

Sulekha Ramayya will speak on transformative experiences. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


Valedictorian Sulekha Ramayya to fight malaria from Wall Street

The Renaissance Scholar couples the tech-savvy skills of a scientist with the smarts of an investment analyst

May 10, 2016 Diane Krieger

What do you get when you cross a biomedical engineer with a banker? The short answer: Sulekha Ramayya, USC’s Class of 2016 valedictorian.

A hybrid in the best sense of the word, this Renaissance Scholar with a 4.0 GPA combines the technical skills of a scientist trained in a Nobel laureate’s lab with the financial savvy of an investment analyst.

Ramayya — who graduates this week with a B.S. in biomedical engineering and a minor in business finance — will address the thousands attending the university’s 133rd commencement. She said she’ll speak on the topic of transformative experiences, promising that her speech will be entertaining and unconventional.

But don’t be fooled by her winsome smile. Ramayya takes transformation very seriously. It’s at the heart of her life’s work: to champion global health equity by delivering life-saving “orphan” drugs to millions of people needlessly suffering and dying across the developing world.

Her No. 1 target: malaria.

Her strategy: social enterprise and impact investing.

Well-spent recesses

Ramayya has felt at home in USC research labs since she turned 14. All through high school and college, she worked under world-renowned chemist Surya Prakash at USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, established by 1994 Nobel laureate George Olah.

Growing up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Ramayya had always imagined she would be a physician like her mother, who practices internal medicine in Torrance. As a little girl, she’d tag along to pharmaceutical meetings.

“I was the unofficial little doctor,” she said, grinning. “When I was 3 years old, I got a stethoscope. It was the best birthday present I ever got.”

Later as a teen, she accompanied mom on medical brigade trips.

But the investment world also attracted Ramayya. She’d watched her father, a software engineer, launch a succession of flourishing tech startups.

“From him I learned how to start and grow a business,” she said. By seventh grade, she was spending recess speculating on real-world stocks and bonds in an imaginary trading game.

When worlds collide

Her two worlds collided when she started college at USC.

Ramayya had entered as a pre-med student, haunted by the memory of a Cambodian village she’d visited with her mother in 2010. Sent to combat swine flu, the medical team had discovered a far worse public health problem: widespread, untreated malaria.

“I was shocked to discover that this deadly yet preventable disease was accepted as a fact of life,” Ramayya recalled, “and that even basic treatments were reserved for the privileged.”

In 2012, she and her sister, Shreya Ramayya, currently a freshman pre-med/computer science major at Brown University, co-founded a nonprofit called Mylaria to fight the disease through prevention and drug innovation.

The sisters raised $35,000 and assembled a four-university consortium to promote malaria research collaborations. But working in Prakash’s lab at USC showed Ramayya the fiscal realities that too often strangle drug development. His team had successfully engineered a fluorinated version of the common malaria drug Artemisinin, which showed a six-fold improvement in eradicating the malaria parasite over traditional therapies.

“We thought we were on to something,” Ramayya said. “But it’s just too expensive to push down the pharmaceutical pipeline.”

With no commercially viable path to market, the recipe sits in a safe.

A timely meeting

An opportune meeting with USC Marshall School of Business Professor Adlai Wertman introduced Ramayya to the concept of “social enterprise” — a hybrid organizational model falling somewhere between a corporation and a charity.

Ramayya’s jaw dropped. Realizing her quest to “sustainably commercialize” orphan drugs could actually be achieved through finance, she switched gears.

Earlier this year, instead of taking the MCAT and applying to medical schools, she took the GMAT and accepted a job with Goldman Sachs. Starting next month, she’ll work in consumer retail and health care investment banking, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. Ramayya already knows the ropes, having assisted as a summer intern in the firm’s Aetna-Humana mega-merger last year.

Previously she had interned in the USC Investment Office, which manages the university’s $5.6 billion endowment, and with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Ramayya is excited about relocating to the Big Apple.

“I love New York,” she said, calling it “the mothership” of finance.

It irks her a little that bankers are viewed negatively in popular culture. But she won’t let that stand in her way.

“My ultimate vision is to promote global health equity,” she said. Working in finance “gives me the chance to talk with senior bankers, policymakers and corporate executives on a daily basis about the health care business and the disruptions and innovations driving change.”

Interdisciplinary missionary

Mixing with leaders comes naturally to Ramayya. Previous roles at USC include co-chairing the nine-student Viterbi Honor Council and serving on the USC Marshall undergraduate program’s advisory board.

But her most striking contribution has been as a self-described “interdisciplinary evangelist.”

Frustrated by her own inability to double-major in business and biomedical engineering — “it’s literally impossible,” she said, “unless you spend every summer here at USC and transfer a bunch of other units from other schools” — Ramayya initiated a dialogue two years ago with USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos and USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis to establish an intensive, four-year curriculum leading to dual degrees in business and engineering.

Modeled on the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerome Fisher Management & Technology program, the proposed track creates a tight-knit community of like-minded engineering-business hybrids. Her idea has attracted the attention of two USC trustees — real estate executive Daniel Epstein ’62 and venture capitalist Mark Stevens ’91, MS ’94, both USC Viterbi alumni who went on to build major businesses.

“I hope for that to be my legacy at the university,” Ramayya said, referring to her dual-degree plan. “Eventually I’d like to come back and maybe even endow the program.”