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Oklahoma State University

Executive Ph.D. program charts path to innovative startup

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The OSU Ph.D. in Business for Executives program was launched in 2012 with its first cohort including entrepreneur Tom Totten, right of center in back row.

Tom Totten joined the first OSU Ph.D. in Business for Executives class and from the experience a startup was launched

Even though he hadn’t been in the classroom as a student for years, Tom Totten recalled being nervous in 2012 walking into a room of company executives like himself at Oklahoma State University where he was about to begin Ph.D. coursework. “This was not your typical university classroom full of students,” Totten said.

That experience as part of the first cohort in the Spears School of Business’ Ph.D. in Business for Executives program had a long-lasting impact on Totten’s career and even led to a successful business startup that began as a concept he refined through the writing of his dissertation at OSU. The startup, a retirement planning consulting firm, has helped thousands of individuals who use his innovative retirement savings products.

The OSU Ph.D. in Business for Executives is an accredited program focused on developing leadership and inspiring innovation guided by business research for working executives. Doctoral degrees have been awarded to 40 alumni to date from companies like American Airlines, Bank of America, CitiGroup, Dell, Pfizer, Sprint, Walmart, Wells Fargo as well as universities and the U.S. military.

Tom Totten and Tracy Suter
In 2012 Tom Totten, left, enrolled in the Ph.D. in Business for Executives program at Oklahoma State University where he worked with former Spears professor Tracy Suter.

Today, Totten is a professor and director of the actuarial science program at Notre Dame University. He is still cofounder of Votaire in Indianapolis, his retirement planning startup, and a board member of the consulting firm Nyhart, which he joined 20 years ago and was CEO of until his 2018 retirement to join the faculty at Notre Dame. An Indiana native, Totten earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Notre Dame and a master’s in actuarial science from Ball State University.

“Being an actuary means what I do is quantify risk. What we’re known for is quantifying risk associated with life expectancy and helping people protect themselves no matter how long they live,” Totten said. “As an actuarial scientist, I help people think about how long their retirement money needs to last because you don’t know how long you’re going to live.”

For most of his career, Totten has advised people about how to save for retirement to ensure they have money if they live to be 70 or 107. His innovative approach, which has received widespread industry interest and was recently featured in The Wall Street Journal, crystalized at OSU in the Ph.D. in Business for Executives program. “My dissertation was the culmination of my career’s work.”

Totten cites as an example a person with $1 million in retirement savings. Totten’s concept is to take a portion of that money, say $100,000, and purchase a longevity annuity that doesn’t begin paying until the person is 80 or 85 years old. The annuity provides income until death, which means the $900,000 only has to last until the annuity kicks in, a finite period of time.

“It just has to last 15 or 20 years instead of God knows how long,” he said. “They can plan for how long that money needs to last, which removes the fear of running out. It’s a different way to look at retirement savings.”

Being in the first cohort of the Ph.D. in Business for Executives program at Spears Business, Totten said he wasn’t sure what to expect, except his fellow students would be made up of high-achieving executives and academics. Totten said being challenged by his cohort and the Spears faculty had a huge impact on his success in the program.

“I came to Oklahoma State to write my dissertation on this very specific retirement problem but when I got there I was challenged to look at the problem differently,” Totten said. “I was looking at it from the perspective of a pension plan, but it was suggested I look at it from the individual’s perspective and how it affects them instead of from a company perspective. I did that and that made me remodel everything I did. That’s where my startup, Votaire, came from. That was a big deal.”

Totten said working with gifted Spears Business faculty and developing close, supportive relationships with his cohort were important reasons why he had such a positive experience at OSU.

“I had a lot of support from people there who really helped me,” he said. “The relationships that were created will last the rest of my life.”

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