Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2012


Skipper Amanda Clark '05, left, and her crew, Sarah Lihan, will sail for the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics. Photo by Mick Anderson/US Sailing.

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Woman of Steel

Priyanka Gupta '06 breaks down gender barriers
as she builds India's infrastructure

by Elizabeth Hamilton

At a steel summit in 2008, Priyanka Gupta '06 realized that she was the only woman in the room of 300 participants — and she seemed to be invisible.
“During the entire summit, no one spoke to me or discussed anything with me. I wasn't even given a program or a feedback form,” says Gupta, who is one of two executive directors of MPIL Steel Structures Ltd. in Mumbai.

Not only are there few women in India's steel industry, but Gupta was just 24 at the time. Today, at 27, she is a rising star in her field. MPIL, founded by her father, Ashwani Gupta, manufactures structural steel and metal building systems for airports, bridges, buildings and factories. His daughter oversees all day-to-day operations, financial planning and business development. In the three years since she joined the company, sales have increased by 500 percent. MPIL enjoys the highest ranking of financial stability from CRISIL, India's largest rating agency, and is expanding with a new plant in Karnataka.

Gupta was recently named one of the country's top five female entrepreneurs — she is No. 3 — by ET Now, the television channel of India's Economic Times. In February, her company won additional awards for manufacturing and green enterprises at a ceremony in Delhi.

Gupta's success doesn't surprise those who know her at Connecticut College. She “packs more power per inch than anyone I know,” says Mab Segrest, the Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender and Women's Studies. “I think people find out pretty fast that she is the one who is in charge,” she adds. “She has an incredible ability to focus.”

And to persevere.

After sitting patiently through that steel summit three years ago, Gupta worked up the nerve to raise her hand during the question-and-answer session — and the other attendees took notice. “At the end of the conference men came over and introduced themselves, gave me their business cards, and wanted to meet me and discuss business opportunities,” she recalls. “I figured that my asking a pertinent question immediately established myself as an equal.”

At the College, Gupta completed three majors — economics, international relations, and gender and women's studies — spent a semester studying at Oxford University, graduated summa cum laude, and completed an honors thesis on economic liberalization and the empowerment of gays and lesbians in India.

She credits her education with teaching her to look at problems and people from multiple perspectives. Her major in gender and women's studies, in particular, “lets me think of the various forces at play when I'm dealing with people,” she says. “Behavior is such a part of your personal identity, based on so many power differentials that you have to understand when you're working with different people.”

In addition to her studies, Gupta held several campus jobs, including operating the campus phone switchboard and serving as an administrative assistant in the gender and women's studies department — a position rarely held by a student. “She really helped me run the department,” Segrest says. “She has more executive capacity than just about anyone I've ever met.”

In her senior year, Gupta helped revamp the school's celebration of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. She and a friend had costumes made with fabric they ordered from India, taught everyone the dances, put on skits, and served Indian food. Tickets to the two-night production sold out.

After graduation, Gupta enrolled in a master's degree program in public policy at New York University. As she was finishing up, her father asked her to return to India to help run and expand MPIL, a medium-sized company in the Indian steel sector. “I wanted to come home and India was booming,” she says. “I felt like there were so many things I could do.”

Gupta's father started early preparing Priyanka and her brother, Alok, 31, for leadership roles in the family business. “While other kids were going to theme parks, we were visiting steel plants and answering questions about production,” she recalls. “We understood how work gets done in India from a very young age.”

Today, as managing director, Ashwani Gupta focuses on project sales and marketing. Alok, who is a lawyer as well as an MPIL executive director, splits his time between the company's new solar structures subsidiary and his private law practice.

Priyanka Gupta is proud of MPIL's direction toward making energy-efficient buildings, which she believes is central to its future growth. MPIL is the only company in India manufacturing steel for solar panel mounting structures, and was the first in the country to use solar panels, on the roofs of its plant in Tarapur, Maharashtra.
She is also interested in the impact of development policies on women and minorities in the Indian workplace. Gupta says her father broke new ground by hiring rural women and training them to operate heavy logistics and mining equipment at a time when women did not hold such jobs.

“These women quickly became the finest machinery operators and led the way for women to have non-traditional employment in Indian steel plants,” Gupta says. Today, she is not only hiring women to operate heavy machinery and drive forklifts and hydraulic cranes, she's increased the company's female employee base by 25 percent since 2008.

These days, Gupta is more focused on work than anything else, but she makes time to read, travel and ride her bike 25 miles every morning, rising at 5:30 a.m. to beat the Mumbai heat.

Judy Schofield, her supervisor on the campus switchboard, describes Gupta as someone who could tackle any challenge. “She's one of the best students I ever met,” says Schofield, who has hired scores of students over the past 14 years. “She's one that sticks in your heart and your mind.”

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