by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
Nitu Gupta, Vice President of Product Development at integrated food and facilities management giant Sodexo, knows something about the power of leveling the playing field by doing the right thing. Born and raised in New Delhi, India, she had wanted to pursue a degree in economics and math and have her own career. However, her parents’ notion of the right path for a girl was to go into a home economics program and be married soon after graduating from a university.
After studying to be a teacher, she gained entry into a competitive graduate program in food and nutrition, which was the closest thing her university had to a career oriented program. Unfortunately, she had to leave the program when she met her soul mate and moved to the United States. Of the move, she said: “It was quite a challenge. I was learning how to be married and getting used to a new culture.”
She added, “I am very open minded and willing to adapt. I believe if you go into a situation willing to learn, it makes it much easier. Of course, there are going to be conflicts and confusion. But, as long as you stay positive things work out in the end.”
Purusing Her Heart’s Desire
Once settled into her new place, she began to study again, this time at the University of Maryland. She decided to pursue her heart’s desire—management—combined with her life’s work to that point: nutrition. While studying, she volunteered at a nearby hospital’s food service department where she initiated her learning of American food traditions and working culture.
At her first job, she worked 15-hour days, six days a week working side-by-side with all the employees from the kitchen to the dish room. “I used my honeymoon period very effectively, asking many questions and making mistakes. I was in the mode where I wanted to learn and take in everything. All that learning has paid off because much of it still comes in handy,” said Gupta.
After working for only a couple of years, Gupta was recommended to be a general manger of a food service department in a 450-bed hospital, which was, in her words, “absolutely unheard of for someone with only couple of years of experience.” But it was not all smooth sailing. She explained, “I was accepted by this client on a temporary basis. And my peers were told that I was in the position for six months only until a more permanent person would come.” She was so successful in the role that she stayed there ten years. “When I was unable to convince [my boss] that I could do the job, it made me think differently and be more strategic. Instead of just accepting the situation, I worked on creating wins for the team, my client and the organization. In the ten years I was there, the department delivered increased productivity, reduced cost and enhanced customer service.”
Continuing to Grow
In 2000, Gupta accepted a job in Sodexo’s corporate IS&T department supporting one thousand health care client sites. In addition to learning the technical jargon, influencing others became incredibly important in this national support role. Using field experience and leveraging team’s expertise, she worked on an enterprise level project to standardize the point of sale (POS) for the entire company; those standards are still in use today.
Two-and-a-half years later, she moved into her current role—another national support role—this time working in the health care market segment. In this role she focuses on developing products and programs that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Soedexo’s food service operations. She hopes to continue to grow in this role, and says that her only goal for the next few years is to continue to be challenged by new opportunities. “Many people I know have a certain position marked in their own mind. I don’t, instead I’d like to continue to grow in the organization and expand responsibility. I get energized by challenges.”
Her advice to other women seeking to advance in Corporate America is to “first excel in your current job. Know what you want. Be willing to take risks and be persistent.” She explained, “If I look at my career, I’ve always accepted jobs that have been very different from the one before. It is the yearning to contribute and excel that drives me.”
She added that, “We all face barriers in life, some break through them and others let these barriers define them. Ultimately, it comes down to whether we feel we can do something about them. I have found that hard work, passion and drive can break through all barriers.”