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From Small-Town India To Big-Time MBA

Shreya Khandelwal, courtesy photo.

When Shreya Khandelwal left her job in investment banking and returned to her small Indian hometown to help her father, it seemed like the end of her career. But three years later, she is on her way to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It has been, she admits, a most unusual path.

Khandelwal is from Vrindavan, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India. Some consider Vrindavan a holy city, the place where the god Krishna grew up, and the many temples dedicated to Krishna attest to locals’ devotion. But for Khandelwal, Vrindavan — with a population of about 63,000 and a literacy rate of 68% — didn’t have good educational opportunities at that time. Growing up, she says, she urged her parents to send her away.

They did. When she was 11 years old, Khandelwal’s parents sent her to boarding school in Pilani, where she stayed until college. She studied math and finance in college, then moved to Pune to work for an investment bank.

Everything changed when her father had a heart attack. Still living in Vrindavan, Khandelwal’s father ran a firm that manufactured cables and wires. The firm had accumulated a number of large, pending payments, and being unable to recover the money through negotiations, her father filed legal petitions to settle the disputes. While managing the petitions and trying to revive the business, his health deteriorated.

Against the advice of her colleagues and mother, Khandelwal quit her job and returned home after 13 years away. “Pune is a big, urban, and progressive city in India, and I loved living there,” she says. “To move back from Pune to Vrindavan not only consisted of a big career change, but also demanded a drastic change in lifestyle.”

‘IT SEEMED LIKE I WAS ENDING MY CAREER’

Vrindavan, Khandelwal says, is small, religious, and didn’t offer many opportunities for women to work and grow professionally. “People discouraged me,” she recalls. “My managers, though they were very supportive, also were confused as to why someone like me would leave a promising career and go back home.”

In fact, she says, on the day she submitted her resignation letter, her mother called her and asked her to take it back.

“It seemed like I was ending my career,” Khandelwal says. No doubt, she was concerned. She had weighed her options for four months before making the decision. But it was the first time her father had ever asked her for help, and she decided it was time to give back.

Khandelwal returned to Vrindavan and, despite having no background in law, educated herself and took charge of the family company’s legal cases. “It was a huge risk career-wise, and to be honest, at that time I did not understand where I was heading, or what my new work would exactly be, or how I would revive my career again,” she says. “But I told myself just to embrace this change and see how it goes.”

OPPORTUNITIES WHERE SHE HADN’T EXPECTED THEM

Before Khandelwal moved back home, her father had opened a second business, manufacturing plastic sheets. Though she had returned to focus on his first business, she still wanted to do something on her own — and after a while she had an idea, inspired by the other business.

Her father’s second business inspired her. “During the trying time, he stood up and started a whole new business from scratch,” she says. “He is the inspiration that has taught me since my childhood to persevere and to find a way to shine through no matter the situation.”

Khandelwal did some research, created a project plan, visited factories, and founded Shreya Enterprises, a firm that manufactures plastic ice cream cups. “Someone told me, ‘How can a woman run a factory?’” she recalls. “Those words echo in my ears … but I have slowly, slowly taught myself to not pay heed to such criticism.”

For a year and a half, she ran Shreya Enterprises as a separate unit, supplying cups to various ice cream companies. But when she decided she wanted to get an MBA, she started working on merging her company with her father’s firm. Now a joint company, they manufacture a range of different ice cream cups, which they supply to more than 30 companies, and have expanded into the food industry, developing a healthy multigrain flour composition.