Paying it Forward: IIT Kharagpur Alumnus Vinod Gupta is Awarded Honoris Causa for His Philanthropic Work

Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam, the motto of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur translates to “excellence in action is yoga.” Taken from a verse of the Bhagawad Gita, the most popular philosophical and spiritual treatise of India, in a larger context the phrase urges man to acquire equanimity, allowing them to shed distracting thoughts of the effects of his deeds and concentrate on the task before him. The university is dedicated to the service of the nation, and each year awards luminaries who have made exemplary contributions to both IIT and society with the esteemed D.Sc. Honoris Causa. Of this year’s honorees, one stands out as being an exceptional example of the school’s ethos: Vinod Gupta. In addition to an entrepreneurial career spanning over 50 years, Gupta has dedicated his life to ensuring that he is utilizing the education he received at ITT to help others in every way possible. Focusing on education, health and welfare, his philanthropic work is wide-reaching in scale and dedication, from founding ITT Kharagpur’s management and law educational programs to establishing an educational complex for women in the village where he grew up.

A humble beginning

Born in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Gupta’s rural village Rampur Maniharan lacked many of the modern day conveniences that were already the norm for many parts of the world, from telephones and electricity to roads and running water. Although the village was short of these facilities, it did have a local school and Gupta’s father impressed on him the importance of education from an early age. He took time out of his busy schedule as a physician to personally instruct Gupta in subjects such as mathematics and biology, and hired him tutors for subjects he was less versed in.

Heeding his father’s advice, Gupta worked hard in his studies and upon graduating from high school was accepted to IIT Kharagpur. While studying agricultural engineering at the university, he met visiting professor Dr. Bill Splinter, who became a mentor to him and inspired him to continue his studies into the postgraduate level. Although he was awarded a scholarship to attend Dr. Splinter’s school, the University of Nebraska, his family still had to borrow money to pay for his ticket, and he stepped off the plane in the United States for the first time with only a single suitcase and $58 dollars to his name. Nevertheless, Gupta remained dedicated to furthering his education, and after earning his master’s degree in agricultural engineering he went on to earn his master of business administration degree from the university as well.

Excellence in action

It turned out that even with his technical knowledge, Gupta had an entrepreneurial spirit and a penchant for innovation that could not be boxed into the field of agricultural engineering. After completing his formal studies, he took a job performing market research for a mobile home manufacturing company and soon after was asked to put together a simple list of mobile home dealers in the country. In doing his due diligence Gupta found that previous sources were either incomplete or obsolete, and if he created a list from these avenues it would be insufficient from the start. His integrity was unable to allow him to create something subpar, and so he decided to take on the massive undertaking of creating a new list, ordering every single Yellow Pages directory available in the United States in order to do so.

His company did not believe that this list would prove to be a valuable use of time, and so while they allowed him to keep the books and move them to his garage they told him he could not complete the project during work hours. Instead he spent his nights and weekends slowly and painstakingly gathering the data, and once it was a finished product he went to his company and gave them the option to purchase exclusive rights to the list. They declined, and Gupta instead put the option out to their competitors, and within less than a month’s time had been offered upwards of $35,000 for it. Recognizing the value in what he had created, Gupta soon quit his day job to found his company infoGroup, which expanded beyond mobile homes and created lists for other industries from motorcycles to tractors. Over the course of three decades, the company grew with the evolving technology and updated their methods for dispersing and acquiring information, all while continually expanding to new markets and making strategic acquisitions. Having taken the company from his garage to a publicly traded company with global scale that was seeing revenues of $750 million, Gupta knew that it was ready to move forward without him, and left in search of new ways to apply his big ideas.

Equanimity through philanthropy

 Gupta learned firsthand how education can change the course of a person’s life, having achieved greatness despite his humble origins thanks to the opportunities provided to him by a good education. While his father had ingrained in him a passion for education, his mother emphasized that girls’ and women’s rights should also be at the forefront of his mind, and with these two ideas in mind he founded the Vinod Gupta Charitable Foundation. Though the overarching aim of the foundation is to empower women and girls of marginalized groups through sustainable initiatives in the field of education, enabling them to be economically and socially secure, it has made vast contributions to education as a whole as well as the preservation of India’s wildlife.

Although Gupta would consider his entire time in higher education invaluable, he understood that his technical background was strengthened considerably by the MBA program he completed, teaching him practical skills that rounded out his education. Desiring for his Indian alma mater to have a program that could provide similar opportunities to future entrepreneurs and businessmen in India, he donated $2 million to IIT Kharagpur to aid in founding a school of management. The school’s program was based on the reputable Sloan School of Management at MIT in the United States, and in addition to offering the traditional two-year full-time program it also offered a three-year program for those already working in the field but seeking to strengthen their skills. As a testament to his contribution, the school was named the Vinod Gupta School of Management.

Gupta and his foundation were also instrumental in establishing IIT Kharagpur’s first law school, the Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property. The focus on intellectual property was a pioneering attribute in India, but Gupta felt it would provide a huge advantage to the engineering and technology students at the university who could benefit from such knowledge as they innovated new products. The school is currently ranked as the second-best law school in the entire country, and thanks to Gupta’s contributions the students at IIT Kharagpur are receiving a more well-rounded education that will allow them to be more productive and contribute further to the wealth of the country. He has said that America’s promotion of individual entrepreneurship and freedom are what drives the success possible in the United States, but with the right tools similar success stories can unfold in India as well.

Through his foundation, Gupta has also made major contributions to his second home, the University of Nebraska. Understanding first hand the often unexpected difficulties of running a small business, he donated $2 million in order for the university to establish a curriculum for small business management to allow for those in the program to better prepare for the trials of entrepreneurship. Additionally, he established a scholarship fund with the university to provide aid to minority students wishing to enter its science or engineering schools. Having traveled to the United States with next to nothing and only a scholarship to get him started, he sought to provide that same cushion to others in similar circumstances.

Back in India, Gupta has also contributed to the establishment of the Dr. Giri Lal Gupta School For Public Health and the Dr. Shanker Dayal Sharma Institute Of Democracy at the University of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, but it is his work in Rampur Maniharan that combines his passion for education and providing opportunities for women. In a massive undertaking, Gupta and his foundation established the Ramrati Institute of Technology in the small village where he grew up. Starting out as a small polytechnical school, today it has grown to be an educational complex occupying 25 acres of land and hosting a science and technology center, nursing school, paramedical sciences institute, and women center in addition to the technology institute. Within these institutions are 20 laboratories, a 300-seat auditorium, a seven-acre sports complex, and a library with over 20,000 books. Teachers within the complex are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of Gupta’s father and instill an enthusiasm for learning in the young minds that attend. 

The Vinod Gupta Charitable Foundation has made sure to place a particular focus on ensuring girls are able to fully utilize the Ramrati Educational Complex. Free lunches, free bicycles, a 50 percent discount on their admission fee, and no fees for admittance to the nursing school and lower kindergarten are all ways in which Gupta has sought to follow his mother’s advice to help in leveling the playing field for girls and women. Perhaps the most significant contribution to this cause lies in the complex’s women’s center, which seeks to provide quality education and empowerment to women in rural India. The center holds classes regularly in skill development programs for a variety of subjects such as pottery fashion design, and computer skills, and also provides education on legal rights to aid women in becoming more self-reliant and independent. While the girls of Rampur Maniharan and other nearby villages are gaining an education at the complex that will help them compete and build a promising future for themselves, the women who may have missed out on an education while they were young can still gain useful and practical skills that open up opportunities they previously would not have had access to.

The Honoris Causa is not simply awarded to anybody who contributes money to IIT Kharagpur. It is given to those who have embodied the institute’s motto in every aspect of their life. Gupta has been a model alumnus to the university, both through his illustrious career and his philanthropic work. One can see the ripple effect of his efforts by looking at any of the many ways he has sought to improve the lives of others, such as that of one of the first trainees to join the women’s center who now runs her own stitching center and boutique. While anybody could look back on a life like Vinod Gupta’s and be satisfied, for him there is still much more work to be done.