Professor Shilpa Madan- Embodying and Emboldening Powerful Women
Foundations of a Strong Female Figure
Dr. Shilpa Madan both embodies and emboldens powerful women everywhere, not only in her current role as an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Virginia Tech, but also in her research initiatives and professional experiences. There seemed no better way to conclude our celebration of Women’s History Month than to share Professor Madan’s inspirational story and global insights as a woman in business with the Pamplin community. In conversation with VT Marketing’s Mindra Okonski, Dr. Madan detailed her greatest challenges, realizations, and endeavors from her time as a student to her present position.
Before joining the corporate world, Dr. Madan completed her Bachelor’s in Information Technology and went on to receive her MBA from IIT, Bombay. She then gained a decade of corporate experience with consumer products organizations (Unilever and Castrol/BP), in which she held both national-level and global-level marketing roles across multiple developing and developed markets. In her last role, she was responsible for developing new products and global advertising campaigns for the world's largest soap brand, Lux.
Subsequently, she completed her PhD in Consumer Behavior from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore and then became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Columbia Business School, New York, before beginning her role at VT. Inspired by her educational and career experiences, Dr. Madan is now passionate about leveraging consumer behavior for the greater good through her research and equipping Pamplin’s students with the skills to be world-class marketing professionals.
Surmounting Barriers- Lessons from the Corporate Lens
Sixteen years ago, as a fresh MBA graduate with zero work experience, she was put in charge of a team of 34 men, whose average age was twice her own, as their new Area Sales Manager. She had just joined Castrol, the leading engine oil brand in the world and a subsidiary of British Petroleum. Her primary job responsibility was to sell engine oils to truck, car, and motorcycle mechanics and shop keepers. She was the second woman sales manager in the 100-year history of Castrol in India. In addition, she was posted about 1,000 miles away from her hometown in a place where she didn’t understand the language, customs, norms, or attire — she felt as if she had moved to a different country and reflects:
“It was then that I realized what it meant to be a minority. It meant having to work harder and speak louder.”
This was all new to her, but it was essential to survive in her new job and environment. Today, after living in three different countries for ten years, and engaging with consumers in sixteen different countries, she says:
“I have a much more complex understanding of what diversity means. Perhaps, because being diverse now defines me.”
Dr. Madan continued to expand this extensive, global perspective as she strove to understand consumers worldwide, particularly during her career at Unilever. Here, she had the privilege to meet women across sixteen countries of the world – getting a peek into their lives and seeing all that these women did for their communities never ceased to amaze her. She marvels:
“Everywhere in the world, women juggle multiple roles, hold their world together, and build a better life for the next generation. It is both inspiring and humbling to see how much they accomplish in improving the lives of their families and the communities in which they live.”
As she studied the behaviors, beliefs, lifestyles, and challenges of individuals worldwide, her curiosity about these subjects grew, leading her to seek a deeper understanding which could only be acquired through extensive research.
Choosing to Challenge
Dr. Madan remains committed to using consumer behavior research to help people live better, more fulfilling, and more sustainable lives. Specifically, her research explores people’s naïve beliefs about the world around them and how these beliefs shape attitudes and behaviors toward consequential issues such as accepting refugees in one’s country, paying environmentally friendly taxes, advocating for wage equality, and reducing food waste.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, #ChooseToChallenge, assumes a personally significant meaning in her eyes as it relates to her research. The idea of “encouraging people everywhere to call out inequality, bias, and stereotypes” is something she is personally committed to, as she researches ways to increase people’s support for higher minimum wages and to reduce gender-based discrimination in the marketplace. Her sense of responsibility to understanding and fostering equality does not stop at research but extends to her classroom.
Empowering the Next Generation
As a teacher, Professor Madan is dedicated to ensuring that all her students, irrespective of gender, race, age, socio economic class, ethnicity, learning or communication styles, have a voice in her classroom. She understands that business education, with its focus on class participation, can be alienating to individuals from specific cultures, genders, and socio-economic classes. As an instructor, she ensures that her students are evaluated on a varied set of criteria that allow them to perform to the best of their ability. She explains:
“I work to establish norms of equity and acceptance for my students by listening to every perspective and encouraging a learning environment that allows students to feel comfortable, safe, and respected.”