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SoPark leader hopes to inspire young women

When Rupa Shanmugam was studying electrical engineering in Malaysia, she was the only girl in her class for three years.

And when she worked as a technician for large corporations in Malaysia and Singapore, women technicians were a rarity, as well.

But she kept building her career and is now president and chief operating officer of SoPark Corp., a contract manufacturer in Lackawanna.

SoPark’s CEO, Gerry Murak, thinks highly of Shanmugam. He has designated her as his successor as CEO.

“She’s an educated electrical engineer, has great people skills, and truly understands the importance of quality and operations and the interface to process,” Murak said. “And she worked in all those areas before coming here.”

Shanmugam, 50, recently won recognition beyond the South Park Avenue plant. She was one of 100 women in manufacturing leadership roles nationwide who received “Step Ahead” awards from the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, D.C. (An additional 30 women were honored as emerging leaders, including Nadine Powell of Buffalo Manufacturing Works.)

“It was nice to be among women,” Shanmugam said of the awards event. “For the most part of my career, being an engineer, you don’t see that a lot.”

At the same time, the North Buffalo resident said she has always felt accepted by her fellow students, teachers, bosses and employees. And she credits others with placing their trust in her. “Along in your career, you have to have people recognize that you have the leadership quality. And you also have to have people who will accept your abilities and give you that opportunity, and Gerry’s done that. Gerry’s been a great mentor for me.”

Shanmugam came to the United States to earn a degree at what is now called Trine University in Indiana. There, she met her future husband, who is a Buffalo native. After working at companies in Indiana, Shanmugam and her husband moved here when SoPark hired her in late 2007. SoPark was struggling at the time, but she became part of a team that has turned things around.

“I’d take this management team and put them in any company anywhere, and in a matter of few months, I know that company would be doing extremely well,” Murak said. SoPark, which does not disclose its sales figures, has about 75 employees.

Shanmugam speaks passionately about her work, but she is just as committed to women’s issues and encouraging young women to follow in her footsteps.

Employees like Trish Bellanca, who has worked at SoPark for 19 years, say they are fortunate to have her. “I have never heard a bad thing from anybody at this company about Rupa, and being a president is not an easy thing,” Bellanca said. “She tells it like it is, but she tells it like it is in a good way.”

Shanmugam reflected on her career path and the impact she hopes to make:

Q: Your father was a physics teacher. Why did he encourage you to go into electrical engineering?

A: I used to help him around the house when I was growing up. I used to wire everything. … He called me his right-hand man. … He was a very hands-on person, from plumbing to carpentry, to wiring, he did everything, and I was his assistant all throughout when I was growing up. I had a first woodworking project when I was 6 years old. I was always hanging out with my dad. That’s probably why he saw that.

Q: Did you find manufacturing in the United States different from the other countries where you worked?

A: In manufacturing, it’s not (that different.) When I worked in Singapore, it was at very large companies. This is my first experience at a small contract manufacturer.

Q: Does that give you a chance to have a greater impact on things?

A: Most definitely. For me, after SoPark, I could never imagine myself working in a large company. I love it here. It’s small. We have that family feeling here. And everyone knows each other. We’ve been through some rough times during the recession. We all were in it, we came out of it together.

We work well together at the end of the month. You’ll see people from the office, you’ll see me in shipping, you’ll see the operations manager there. Everybody helps where they need to, which I think sometimes you don’t see that in big companies. You don’t have that one-on-one relationship.

Q: How do you try to encourage young women to consider a career like yours?

A: I’ve reached out to a couple of the high schools to get girls to take tours of SoPark. It’s good to work with college students, but once you’re already in college, you’ve already made up your mind what career field you’re going in. I think it’s high school you‘ve got to reach out to at that point.

I was telling the (school) counselor, you can talk about electronics, you can talk about all this, but (it’s valuable) to go to a manufacturing site. And young people can relate to this, because everything you touch nowadays has electronics in it. It’s not like a foundry, it’s not like steel manufacturing. It’s electronics.

Q: What do you think it will take to bring more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers?

A: They do need to speak with and maybe meet with people who are in that career, and have a one-on-one where they are comfortable enough to ask you questions about what were the challenges you had. Career counseling in school, they can say all those things, but they have not necessarily been down that path to answer some of those questions.

And I think site visits, plant visits, would make a big difference, because to see something is different from hearing about it.

Q: What range of industries does SoPark supply?

A: Medical, aerospace, defense, industrial control. A lot of it is industrial control. We also do some work for agriculture. We do a product that goes on tractors.

Our business is actually designed in such a way that no one customer or no one industry is more than about 15 to 17 percent (of the business. … We’re working very closely with a lot of start-ups. That is something new that we’ve been doing in the past two years. We work very closely with startups coming out of (the University at Buffalo), startups from Rochester.

Q: What does it mean to you that Gerry Murak designated you as his successor?

A: That means a lot, because it means he has trust in what I do. Even if someone has the ability and skills, you also have to have the people who have the faith and trust you to allow you to have the opportunity.