First Female Leader at India’s Refinery Builder Plots Big Change

Mar 22, 2023 by Bloomberg
image is BloomburgMedia_RRA5DCT0G1KW01_22-03-2023_12-15-08_638150400000000000.jpg

Vartika Shukla Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

Eighteen months after becoming head of Engineers India Ltd., the state-owned firm that built most of the country’s oil refineries, Vartika Shukla says its transformation is gathering pace.

Shukla, who’s worked for the company for more than three decades, is attempting to change its profile, branching out from construction of fossil-fuel plants into new areas such as renewable energy projects. EIL is building India’s first biorefinery, which will use bamboo to produce bioethanol, and moving into green hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel.

Vartika Shukla Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

We’ve “built a lot of alliances in upcoming areas,” Shukla, 57, said in an interview at the firm’s New Delhi headquarters, sitting under framed photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Droupadi Murmu. 

The changes under way at EIL are playing out across the energy industry as low-emissions sources become increasingly important. Renewables will account for almost all growth in the world’s electricity supply over the next three years, according to the International Energy Agency.

While EIL has made some progress in diversifying from fossil fuel projects, it has more work to do. About 10% of the company’s order book is from renewable and clean-energy projects, Shukla told Bloomberg Television last month. 

EIL was founded in 1965 and is 51% owned by the Indian government. The company has played a key role in building 180 million tons of India’s 251 million tons of domestic refining capacity, Shukla said. It also carries out projects in sensitive sectors of the country’s economy, such as defense and nuclear, and has operations overseas. It’s developing a refinery and petrochemicals complex in Nigeria, and also constructing a refinery in Mongolia.

The company trades publicly in the country’s stock market. Its shares have gained 3.6% since Shukla became chair and managing director, compared with a 23% increase for an index of state-owned firms.

Engineers India Chairman Vartika Shukla tells us how her company will advance energy projects in Africa and the Middle East. Source: Bloomberg

Shukla is a relatively rare example of a woman who rose to the top of an Indian company, especially one owned by the government and operating in the traditionally male realm of oil and gas. India still lags behind the global average when it comes to female executives.

She joined EIL in 1988 at a time when there often were no restrooms for women on construction sites in the country. If she wanted to use the facilities, a guard had to stand outside to make sure no men entered.

The native of Lucknow, a city about 530 kilometers (330 miles) southeast of New Delhi, took the job after studying chemical engineering in university. Her father, who had a doctorate in hydraulics, spurred her interest in engineering when the two used to spend hours together in his garage repairing cars.

“I wanted to serve the nation,” she recalled of why she joined a state-owned firm. She also noted that she didn’t think that deeply about the differences between the public and private sectors at the time.

In September 2021, she was chosen as the company’s chief, ahead of seven other candidates, six of whom were men.

The odds were against Shukla becoming EIL’s leader.

India ranks behind other countries in the region for female participation in the workforce. Just 23% of India’s women are in the workforce, according to World Bank data for 2021. That compares with 25% for Pakistan, 34% for Sri Lanka, 37% for Bangladesh and 28% for Nepal. And at EIL, just 12% of staff is female. 

India’s president and finance minister are women, and some of the leading banks have been led by women, but just 15% of C-suite executives in the country are female, according to LinkedIn Economic Graph data. That compares with 25% globally, according to the data, which is based on profile information and platform behavior of LinkedIn users.  

Of the 24 largest state-owned companies, only two are led by women. Shukla is also the only female head of a state-owned, publicly traded firm administered by the federal oil ministry. Hindustan Petroleum Corp. was previously run by a woman, Nishi Vasudeva, who also hailed from EIL.

Vartika Shukla on March 15. Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

“I’ve always put that extra bit in in whatever I have done in my life,” Shukla said when asked what factors led to her being chosen as EIL’s head. “I have made sure that my contribution is differentiated.”

She said she takes the time to think laterally and be creative in her decisions as she seeks to transform the firm.

Shukla’s term runs until February 2026. Last year, she interviewed for the top post at Oil & Natural Gas Corp., according to the Press Trust of India. The company is India’s largest state-owned explorer, with a market cap about 45 times larger than EIL’s. 

And asked whether she might make the jump to politics one day, Shukla didn’t rule that out.

“Why not?” she said with a smile.

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©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

By Rakesh Sharma , Tom Redmond

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