April 4, 2010

The Power of Giving Back Alumni Spotlight – Jeet Bindra

By Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

UW alum Jeet Bindra (’70), who overcame countless obstacles to climb the corporate ladder at Chevron Corporation, makes it a priority to give back to his field and his community both local and abroad.

Early in his chemical engineering career at Chevron Corporation, JEET BINDRA was called into a Vice President’s office. He knew his colleagues at the time were impressed by his technical abilities and his ability to manage pieces of the business, but he was not quite sure why the meeting was called. The conversation took a turn Bindra was not prepared for. He was told that he should be realistic about his ambitions.

“If you look different, you speak with an accent and you dress differently, you will be lucky to retire in middle management at Chevron,” Bindra recently recalled the words he heard that day in 1979. Using that meeting as motivation, he worked hard with mentors, rose to each challenge and even went to an accent improvement class in the evenings. He eventually became the first Indian to hold a chief executive’s position in the U.S. Oil Industry.

Bindra, a native of Northern India who received his master’s degree in chemical engineering from UW in 1970, recently retired last July as the President of Global Manufacturing at Chevron, a position in which he oversaw 20 refineries around the world. He held a number of senior executive positions during his career, including a two-year stint as the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Caltex Australia Limited from 2002-2004.

On top of all he has achieved in the corporate world, Bindra – even in retirement – makes it a priority to give back to his field, his communities both local and abroad, and the UW. He is on the board of directors for companies in India, Australia and the U.S. Over the years he has spoken at events for associations including the National Society of Black Engineers. He worked extensively with recruiting minorities while at Chevron and is the only non-Hispanic given lifetime membership with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Bindra recently renovated his high school back in India, replacing mud walls and floors with concrete. He also had a new drainage system put in and replaced broken windows. Bindra and his wife contribute back to UW each year as well, and have established a fully endowed fellowship in the UW Department of Chemical Engineering. Bindra also will soon rejoin the Department of Chemical Engineering Visiting Committee after serving with the group for eight years before moving to Australia. Not to mention, he is the founding chairman of SAALT (South Asians Leading Together) – a non-profit organization that advocates for issues related to minority Americans and South Asian Americans.

For Bindra, he believes that because of all that he has been through, it is that much more important to give back. “As minorities, being blessed and fortunate enough to have climbed the corporate ladder or in any arena, it is not only our responsibility but our obligation to make sure that we mentor those who are coming behind. We need to do that, every one of us needs to do that.”

As previously noted, Bindra’s climb up the corporate ladder was anything but easy. In fact, overcoming adversity and striving towards his goals was something he learned very early. Bindra was one of five children growing up in a family with little money. Able to secure a scholarship to do his undergraduate work, he earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1969. From there he decided to pursue graduate studies in the United States which led him to applying for and receiving a research assistantship from the UW.

“When I told my father I wanted to go to the U.S. he said, ‘Son, I would love to support you to pursue your dreams but I can’t afford to even buy you a ticket,” Bindra said.

So he sought out a relative who helped co-sign a loan and they borrowed enough money to buy his airline ticket. Bindra arrived in Seattle with eight dollars in change in his pocket and a travel bag containing two pairs of clothes. His assistantship paid for tuition, books, room and board, but Bindra moonlighted as a cook at an Indian restaurant on the “Ave” in order to pay off the loan and cover incidentals. While in school, Bindra juggled classes, lab work, studying and his job at the restaurant. He served as the president of the Indian Student Association and was involved in the Chemical Engineering Graduate School Senate. Bindra still managed to complete his master’s degree in 15 months.

Overall, he was very happy with his experience at UW. “The Chemical Engineering Department at that time had outstanding faculty,” Bindra said. “They were people who were outstanding as teachers, were very personable and made time available to all of us to ask questions and discuss issues. More than anything else, they were very encouraging.”

Another reason Bindra looks back fondly on his time at UW – he met his wife Janice there. When he was finishing his master’s degree, he needed help typing his resume for job applications. He answered an ad for a typist in The Daily and spoke with a woman in West Seattle. Bindra did not have a way to get his resume to her, so the woman suggested that he pass it on to her step-daughter who worked at the student housing office and she would deliver it. “That is how I met Jan,” Bindra recalled. “When she got the material back, I invited her for coffee and we got to know each other. She ended up typing my thesis.” They were married in 1971.

Bindra and his wife moved back to India for about five years before returning to Seattle in 1977. He was interviewed by Chevron on the UW campus and was offered his first job there as a research assistant at their headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. After working as a research engineer, Bindra realized he would rather get into management so he went to night school to get an MBA with honors from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. He was able to make his move into management and despite the feedback he received from that infamous Vice President, made his own way up the ladder.

“I always prepared what I call a five-year plan,” Bindra said. “I asked myself where am I today and where would I like to be in five years. I worked with my mentors to identify two or three different positions at the senior level I was interested in. Then I did my own assessment of my skillset – did I even have the skills and qualifications to be a reasonable candidate for those positions. If I didn’t, then I worked with my mentors and supervisors to fill those gaps, whether it was by working on projects or going to seminars. I always believed that if I can get to the point where my skillset is competitive, then things will all fall into place.”

Fall into place they did. And by following his five-year plans, Bindra helped pave the way for other minorities to acquire management positions at Chevron. “Chevron of today is very different,” he said. “Management has several African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics – so I think corporate America has come a long way, but it is not in my opinion where it needs to be. Corporate America isn’t doing enough to create an environment in this country that nurtures minorities, right from the elementary schools all the way up the ladder.”

Bindra also believes that society does not do enough to highlight minority role models that young people can look up to and aspire to be like. “The minority role models that people talk about are the Colin Powells and a few names here and there, but there are so many other minorities who have done well.”

With the success that he has achieved and the enormous ways in which he supports his communities in the U.S. and his native India, it is safe to say that one such role model is Jeet Bindra.

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