Her Voice: Sanjam Gupta is empowering women in the maritime industry

Growing up in Mumbai in a family of seafarers, Sanjam Gupta felt drawn to the maritime industry. She earned an MBA in Family Business at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, in 2001, then joined Sitara Shipping, which her father founded in 1981.

That was nearly two decades ago. Then 23 years old, Gupta started as a trainee, and ascended through the ranks of the company. Now, she is the Director of Business Development and is responsible for branding, marketing and public relations. 

To support women in this traditionally male-dominated sector, Gupta established the India chapter of Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA India), an international group for women in the maritime industry, in 2012. 

A few years later, in 2018, she won a Sandvik India Gender Award in recognition of her work on gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives. Part of that prize included funding to conduct the first-ever Survey on Gender Equality in Indian Maritime Industry 2019, which surveyed 205 companies and 781 female employees around the country. 

The results were eye-opening: women accounted for roughly 20 per cent of employees industry-wide, while very few – roughly 5 per cent – held leadership positions. In pursuit of equality, Gupta established Maritime SheEO, a platform that promotes diversity, inclusion and accelerates women in leadership positions, in 2019. 

We spoke with Gupta about her personal journey, how she’s empowering women through her initiatives, and what she foresees for the future.  

Ariana: What was it like growing up in a maritime family?

Sanjam Gupta: My dad became a captain very young, at first working with his brother then later setting up his own company. When I was a child, we were based in Kuwait for a few years. I remember going to the port with my dad and climbing around these vessels when they were anchored. It felt so natural to be around ships, and I just grew up with a love of the sea. 

In my family, we were always talking about ships and cargo at home. It seemed very exciting to me, so I told everyone that I wanted to work with my dad when I grew up. My wish eventually came true – and I’m so happy that I’m working with my dad’s company, Sitara Shipping, today.

How did your career evolve?

SG I started training with the company in 2001, when I was still in college. I worked for a few hours every day with the finance team, mostly entering invoices. It was simple but useful because I got to know our vendors and how much we paid each one. 

My sister, who is also a director at the company, and I started at the bottom and everyone gave us menial work. But I think this was important – unless you know how to do the work yourself, how can you lead a team? That was my father’s philosophy.

Any keys to your personal success? 

SG: In business school, I read Managing for Results, a book by the late management consultant Peter F Drucker, which taught me that the key to a successful business is size. Bigger is not necessarily better.

My sister and I learned this firsthand when we were doing all sorts of perishable and dry cargo that it wasn’t working for us. So we established a niche. Today, we only do oversized cargo, which needs to be shipped in special containers. I’m glad that we chose to specialise – it has really helped our business. 

 Sanjam Gupta receiving the All India Maritime and Logistics Awards award for her work with WISTA India. Credit: Sanjam Gupta

How has the industry changed in terms of gender equality? 

SG: When I started working, both the chairpersons of the Mumbai Port Trust and the Nhava Sheva Port in Mumbai were women. That really inspired me. But at industry events, there were very few women. At times, my sister and I were the only women in the room and speakers would address the crowd as “gentlemen.” 

It was like we didn’t exist. We felt out of place, huddled in a corner. People were very patronising and didn’t take us seriously. Today, women are definitely more visible than before, but it’s still a male-dominated industry.

What led you to bring WISTA to India in 2012? 

SG: At one of the first events I attended, a man asked if I was somebody’s secretary. I was so upset that I googled “women in shipping” when I got home. I came across the WISTA website, a global organisation that connects female leaders and decision-makers in the maritime industry, and wrote to them immediately. 

I attempted to launch a WISTA chapter in India around 2001 but, unfortunately, there wasn’t a large enough response. Fast forward to 2012: At that time, my son was 5 years old, and I had some time on my hands, so I decided to set up a WISTA chapter in India. In addition to India, I’ve helped set up WISTA in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Georgia.

People were very patronising and didn’t take us seriously.

How has WISTA grown since then?

SG: We launched in December 2012, with 78 people. We have close to 100 members now, which is a little disappointing because India is a big country. There are more women in the industry, however, few of them are in management.

Is it harder for women to rise through the ranks? 

SG: In India, there are more men in leadership positions, so I think women tend to suffer from imposter syndrome. As women, we also tend to hold ourselves back because of guilt. I’m the mother of a 12-year-old and I always feel guilty when I leave him for long business trips. 

That’s just half of it. In India, we don’t have formal daycare. So when starting a family, women often need to take a break and they fall behind their male colleagues. The maritime industry, in particular, needs to realise that women can still do their jobs really well, even if they have a family. 

They just need to work differently – perhaps they need to work at home, have access to on-site daycare, or have more flexible hours to make room for their children’s needs. 

What’s the aim of your new venture, Maritime SheEO?

SG: We are tackling disparity and bias in the industry. We not only raise awareness about inclusivity, diversity and gender equality but also demonstrate to corporations why hiring women gives them a competitive edge.

I don’t think we should be patient. We should push for change now or it may never come.

A common problem is the shortage of talent available. When we expand recruitment efforts to include women, we automatically have access to more talent and diversity. Prior to the opening of the Bharat Mumbai Container Terminals (BMCT) in Nhava Sheva, local villagers wanted the terminal to hire locals. 

BMCT hired six local female crane operators who became loyal, hard-working employees. At the same time, their wages helped to elevate their families and community. It was a win-win for productivity, as well as empowering women.

With Maritime SheEO, we also help women reach their full potential through networking, training and skill-building. In addition, we have heard from some progressive companies that they don’t receive enough female applicants. So, in the future, we aim to bridge the gap between women and job opportunities. It’s about creating the next generation of female leaders.

Did being a woman ever work to your advantage?

SG: When my son was 5, I would take him to meetings. He was my secret weapon – everyone would go gaga over him. It made negotiations a lot easier! 

On a more serious note, women often tend to be engaging public speakers. There have been times at meetings when I have got the floor and others are struggling to get talk time. People also assume you are less competent and underestimate you. I believe that’s an advantage since they don’t see you coming.

What’s next for you? 

SG: I’m just getting started. My goal is to have a gender-neutral maritime industry. If we can make this industry more friendly for women, then it will be easier for them to rise to leadership positions. People keep saying, “Be patient, the change will come,” but I don’t think we should be patient. We should push for change now or it may never come.