Rupali Lunani grew up in a life of privilege, she says. But when she got married to her husband, Mahesh, and moved to Michigan in 1991, what followed was a humbling experience like no other.
Moving to the U.S. at 21 and starting life from scratch was a reality check, one that sometimes induced an identity crisis. “When you grow up in a town where everyone knows your family because of an immensely strong standing that my grandfather had — a town where 4000 people attended my wedding — but then you move to another country, which forces you to start building your identity again, it can be quite a grounding experience,” says Lunani.
Now a senior director at the auto supplier Harman International and having recently completed multi-billion-dollar projects for over 30 GM cars, Lunani says she hadn’t imagined her life being like this.
Influenced both by her father, an engineer, and her mother, who fostered Lunani’s creativity, she had wanted to be a florist when she first moved to the U.S. (To this day, she indulges in her passion for fresh flowers through extravagant themed tea parties she throws for her close girlfriends.) But with the support of Mahesh, she decided to go back to school in 1995 to pursue a master’s in computer engineering, which she completed in two semesters. In India, she had felt somewhat isolated in the field as one of 22 women in an 800-person engineering class. Without encouragement from her husband, she isn’t sure she could have followed through.“Mahesh is my biggest cheerleader. He has always seen a level of potential in me that even I don’t see in myself sometimes,” she says. “He is my rock and my mentor.” Her in-laws, too, were supportive, though she would be the first woman in their side of the family to work. After graduating, Lunani landed her first job in the auto industry just as automation began to reshape it. The first product she worked on in 1997 was a Ford Explorer radio.
In a chance meeting that year with one of her managers at Lear, she was told six life-altering words. “I was told, ‘I see a leader in you.’ And that just changed my entire approach to how I perceived my profession and career moving forward. It almost felt like a moment of enlightening,” Lunani says.
Still, she felt conflicted. Challenging her throughout her professional career was a desire to also instill strong family ties in her two sons, Tej, 22, and Viraj, 18. “I was always guilty [for] working hard because I knew that meant I wasn’t able to give my boys the kind of time I intended to and that guilt really took a toll on me,” she says.
So much that she decided to take a break from work to spend time with her boys. “As a woman, it is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that if we are not involved enough in our kid’s lives that somehow that will badly affect our kids’ upbringing,” she says. Though she persevered through this maternal guilt, in 2013, Bhagavad Gita classes provided a lesson she needed to re-enter the workforce, this time guilt-free. “It said, ‘You need to do what’s important for you and those around you will learn from it.’ And that put everything in context for me,” says Rupali.
The message came full circle last year during a one-on-one trip she took with Tej, before he started working at Amazon. “My son and I bonded over this trip so much that when he shared and expressed his gratitude for teaching him the meaning of true dedication — all this while I was struggling with the doubt of ‘Am I doing justice to my boys by being a hardworking professional?’ — with one statement he just validated all my years of work and effort to bring together the work-life balance.”
Lunani is now a staunch supporter of nonprofit organizations that work towards education and women empowerment. She is on the board of the Detroit Education Society, which promotes education in the City of Detroit, and serves on the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts’s Friends of Asian Arts and Cultures auxiliary group.
Philanthropy is still something she’d like to devote more time to. “At some point in my life I want to start my own charitable organization that allows me to apply her professional skills in helping develop leaders,” Lunani says, “in people who don’t even realize their true potential.”