When he was a student at CU Boulder, David Gupta (ArchEngr’85) was focused on building a career as a lighting engineer. He joined his family’s engineering firm, Environmental Systems Design, after graduation and fully expected to continue on an engineering track.
Instead, he became one of many engineers who take the sometimes-unexpected turn onto the entrepreneurial track. Today, he is CEO of SDI Presence, a leading systems integration company based in Chicago.
In addition to working on the design of lighting and power distribution systems for commercial office buildings, Gupta took over the management of the IT group at ESD Global. The team supported the internal IT needs of the firm, as well as the needs of other engineering firms, governments and utilities.
He quickly realized that his team could fill a niche that was in high demand in many other organizations.
“At the time, there was quite a bit of spatially oriented IT infrastructure that wasn’t well mapped,” he said. “People were starting to automate that function, but there weren’t many technology-savvy firms to do it.”
That’s not to say that starting the new company was easy, Gupta said. Building brand recognition, hiring employees and competing with more established firms all posed a challenge for the then-33-year-old and his team.
“We worked and worked – it was tough the first couple of years,” he said. “But it was a pretty amazing time in my life.”
On top of starting a company and raising a young family, Gupta also decided to go back for an MBA at the University of Chicago.
“I realized that I had great foundation in engineering, but needed to build up more on the business side,” he said. Now, Gupta said would recommend some business experience for all engineering students. “Ultimately, most of us are working on some sort of project-related endeavor. It’s really critical to understand the economics of those projects.”
And it’s just as critical to stay current on your technical knowledge, Gupta said.
“My father was my mentor, and he would tell me you have to keep reading all of the technical materials,” he said. “Your customers rely on you to be knowledgeable in your area.”
Gupta is also a strong advocate for mentorship in the business setting. SDI’s corporate social responsibility program features both a dedicated internship program and a mentorship program for small businesses.
As he mentors his employees, Gupta often refers back to one of his most important mentors, lighting program Professor Emeritus David DiLaura.
“He was someone we all deeply respected and followed,” Gupta said. “Even though he had the answers, he made us do our research and drove us to go deeper and explore different perspectives, both educationally and in the lighting community at large.”
He has carried those foundational skills from DiLaura and other CU Boulder professors throughout his career.
“The thing about a good undergraduate education is learning how to think and problem-solve,” he said. “That’s useful in any endeavor, whether it’s in your professional or personal life.”