Gurneet Kaur is helping develop the product portfolio at Virgin Hyperloop One and converting tech into customer solutions. She's also the only woman engineer on the ambitious India project, which aims to link Pune and Mumbai in under 30 minutes.Athira Nair
On the face of it, Gurneet Kaur seems intimidating. You only have to glance at her educational accomplishments. With an undergraduate degree in physics from St Stephen’s college, Delhi, Gurneet, 36, did her master’s in physics from IIT-Delhi. Finishing her PhD in electromagnetic design in Germany, she then moved to the US and was a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
But when you speak to her, her humility belies her considerable feats, which include being the only Indian woman engineer on Virgin Hyperloop One’s ambitious project for India.
Gurneet is Manager, Product, Systems Engineering, at Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO), helping develop the Hyperloop product portfolio and converting technology into customer solutions. Virgin Hyperloop One consortium’s hyperloop route will link central Pune and Mumbai in under 30 minutes, enabling more than 150 million passenger journeys annually. The Hyperloop concept, a form of transport introduced by Elon Musk in 2013, envisions transporting people at airline speed but at a more affordable cost.
Big her portfolio and responsibilities may be, but over a video call with HerStory from her office in Los Angeles, Gurneet exuded smiles, warmth, and calm confidence.
Originally from Delhi, Gurneet was a school topper. And topping the board exams gave her a confidence boost to pursue greater ambitions.
“I was not particularly a genius. But I was very hardworking and persistent. Once I set my mind on something, I was very determined,” she tells us.
Gurneet was drawn to science since childhood. Although engineering would have been the natural choice for anyone of her calibre, she was attracted to physics, which she calls “solid science”.
After her postgraduate studies, Gurneet took an off-track decision, unlike most of her fellow IIT-ians, and chose to pursue a PhD to get out of her comfort zone.
The year 2006 brought with it a full scholarship for PhD at Stuttgart University in Germany. While her family was worried since Gurneet had never even been outside India before, she was itching to explore the world, and gain new perspectives. Her family gradually came around, even though no one in the family pursued science (her father was in economics, her mother a homemaker, and her siblings were into finance).
“My family was supportive eventually, even though they did not understand what I was doing. When I show them pictures of the lab, all they would ask was if it is safe. But they did not force me to come back home,” Gurneet says.
Around that time, the Indian community in Germany was burgeoning, and there was a community of students from India there on exchange programmes and internships. Gurneet was set on making the best of her time there, even when things did not get off to a smooth beginning.
She did not know the language, the education system was vastly different to the way things are done in India, and there were cultural differences to contend with as well. But Gurneet soldiered on. “I knew I was not going to go back because of teething problems. Once I settled down, I worked hard and took language courses to pick up German. My schedule was flexible enough to travel and understand the world better,” she says.
And the German way of life taught her many hard lessons. “I was not used to people saying no openly; we tend to help more to be polite in India. But now I appreciate it. It makes for easier conversations. But I never encountered racism in Germany. Thankfully, my colleagues were very supportive, and I never felt out of place. When I visited India a year later, I was a different person,” Gurneet adds.
Once she got her PhD, it was time for Gurneet to take the next big decision – either return to India, which offered minimal opportunities at the time, or move to an English-speaking country, and gain more exposure.
Around that time, she got married to Chiranjeev Kalra, who was working in the US. Immigration to the US in 2010 was easier than it is today. When the world-renowned MIT offered an opportunity for research, Gurneet did not think again. For two years at MIT, she investigated quantum information transport using experimental magnetic resonance techniques.
Gurneet explains, "Quantum computation is an approach that uses principles from quantum mechanics (superposition and entanglement) to perform operations on data much more quickly and efficiently than our present day 'classical' computers. Quantum computers take advantage of the fact that particles can exist in more than one state at a time. Instead of storing information as bits (on/off state), quantum computation uses qubits that can be both on and off simultaneously, enabling them to perform millions of calculations at the same moment. It is an active field of research pursued by the world’s most influential companies such as IBM and Google and many governments."
Later on, Gurneet worked at Philips Healthcare in NewYork, as a design engineer for superconducting magnets for MRI systems.
In 2016, she moved to VHO as a product engineer.
"When I moved from New York to Los Angeles three years ago, VHO was one of the most exciting startups in LA. Having grown up in Delhi in the 90s, I had experienced firsthand the positive impact mass transportation modes (Delhi Metro in this case) could have on a common man. I immediately recognised the potential Hyperloop technology holds in improving people’s lives and the cities they live in. I knew I had to be part of this game-changing venture," she recollects.
(In February 2018, VHO and PMRDA signed a landmark agreement to develop the project. In November 2018, following a Detailed Feasibility Study Report and visit to VHO’s full-scale prototype, the government declared the Pune- Mumbai Hyperloop Project as a public infrastructure project with international consortium DP World and VHO as the Original Project Proponent.)
At VHO, Gurneet says five to 10 percent of her colleagues are from the Indian diaspora.
Gurneet is part of a team of 12 at Hyperloop, which brings all the tech together and integrates it for products’ requirement. The team is spread across India and Dubai as well, making web conferences a part of Gurneet’s daily routine.
When asked about her views on the miniscule number of women in tech, Gurneet points to the mindset problem. “The social structure is unfavourable for women to join the workforce in India. But it will change over time, and has to begin at the microlevel. It starts with children growing up in a home where equality exists between the mother and father. If mother works and father stays at home to take care of kids, children learn equality.”
Recently, Gurneet’s team at VHO conducted a science workshop for girls in the five to 10 age group, to take the concept of Hyperloop to the masses. Gurneet says she was quite pleased at their curiosity and questions after a panel discussion on women engineers.
According to her, this is a generational change, and we are headed in the right direction. “Most parents are worried for their daughters’ safety at the workplace. They are reluctant to let the girls travel for the same reason. But this is slowly changing.” She adds that retaining women talent will not be hard for companies if women employees are allowed flexible work hours.
“Sometimes, even after six months’ maternity leave, you are not mentally ready to work for eight hours. As a mother, I go through this too. Balancing is an everyday job. It is always at the back of my head - am I not focusing enough on my family? Am I not focusing on my work? But I wanted to follow my dreams and be a role model to my children,” she says. Gurneet has a one-year-old daughter, Ishnoor, and a five-year-old son, Rabtej.
Gurneet says all women striking a work-life balance and changing status quo are her role models.
From the US work culture, Gurneet has learnt that openness, honesty, and trust can go a long way in keeping and growing talent. “At VHO, they never question request for leave or working from home. They treat people as people, not just workers. There is great gender ratio and diversity here, which attracts more talent.” She hopes that India will adopt such practices too.
Gurneet also recommends changes in the Indian educational system. “We need hands-on training and our curriculum could do with some tweaking. Especially in science, experience matters the most. Grading should not be about problem solving and mugging up for exams. Emphasis should be on understanding concepts, not full attendance in course work,” she adds.
Gurneet has high hopes and great plans for India. With the kind of traffic congestion our metro cities
face, Gurneet’s work at Hyperloop is believed to have the potential to change the way we live. The project entails construction of a 117.5 km corridor connecting Mumbai and Pune with an option to connect to the future Navi Mumbai International Airport.
“For the urban workforce, saving even 20 minutes during their daily commute is a big deal; working moms can save time now,” Gurneet says.