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From a Small Farm to a Global Manufacturing Company: A STEP Honoree Story

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Neha Phadke is a long way from home. Originally from a small farming village in India, Phadke grew sugar cane, onions, wheat and watermelon to support her seven-person family while she completed her bachelor’s degree. She moved to the United States to earn her Ph.D. in organic chemistry when Texas Tech University offered her full funding.

Today, Phadke works as a senior process chemist at Covestro, a high-tech polymer materials manufacturer that makes products used in industries including automotive, construction, health care, cosmetics, energy, electronics and sports. It’s her responsibility to find ways to improve production while maintaining quality.

Focused on manufacturing: Even when she was studying organic chemistry as an undergraduate and grad student, Phadke knew that she was more interested in applied science than academia. Near the end of her Ph.D. program in 2015, she received an internship opportunity at Covestro, which was then called Bayer Material Science. That internship turned into a job offer, and she has been working at Covestro ever since.

  • “I was asked if I wanted to go into research and academia or manufacturing, and I was 100% sure I wanted to go into manufacturing,” said Phadke. “I had a feeling that this was where I belonged.”

Everything’s bigger in Texas: Still, Phadke faced a learning curve when she shifted from academia to manufacturing, including the scale of the work she was doing.

  • “I had never seen big plants and reactors,” said Phadke. “I had worked on my Ph.D. in milligrams, and here I’m making more than 30,000 pounds of material in the reactors. It was fascinating, and I enjoyed the experience, process and learning through the new challenges.”

Standing up: Phadke may work in an environment that’s traditionally been male dominated, but she has never let that stop her before. Even when she was growing up, she knew that her ability to succeed should have nothing to do with her gender.

  • “I was always asked if I had a sibling, and I would say I have a younger sister—and I would get sympathy for not having a brother,” said Phadke. “As a kid, I wouldn’t understand why it should make any difference. And it pushed me to think: why can’t I do anything a guy can do?”

Serving as an example: The Manufacturing Institute recently selected Phadke as a 2021 STEP Ahead Award Honoree—an honor given to women leaders who have excelled both within their companies and in the industry as a whole. She encourages other women to get involved in manufacturing and says that, while the industry might seem daunting, she’s gotten plenty of support from her colleagues and her company.

The last word: “Anything is possible,” said Phadke. “Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you believe is right. Wear your courage, face your fears, lead your path, follow your passion and inspire others.”

Learn more about the STEP Ahead program, including how to honor remarkable women on your team, here.

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