There’s an undeniable energy that follows Neeli Bendapudi wherever she goes. Everyone who meets her notices it. You feel it the second she walks into a room, greeting as many people as she can with a handshake, a hello and a huge smile. You feel it when she’s snapping selfies with students for them to share on Twitter.
The University of Louisville’s new president thrives on personal connections.
“I just love people,” she said. “In this job that helps me. It’s a good job for somebody who enjoys interacting with many different kinds of people.”
Bendapudi was named UofL’s president in April, and with the announcement came a sense of forward motion. She sees part of her role as president as re-energizing the students, faculty, staff, alumni and community who believe in UofL.
It’s not just social interaction that boosts Bendapudi’s effervescence, it’s her dedication to making sure anyone she engages becomes the best version of themselves.
“It’s about getting people to see the possibility, getting people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to realize that we’re all here to serve a very noble purpose,” she said. “In higher education, there’s a sense that we’re doing something that impacts the future. We don’t know the student we’re educating today, what they will go on and do; we don’t know the professor we’re supporting today, what great discoveries they’ll make. There’s that sense of possibility and that sense of excitement, and to me, we will be lifted up when we have that strong sense of why we’re all here together.”
Neeli Bendapudi realized the value of education at an early age. “I really believe in the transformative power of higher education,” she said. “It’s part of my own family story, and so many others’ stories.”
Her story began in Visakhapatnam, a coastal city in southeast India. When she was five, her father traveled to the United States to further his education and make a better life for his family. Her mother stayed in India with Bendapudi and her two sisters. When her father returned to India after four years in America, he began teaching and her mother — while raising three girls — went back to school to earn her own doctorate. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Bendapudi followed her parents into the education field.
“When I was very little, I would play school,” she said. “Even when I was young, I had a very deep love and deep conviction that this is what I wanted to do.”
When she was 20, her father introduced her to one of his students, Venkat Bendapudi. Venkat gave her books about education, women and women’s rights, and she was smitten. The couple were married three months later and have supported each other as they worked their way through graduate degrees, doctorates and professional careers.
The couple has one daughter, Sirisha. Early on, Sirisha Bendapudi saw the emphasis her mother placed on education.
“My mom always made learning feel like so much fun,” she said. “She used to make up tests for me to take as a reward. Six-year-old Sirisha would beg her for another math test because I was just so excited to know more about the world. That’s all her doing. Without a doubt, her intellectual curiosity and love of learning is always an inspiration.”
After earning her undergraduate degree and MBA in India, Bendapudi came to the United States to earn her doctorate at the University of Kansas. She went on to teach marketing at Texas A&M and The Ohio State University and spent two years in the private sector before returning to Kansas as business school dean in 2011.
Bendapudi was made provost and executive vice chancellor of Kansas in 2016. She became famous at Kansas when, as provost, she provided her personal cell phone number to the entire freshman class, a tradition that she intends to continue at UofL.
“The students’ educational experience is our number one priority. I want them to know there’s somebody that they can reach out to if they need something,” she said. “The other good thing about it is that if they reach out to me as a last resort, it means they have run into roadblocks and that gives an incentive for everybody else to make sure they don’t reach me. It sets a positive pressure.”
“She is exceptionally gifted at making people feel welcome,” Sirisha Bendapudi said. “That’s authentic, too. She genuinely does want a close relationship with everyone she meets, and she has never met a stranger. You could be in a room of 500 people and she can instantly make you feel like the only person there.”
Vim and vigor
While Bendapudi can certainly energize a crowd — and the individuals within it — she’s not a performer. She doesn’t turn her charisma off when she steps away from the spotlight. Her enthusiasm is ingrained within, said Michael Wade Smith, Bendapudi’s chief of staff at Kansas who followed her to UofL.
“As everyone at Louisville is noticing now, she’s captivating and energetic; she’s authentic and real,” he said. “This is a cool human being.”
“She is what you see,” her husband, Venkat Bendapudi, said. “Either in the house, outside the house, just with me or just by herself.”
Smith has seen time and time again how Bendapudi’s blend of liveliness and drive has benefited those she meets. Take Smith’s own case for example: While he was teaching high school as part of Teach for America, he was introduced to Bendapudi at an alumni event. At the time, he was considering returning to school for an MBA, and Bendapudi had just been named dean of the School of Business at the University of Kansas. The two chatted, but Smith was pretty set on not returning to Kansas for graduate school.
“She got my number that night, and she called me to recruit me about every six weeks for two years,” he said. “Neeli made it impossible to make any other decision.”
Smith returned to Kansas for his MBA, and Bendapudi then hired him as chief marketing officer for the business school. When she became provost, he followed her to that office, eventually becoming chief of staff.
“When you meet Neeli, she immediately figures out what you care about, what’s interesting about you and she elevates and amplifies it in an incredible way that gives people confidence, that makes them work harder, that makes them work smarter and stronger,” he said. “She motivates people to just increase what they thought they were capable of. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Bendapudi is at UofL because she believes in the mission of higher education, Smith said. Perhaps she also is here because underneath her vivacity, Bendapudi has a serious competitive side. When she sees that change is possible, she is determined to make it happen.
She plans to engage that competitiveness for the betterment of the university and its people.
“The leader’s job at every level is to look at the people reporting to you and say, ‘Am I doing everything I can to make you be your best, and do your best and live up to your potential?’.” she said. “But it’s not just one-way. I also expect people to push me, to hold me to my word, to believe in me, to believe the best of me. If they think I’m doing something that’s not right, I expect they would tell me.” Bendapudi acknowledges the past issues that have plagued the university and does not shy away from tackling those issues head-on and being open in sharing her plans.
“Talk is cheap,” she said. “To me, what will matter is not what we say, but how we act. Do we really stand for transparency? Are we all truly doing our best to put the university first, what’s right for the university? That to me is the key.
“What could be more noble than really investing in the future of humanity? Because who we educate here, from Louisville, we give to the world.”