President Neeli Bendapudi will open the UofL-Yearlings Club fall forum series Sept. 17.
President Neeli Bendapudi

University of Louisville President Bendapudi is among the 25 local leaders named to Louisville Business First’s annual list of “Most Admired CEOs,” announced today. 

The publication recognized the particular magnitude of their leadership in a year filled with unprecedented challenges – from the COVID-19 global pandemic to widespread protests against racial injustices. 

As the publication astutely states: “It’s a time for people in charge to rally employees, adapt and make the best out of a pretty awful year. It’s the kind of moxie that the 25 CEOs profiled in the attached collection, and it’s what makes them special leaders in Louisville.” 

Those of us tied to the University of Louisville are quite familiar with President Bendapudi’s moxie. We also know she’s a special leader. And we know she deserves a place on this list for navigating those challenges – leading the shift to remote learning and operations (a shift that affected most of UofL’s 22,700 employees and about 22,000 students), and taking a firm stance against racism by declaring UofL’s intent to become the “premier anti-racist metropolitan research university.” 

In an interview, President Bendapudi described her leadership style as “open and collaborative.” She also said she hopes she brings humility to the job, “first by acknowledging I do not have all the answers; second by surrounding myself with people who have complementary expertise; and finally by always asking whose voices and perspectives are not at the table when making decisions.”

When asked what would make Louisville better, President Bendapudi said if we made an effort to be truly inclusive, “to get to know people as people, beyond our superficial differences.” 

Below is part of her Q&A with Louisville Business First: 

What is the best thing about being a CEO? What’s the worst?

The best thing is serving people by moving the organization further toward fulfilling its mission. The hardest thing (maybe not the “worst”) is balancing the concerns of the many different constituents I serve.

What is the biggest turning point in your career and why?

The biggest turning point was when I was a young, assistant professor at The Ohio State University and my Dean, Joe Alutto, asked me to create and head up a consortium of CEOs to bridge theory and practice. I learned the power of adapting best practices from outside one’s own industry and to not to be content merely with looking at one area.

Describe a tough lesson you had to learn as CEO.

As a relatively new CEO, the learning continues every day. One of the toughest has been navigating a large enterprise through Covid-19.

The lesson? A leader can never communicate enough.

How do you motivate employees in this time of uncertainty with the Covid-19 pandemic?

We are fortunate that the Cardinal spirit is strong and resilient. Our employees are motivated by the mission that drives us — improving and indeed, transforming, lives through the power of higher education.

What personal responsibility do you feel as a leader to promote diversity, equity and inclusion and how do you make it a reality?

I feel a tremendous responsibility to promote those ideals in part because of the strong foundation of diversity that this university has. That foundation is part of what drew me to UofL, and I am anxious to build on those strengths.

For example, Education Trust’s recent publication, “Segregation Forever,” highlights UofL as one of only two selective public universities with more than 10% Black students and one of only three universities where the percentage of Black and Latinx students is greater than the Black and Latinx state population. About 40% of our students are Pell Grant-eligible.

There is much to celebrate, but I am committed to further our goals by making significant strides in equity and inclusion in our retention and graduation rates.

What has the coronavirus pandemic revealed to you — good or bad — regarding your abilities/traits as a leader?

The good: I am focused on the mission under pressure.

The bad: I am focused on the mission without always recognizing that taking time for myself is essential to be my best self at work.