Harish Sheth went 8,000 miles from India to learn about his homeland.
“I was from Mumbai and was always meeting people from Mumbai but rarely any others,” he said. “When I got to the United States I was just 17 and began to meet people from areas of India that I had never been to and knew nothing about. So I learned more about my country while I was in Ann Arbor. It was a huge surprise.”
His path to Michigan Engineering included a stop at Michigan Tech. “I enrolled at Michigan Tech and found out quickly that Houghton was much colder than I ever expected. I had friends at Michigan and during a visit to Ann Arbor I was reminded how pleasant a warmer climate is. I decided to make another attempt to get into Michigan Engineering – it was where I really wanted to be. I transferred in 1966.
“My strength came from my Michigan Engineering experience. It made me what I am today.” –Harish Sheth
It was one of many lessons he would learn in the coming years. In addition to mingling with people from India and other cultures, Sheth (BSE ME ’68) worked on the McCarthy campaign in 1968 because he wanted to participate in American politics. He became vice president of an organization of Indian students (“It was a crash course in leadership”). And he immersed himself in the ebb and flow of life in Ann Arbor.
“Taking all of that into consideration – learning about different cultures, politics, people and leadership – I can say without hesitation that my Michigan Engineering experience has benefitted me in business. My engineering education has also been a major factor in business, but not directly. In studying engineering, my mind became analytical, and problem-solving became easier. I can cut through a maze of problems and find solutions.”
Sheth also mentioned with a laugh that he “simply had a damn good time” at Michigan Engineering. He had a lot of friends (“We hung out at co-ops and talked for hours”) and ate a lot of student food (“There were inexpensive restaurants on State Street, and Domino’s pizza was a staple for our nighttime study groups”). “I have a lot of good memories from those years. It was a wonderful time of my life.”
Sheth returned to India with a Michigan Engineering degree, an MBA in finance from Columbia University, and two years of experience on Wall Street. He founded a single-product, single-location manufacturing company in Gujarat. He quickly transformed that small core into Setco Automotive Limited, a multi-product, multi-location corporation with an international reach. Today, Setco is the largest manufacturer of clutches for heavy and medium commercial vehicles in India; the company also manufactures precision components, pressings and hydraulics. Today, Sheth is the company’s chairman and managing director, and the director of its corporate conscience.
“Setco is located in a very poor part of India,” Sheth said. “Families exist on three dollars a day. About forty percent of kids don’t finish 7th grade. Many children die at a young age and many have deformities. I’ve always felt strongly that Setco has a responsibility to the surrounding community; I promised myself that Setco would give back to these people.”
He followed through on that promise, establishing the Setco Foundation, which focuses on basic health and education. “We cover the full costs of schooling these children – including good nutrition – and we offer special incentives to those who excel academically. We provide additional scholarships for young girls, regular health checkups and special nutrition for pregnant women, as well as skill-development classes for women in the local village. The program is working wonderfully and we’re expanding it. It’s very gratifying.” Approximately 1,000 children are taking advantage of this program.
People are central to everything Sheth does. He has a large extended family that he describes as close and warm. He spends a lot of time on his knees playing with his grandson. And he loves his work, citing the people he works with as a major reason that he comes to the office each day with a positive attitude.
“My character was built at U-M,” he said. “That’s the most basic thing I got from Michigan Engineering – it has been more important in my life than my degree. I came from India and didn’t know the world. Suddenly I was on my own in an apartment, buying my own food and figuring out how to live with roommates whose idiosyncrasies were beyond my understanding. I didn’t know much, but I learned. My strength came from my Michigan Engineering experience. It made me what I am today.”