PLEASANTON — When S.K. Gupta stepped off a plane from India at John F. Kennedy airport in August 1980, he didn't expect to become anything more than an engineer.
Thirty years later, he now serves as vice president of operations for Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Company in Sunnyvale and actively grooms other Asian-Americans to become leaders in their own businesses and corporations.
Gupta's efforts recently garnered him an Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, a group that aims to promote and celebrate America's diversity.
A Pleasanton resident and father of two, Gupta, 59, received the award at a ceremony May 8 that included representatives from every U.S. military branch.
"It really made you feel patriotic," he said. "The dinner was in the main hall of Ellis Island where they used to process immigrants. You thought about all the millions of people — 12 million — who went through that main hall."
The medals, which have been awarded annually since 1986, are designed to honor individuals who demonstrate excellence through philanthropic, civic and ethnic community work, said NECO Executive Director Rosemarie Taglione.
"You have to be somebody who is a proud American that has given back to their country, whether it's the U.S. or where they came from or where their ancestors came from," she said.
Gupta, who was nominated by the U.S. Military's Space and
Missile Command, was one of 107 medalists selected from a group of 1,200 contenders.
Gupta said receiving the medal validated what he has been trying to accomplish since he was named a vice president of the company, where he oversees an annual budget of $700 million.
He hopes to inspire other Asian-Americans to "crash through glass ceilings" by recognizing what is holding them back, a message he delivers in the motivational speeches he gives throughout the United States.
"It is amazing how much opportunity all of us have here in this country," he said. "It is up to us to figure out how to leverage that opportunity."
Margaret Ashida, chairwoman of the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics' board of directors, where Gupta serves as a board member, called him a "treasure" who gives freely of his time and talent.
"He really does a tremendous amount to reach back and pull through to other Asians," she said. "He teaches them not to assimilate, but to understand their own heritage, their own values and learn the leadership skills they need to succeed."
Gupta, who received his master's in business administration from Seattle University, is also a board member of Sandia National Laboratory, the Bay Area Council and the San Jose Museum of Arts. He is a founder and executive adviser of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Leadership and Mentoring Association for Lockheed Martin employees.
Gupta is now turning his attention to creating a new unifying organization where Asian-Americans can work together, learn from each other and help colleagues reach the positions they have the skills for in the corporate world.
"We really need to start speaking with one voice so it's not a Filipino, Indian, Japanese or Chinese voice, but an Asian voice the community hears," he said.