On July 28th, 2022, ArrowStream is hosting re: Supply Innovation Summit. The event brings together supply chain experts from various areas to collaborate and work towards addressing the food service challenges of today. In anticipation of the event, ArrowStream presents an interview with Mili Mehrotra, Associate Professor at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a re: Supply Innovation Summit speaker.
Growing up in India, Mili pursued studies in mathematics as an undergraduate and completed her master’s degree in mathematics from Banaras Hindu University in 2002. Her exposure to operations research led her to pursue a Ph.D. in management science at the University of Texas at Dallas, which she completed in 2010 with a dissertation on Cash Supply Chain. After finishing her Ph.D., Mili became an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota for eight years before joining as an Associate Professor at the Gies School of Business, University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign in 2019. Her passion for working in education is predicated on the opportunities to shape future leaders, exchange ideas, continuously learn, and benefit others through her research on the supply chain.
1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get into education and specialize in the supply chain?
I grew up in India, in a city called Varanasi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. I received my undergraduate and master's degree in mathematics from Banaras Hindu University. I studied operations research in my master's program, which I always found fascinating. I could see many real-life applications of the concepts I learned, which motivated me to pursue higher education in this area. Hence, I joined a Ph.D. program in operations management at the University of Texas at Dallas. From there, I started learning more about supply chain operations. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I analyzed optimization and coordination issues in the Cash Supply Chain. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, so education was an intuitive career path. I finished my Ph.D. in 2010 and have been teaching and conducting research in supply chain management since then.
2. What has changed the most about supply chain since you started?
When I started my Ph.D., globalization was on the rise. There was a significant increase in manufacturing in Asian countries. The focus at the time was often either maintaining just-in-time inventory or reducing cost and improving efficiency. However, over the years, disruptive events have changed supply chain strategies quite a bit. For example, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the 2012 Dhaka garment factory fire, and the 2015 West Coast port strikes have precipitated reforms in risk management, resilience, and responsible supply chain management. Supply chains have moved toward more ethical sourcing, being more responsible, and thinking about the triple bottom line – People, Planet, and Profit.
3. What’s your favorite thing about specializing in supply chain in education?
I enjoy teaching, so I enjoy working in education. It allows me to shape future leaders, exchange ideas, and continuously learn. My favorite thing about education as far as the supply chain is concerned, is that the supply chain is an area that impacts everyone. So, when we conduct research or teach in this area, we can easily see the direct impact of our work.
4. What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career so far?
The biggest obstacle I’ve ever faced in my career thus far is access to information. When I completed my master's degree back in India, access to information regarding higher education wasn’t readily available, at least in my hometown. However, I was lucky enough to get into contact with people who eventually guided me toward higher education.
5. Where do you believe things are headed with the future of the supply chain in 2022 and beyond?
As I mentioned earlier, the current focus is on resilience. The pandemic has caused supply chain managers to prioritize resilience in their supply chain. A disruption in the supplier network can have a significant impact on the entire supply chain. Hence, companies need to consider what is happening in their supply network.
To give you an example, in one of my research papers, my coauthor and I built a mathematical model to analyze the impact of disruption duration information for a Fortune 500 company. Our insights can help a manufacturer to identify parts in its supply chain whose disruption impact is sensitive to duration information levels and allow the manufacturer to make informed decisions on the need to acquire better information when a disruption occurs. The supply chains need to develop such models to understand their vulnerabilities to build resilience and identify strategies to deal with disruptions.
Another challenge that supply chains face these days is that consumer preference is constantly changing. Supply chains must adapt to that. With the help of technology and available data on consumer preference, the supply chain can understand the behavioral and psychological aspects of consumer choices and incorporate them into consumer demand forecasting. Finally, supply chains will focus more on sustainability and social responsibility. In the past, various stakeholders in a supply chain have focused on their individual sustainability performances. However, it is necessary to understand that collaboration among these stakeholders is required to make the entire supply chain socially responsible.
Consider an example of creating a more energy-efficient supply chain. Typically, in a supply chain, small and medium-sized manufacturers are capital constrained and do not implement energy-efficient solutions due to high upfront costs and risky returns. However, if the big retailers can collaborate with these manufacturers and share the upfront cost and risk, making a supply chain more energy efficient becomes easier. In another research article, my coauthors and I analyze how big retailers can offer such support.
6. How do you think technology impacts the supply chain?
Usually in a supply chain, we talk about the demand and supply sides. Technology can impact both sides of the supply chain in many ways. With the help of technology, firms can collect a significant amount and variety of data on the demand side. For example, artificial intelligence can enable a company to track a consumer in a shop or a mall and obtain real-time information on their buying behavior, which can help improve forecast accuracy. On the supply side, there are a lot of innovations in additive manufacturing. I read a case where they talk about how it can help to reduce the number of components being used in an ultrasound machine so that there is less waste, and it is easier to manage the logistics of those components. Companies are now using blockchain for more visibility into their supply chains, which can also help with collaboration among supply chain partners. Digital twins of supply chains can help understand the impact of supply chain disruptions. Another exciting innovation is the creation of various digital platforms (such as Flexe, Slipseat, Walmart GoLocal) that provide flex capacity for different situations to match supply with demand. Thus, technology can impact supply chains in a lot of different ways.
7. Who do you admire (company or person) and why?
That is not easy to answer because there have been many different people whom I have admired over the years. My parents for one, always encouraged my siblings and I to study well. As I mentioned earlier, I had difficulty accessing information in a small town, but my parents always tried to find an opportunity to get that information. I admire my siblings and my husband for pursuing their dreams. I always appreciate their perseverance and dedication. There have been many teachers that have inspired me over the years. I appreciate the support and mentorship of Dr. Jahar Saha, the former Director of the Indian Institution of Management Ahmedabad, who encouraged and guided me to pursue a Ph.D. Likewise, my Ph.D. advisor Prof. Milind Dawande's mentorship, guidance, and encouragement at each stage of my career have made it possible for me to be where I am now. He always told me to enjoy the process and not worry about the result. This philosophy helps me every day in my academic career as well as in my personal life. I also admire my kids, who teach me to celebrate every little achievement in life.
To hear more from Mili, join the waitlist to re:Supply here.