People of CSE

Ash Gupta

Ash Gupta graduated from The University of Edinburgh in 1969. He’s had an interesting life and dealt with many challenges along the way – betrayal, prejudice, legal challenges, racism and more. However, Ash has never let anything stop him from pursuing his goals. Now 74 years old, Ash is managing an international smart power quality technology company with his wife of over 40 years, and still showcases rock guitar music monthly in Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms.  

A music career versus university

portrait of Ash Gupta
Ash Gupta

I was born into an Indian-Scottish family in Aden, a British Protectorate at the tip of the Red Sea in 1947. My dad, a surgeon, was working at the General Hospital in Aden. He died when I was just 5, so we came home to Scotland. When I was 18, I enrolled at the University of Edinburgh as a Geography undergraduate. I had a passion for music, and I was playing as a guitarist in an R&B band called “The Images” at the time. I had a lot of 9 o’clock classes in my first year and the band would play all over Scotland until late, so I would often get home at 5 in the morning. I would sometimes only get a couple of hours of sleep before lectures - but I never missed one. At the end of my first year, I was doing well. I was 3rd out of 132 students in my year, so I continued the lifestyle - playing in the band and studying at the same time.  

On Saturdays, I worked in one of the coolest clothes shops in Edinburgh - J.R. Berry’s on Lothian Road. I was a ‘Mod.’ We were a youth movement that listened to certain bands and wore sharp, smart clothes - we would never wear the same shirt twice. One Saturday, a guy walked into the shop and asked to buy 32 pairs of men’s underpants. I was puzzled - even a Mod would never do that! It turned out that he was a Chauffer for a famous actor Lawrence Harvey. He was organising a surprise 19th birthday party for Jane Asher. At the time she was the Beatle Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, and she was acting as Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ during the festival. As I was packing the order up, he asked me if I knew any good bands in Edinburgh to play at the party. I told him about my band, and he asked us to play. A few days later, we travelled to a lovely stone house in Edinburgh that they had hired for The Festival. We’d never seen anything like it before and were completely mesmerised—London models and TV stars hanging about, the food and drink was like nothing we’d ever seen before.  

During our break, a guy called Jim Dale — he had a Rock TV show on ITV; there was only two TV channels back then— approached us and said: “Hey, you guys are great! What Label are you on?” I said that the only label up here is Robertson’s Jam! Then, he offered to get us a recording contract. The whole experience was surreal; in my mind, I saw this as the beginning of a dream music career. However, I didn’t know that the band would kick me out shortly after that encounter— the members didn’t want me anymore, because I was a student, and they were turning professional. That broke my heart. I spent days just wandering around feeling depressed, I couldn’t get over the betrayal and the loss of my musical dream. However, that was until I decided to start my own 3-piece band called “The Motion!” It was doing well; by 1966, we were level pegging with “The Images”, my old band, and we were both booked to play at the University’s Graduation Ball. However, I’d not been balancing music and studying as well as I had been in my first year, I was called up by the Dean of The Faculty. I had dropped to last place in the finals for the second year and I was told to present myself in the Old Quad. At the meeting, The Dean gave me an ultimatum – I had to choose between music and studying. I chose the latter. I sold my instruments and changed my degree. Two years later, I graduated with distinction as the first ever History and Theory of Architecture student from the University. My young music career taught me my first lesson - how to recover from a slap in the face.  

 

Helping to create Ford’s fastest-selling car

1973 launch of the Dial A Ride scheme in Maidstone, Kent .
Launch of Dial A Ride scheme in Maidstone

In those days, there was a little room in Old College that helped graduates look for jobs, it was called the Graduate Recruitment Office, and that’s where I went in 1969. The first interview I got was with the Ford Motor Company. During the interview, they asked me why I wanted to join Ford. I said to them: “Do you want to hear nonsense about Ford winning the car race Le Mans three times or the truth? They said, “Try us with the truth!” I told them how I had noticed that the cars on the road were damaging the fragile historic cores of our ancient cities; we had cars with big engines burning fossil fuels. They were harming the old streets of Edinburgh with heavy vibration and toxic fumes. I wanted to be involved in creating newer, less harmful types of transport. That was before people knew about climate change. For me, at that time, it was all about protecting my lovely city’s architecture. That interview got me a job at Ford in October 1969.  

Before I started, I already knew who I wanted to work for at Ford. It was a very bright guy called Philip Oxley, he was hired by Ford to create a new department that would create advanced transportation systems, like electric cars and magnetic levitation trains – exactly what I was interested in. On my fifth day at Ford, their Graduate Recruitment team said that this was too niche and that I would never work with him. After hearing that, I took a lift to the top floor of the office to talk to Philip’s boss. I said, “I have come to resign”, and I told him that I wanted to work for Philip. He listened and said, “Go away and do whatever they ask. Keep your nose clean for the next two weeks, then come back here at the same time. Two weeks after, I came back. I was told that I will be crash testing cars first; if I do well, I will be sent to London for a postgraduate, and after that, I will work for Philip. Hence, I went to work at the Research and Development centre, where I learnt all about car safety. After 18 months, I then went to university in London where I studied Mathematical Method Applied to Transport. I was Student of the Year and graduated with Distinction. I joined Philip’s department while I was studying on the course. Together, we pioneered the first demand-actuated bus system in Europe - it was like Uber, except with a Transit mini-bus that people could order by phone and share a ride. We called it “Dial-A-Ride”. It was trialled in several British towns, and eventually adopted overseas.  

When the first oil crisis hit in 1973, Ford needed to make cost-savings. They shut down our department and I got moved into another department that was working on the Project Bobcat— it was the biggest project Ford had attempted to make at the time. The project cost me four years of my life and my first marriage. At the end, there were only 5 of us on the team, but together we had helped to create the Ford Fiesta— one of the world’s fastest-selling cars. For my efforts, Ford offered me a fast-track to becoming a Director, but it was on the condition that I took roles in 5 different departments over 5 years in different places to broaden my experience. It sounded like a dream opportunity. But then I met Christine, the woman who would become my wife of over 40 years. She made it clear that she didn’t want to move to another place, so it left me with another big decision to make. I chose Christine over Ford, and just like that, I left Ford and opened a new chapter of my life.  

 

My life then, my life now  

Having held a position in advertising & sales at Ford Europe before, I re-started my life in advertising. Ford was a meritocracy; it didn’t matter what colour you were if you had the skills. However, I quickly realised that the agency that I was working for wasn’t like that. I decided to leave to start my own agency, Ash Gupta Advertising. When I told my boss at the time about my plans, he was furious. He told me: “You’re half- Indian, you’ll never get anywhere with an Indian brand name in Scotland.” But it didn’t hold me back. In fact, we went on to be one of Scotland’s leading advertising agencies, working with brands like Rossignol & Salomon Ski equipment, golf brands, RBS, Harris Tweed, and Pringle of Scotland. Air UK was my biggest client of all. Nowadays, in a way, I have returned to my initial dream that I had wanted to pursue when I was at Ford - to combat pollution and climate change. Christine and I now run a business called Gupta Smart Energy, which specialises in transformational low-carbon technologies. I didn’t completely give up on music either. I’m 74 now and I still regularly play with Scotland’s musicians at my monthly showcase at the Voodoo Rooms here in Edinburgh. I have even launched my own signature guitar—Fret-King’s “Greenie”

 

I’ve had an eventful life; overcome many barriers and cynics and I’ve had many wonderful experiences with talented people. Your network is key—we are often judged by the company we keep. If I had a piece of advice that I could pass on to everyone, it would be this— Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something - if they say you can’t, the answer is yes, you can.