Industrial engineering alumna starts enterprises in travel, hospitality services

Shane Ramsay
April 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Entrepreneur, world-traveler, business woman, engineer: these are all words that can be used to describe Maneesha Panicker. An alumna of Penn State, Panicker earned her master’s degree in industrial engineering in 2004. After receiving her undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and management from Bangalore Institute of Technology in her native India, she traveled thousands of miles to receive the next level of her education, wanting to pursue realms outside of just engineering and decided Penn State was the best option.

“I chose industrial engineering to study because it offered the most business-related courses,” Panicker said. “I was interested in supply chain, business management and things like that as well, so my time at Penn State was a valuable learning experience.”

Soon after her time at Penn State, Panicker accepted an industrial engineering position with the cosmetic company Estée Lauder in New York. However, she quickly realized that being a part of corporate America was not what she wanted, and instead wanted to pursue her own personal ventures.

“I quit my job, moved back to India and began experimenting with starting businesses,” Panicker said. “So, I started three businesses that didn’t work, and then the travel company Silk Route Escapes was the fourth business — the one that finally worked out.”

What began as a one-woman show with Panicker running every aspect of the travel company, Silk Route Escapes focuses on offering experiences to allow people to connect with the Indian culture and people. She believes that Silk Route Escapes was the one to finally “take off” because of her passion for travel and her already strong knowledge of India.

While looking for office space for the company years later, she stumbled across an island that soon became the location for her next venture: Kayal Island Retreat. The retreat is a four-cottage bed and breakfast designed for optimal relaxation for its guests. Beyond selling out for its first four months, the experience has received numerous accolades, being featured in travel magazines like National Geographic, Condé Nast and Lonely Planet.

A living room at Kayal Island Retreat

A living room at Kayal Island Retreat, Panicker's Nat-Geo-rated four-cottage hotel in Kerala, India.  

IMAGE: Maneesha Panicker

“It is so gratifying to see our students succeed in a wide range of industries,” said Vittaldas Prabhu, director of Service Enterprise Engineering (SEE 360) at Penn State. “As a part of our SEE 360 initiative, we are working with Maneesha to bring her real-world experience of using engineering techniques in the travel and hospitality industry into our classrooms through case studies.”

The mission of SEE 360 is to contribute to engineering the 21st-century economy. This includes developing teaching resources such as textbooks and case studies that apply engineering techniques toward solving problems in service industries, introducing students to opportunities for engineering in labor-intensive service industries, and partnering with businesses to allow students to develop solutions that optimize service.

“Both Silk Route Escapes and Kayal allow me to create spaces and itineraries,” Panicker said. “And I’ve had this passion for traveling since growing up. My dad was in politics, so we (as a family) traveled a lot, and that is something that’s always stayed with me.”

Although Panicker described how the search for funding for both businesses was a challenging and “nerve-wracking” process, she believes that finding and filling an empty area in the market to provide a service that was previously unavailable is worth every challenge in getting there.

“I took a risk,” Panicker said. “But, building this hotel has been the biggest achievement of my career.”

She attributes her knowledge of industrial engineering and its connection to all the different studies instrumental in her personal success. Service engineering, specifically, has had an immensely strong influence on her career and its path.

“I was always interested in the service sector throughout my education,” Panicker said. “Both my businesses are heavily service-oriented, so I believe my studies at Penn State definitely helped me get to where I am today.”

For everyone that is currently pursuing an education or career in industrial engineering, Panicker is a firm believer in figuring out what you want and then pursuing it.

“If you like something or want to do something, just go out and do it,” she said. “If it works or if doesn’t work, you’ll still learn something that will help you in your future career path, business path or life in general.”

Last Updated April 10, 2019