Tom Rockwood `79
On the walls of the Aruna Project headquarters in Cincinnati are photos of the team in India, including the 75 artisans they serve, as well as indigenous Indian staff. “Though we are 8,000 miles away, the pictures remind us every day of the reason we exist,” says Rockwood. “We are but a small instrument helping each of these women re-discover and live out their God-given worth and purpose.”
WPI was on Tom Rockwood’s `79 (ME) radar from an early age. He attended football games with his father, Albert Rockwood ’46, and his grandfather, Douglas Howes, taught electrical engineering here in the ’60s. With his family’s influence, and an inclination toward math and science, attending WPI felt like a natural path to take.
Now, after a 30-year career with Procter & Gamble, Rockwood is turning onto a new path—one that is similar
yet wholly different in scope—as COO for The Aruna Project (arunaproject.com), a nonprofit helping sexually exploited women in India.
Its mission is to ensure lifelong freedom through sustainable employment for previously sexually enslaved women. Committed to providing quality products that are handmade in an environment marked by holistic care, there are currently 66 artisans in their production unit in Mumbai. Rockwood shares that they have impacted the lives of over 200 women and their extended families, providing an alternative income in a world where alternatives often do not exist.
With 12 brands of accessories such as backpacks, duffels, totes, and headbands, Rockwood says that each item is hand-crafted in freedom and named after one of the artisans who work with The Aruna Project. “We are now a half-million-dollar brand after a little over a year of direct marketing,” he shares, “and our business has increased tenfold in just the few months since COVID-19 hit.”
Rockwood oversees the development and ongoing management of all operations, including sourcing, manufacturing, fulfillment, shipping, and inventory management.
At The Aruna Project, he brings a vast wealth of knowledge from years of manufacturing third shifts, interfacing with virtually every segment of the grocery retailing industry, ownership of P&G’s go-to-market logistics solutions, to product design and integration of new transportation management software. These have provided Rockwood a deep understanding of and appreciation for a very diverse set of players and business drivers—each of which is vital to the supply chain.
“I suspect I bring the most value in seeing how everything connects, which allows us to make better choices and minimize the number of rabbit trails we go down,” he says.
“In virtually every business I’ve been a part of, we constantly seek to improve productivity and one of the chief outcomes is a reduction/reassignment of staff,” he explains. “Aruna’s business is upside down, in that we gauge our success on the number of women we free, employ, and empower.”
In looking back at his time at WPI, Rockwood says there are four major takeaways that come to mind:
• Learning as a discovery process: “WPI armed me with a bias toward purposeful learning, aimed at solving a problem. In the process, it has created a curiosity that has made me a lifelong learner.”
• Playing well with others: “My experiences on project teams and in my fraternity taught me not just to value others, but to see others as vital to solving problems.”
• Persuasively selling ideas: “WPI taught me to see how seemingly disconnected things actually impact each other. In business, this meant not only being an expert in my field, but knowing a lot about how other systems are impacted.”
• Humility: “Professor Hal Corey taught me a valuable lesson in my freshman Drawing class. We were to design a simple vise for a woodshop. My design was outstanding (in my mind), until he asked me how it could be manufactured. It couldn’t … in its current form. I learned about humility, but I also learned from the caring/non-judgmental manner in which the professor pointed out my error. That lesson remained with me as I worked with others throughout my career.”
Rockwood admits that each day at The Aruna Project tests the fiber of his supply of connected knowledge, but he is often reminded that they are changing the trajectory of lives and families. “We hired our first artisan in January 2015 and we are grateful to say that over 90% of the women who started with Aruna have stayed with Aruna and are thriving.”