Technical, Business Skill Combo Provides Perspective and Mobility
Risa Sparks, Manager Forecasting and Reporting, Eurasia Finance, Chevron Corporation
By Pam Losefsky
For a young Risa Sparks in the mid-1990s, it was a family friend, a woman who was an industrial engineer, who piqued her interest in engineering. “She explained what she did, and it sounded really interesting,” remembers Sparks. “She had a great career and a good life, and I found the whole thing appealing.”
While studying engineering at the University of Michigan, Sparks participated in the school’s co-op program, through which she worked at both Intel in New Mexico and the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. The insight she gained through those opportunities led her to accept an engineering job at Intel following graduation. “I really liked high tech and manufacturing,” she says. “It was always challenging and involved a lot of problem solving. I also found it to be creative—you have to think on your feet, find new ways to fix things.” She held positions as operating manager in Intel’s Assembly Technology Development factory and project manager for a team tasked with improving manufacturing data quality.
However, after a few years working as an engineer, Sparks realized that she was only seeing a small segment of the business. “I found that a little frustrating. I wanted to see the big picture,” she says. At about the time she was discovering this limitation of a strictly technical career, the bottom dropped out of the high tech industry. Intel was freezing hiring and promotions, and Sparks, making lemonade out of lemons, seized on the opportunity to pursue an MBA.
“I found my technical background to be a huge help in business school,” she says. “Even though the coursework is quite different from engineering, I really used my knowledge of how to break down problems in order to find answers. The problems are different, but how you go about arriving at solutions is the same.” She also knew that she could handle whatever business school could dish out. “I had already managed the very difficult course load of an engineering program, which helped me develop good time management skills and confidence in myself. That really proved valuable both in business school and as I advanced in my career.”
Sparks concentrated in finance at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business and worked for Chevron Corporation as part of the Finance MBA Development Program offered by the school. Since graduating in 2005, she has held various positions with the company, most recently as Manager Forecasting and Reporting, Eurasia Finance.
Her knowledge of the technical side of the business has been a plus. “In finance, you see information from all over the business, including engineering,” she says. “Having that background means that I’m not intimidated by it.” She points out that at Chevron, in particular, there are a whole host of positions where a technical and business combination is very valuable. “I’ve met people with engineering backgrounds in our strategic planning organization, our global gas program, all over the place—there are a lot of opportunities to make that combination particularly attractive.”
Sparks encourages young women with technical degrees to consider going into business. “Sometimes, people are intimidated, thinking that if they don’t have an accounting or marketing background, they’ll be behind, but that’s not really so. Because of the analytical focus of technical undergraduate programs, they will catch up very quickly.” She credits her switch to business with exposure to a wide variety of functions and opportunities she didn’t have before.
In her current position in Chevron’s Eurasia Finance division, she lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The chance to work abroad is just another benefit she has seen arise out of her technical and business skill combination—she is currently in her fifth position with the company and third international assignment. “I love working abroad, and it’s one of the reasons I chose to work for Chevron,” she says. “You learn things about yourself, get to work with diverse people and face management challenges that you’d never get working at home.”