This article was written by Anuja Singh.
Carpe diem – Seize the day! Inspiration from everyday heroes of Cisco Empowered Women’s Network
Welcome to our second edition of Cisco Empowered Women’s Network (CiscoEWN) Everyday Heroes. We all make resolutions and set goals to improve ourselves– but somewhere along the way, life interrupts our plans, we find ourselves juggling different priorities and invariably things get dropped. What you will find in this segment is inspiration from ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary results. Everyone featured in this series has faced challenges and opportunities that the rest of us can identify with; let’s draw inspiration from the choices they made and aspire to the outcomes they created.
We are honored to feature this month Sharon Sputz!
Sharon has combined experience in business strategy and technical research and after reinventing herself many times through her career; she now is doing some fascinating work in Data Sciences at Columbia University. Find out more about Sharon here.
CiscoEWN: You have held various positions in your career, but technology has been a common theme; how old were you when you discovered your passion for the field?
Sharon: I was always fond of Math and Science. When I was in middle school, I wanted to ensure that I went into 8th grade in the highest honors math track. Unfortunately, I did not do well in the placement test and was told that I couldn’t join that track. My parents knew how much it meant to me and spoke to the school to let me take the test again – but I still didn’t do well. I could have given up but I was so driven that my parents and I got the school to agree (at my own risk) to let me sit in the class. My math teacher was a formidable lady who ended up believing in my persistence – her faith in me made me strive harder and I ended up going to college for medicine.
CiscoEWN: Medicine? Did I miss that in your bio?
Sharon: We all choose a path but sometimes things change – how we accept those changes and make what we can out of them determines our tenacity and character. I lost my way a little in the first year at Medical School – there were some health issues, some peer pressure issues and I ended up thinking that I wasn’t good enough to continue down the medical path. But thankfully, I had a very strong foundation from high school and I was doing very well in the physics courses I was taking. I am grateful again to have professors who cared enough to call if one didn’t show up for class and I thrived in the rigor of Quantum physics. That’s when I knew that I loved physics and research and would rather pursue that field. That decision gave me the foundation for how life turned out.
CiscoEWN: What would you write in a letter to your younger self?
Sharon: Life is a journey, it’s not about getting from point A to point B. Have patience and don’t rush. You can make each day more fulfilling by increasing the balance in your life. When we are young we tend to think that we are entitled to success – but only hard work and persistence enable us to remove each rock from our way. Success doesn’t come instantly so don’t give up.
CiscoEWN: You spent 13 years in Bell labs as a research scientist with world-renowned physicists; produced revolutionary patents; went to school at night to get your Masters; and had two children. How did you do it?
Sharon: (Laughing) I don’t really know. I just did what needed to be done and looking back I don’t really know where the energy came from. Those were also challenging years because there were hardly any women or minorities working in research but I never felt conscious and never let that impact me. Instead I saw tremendous opportunity and worked hard and didn’t let the difficult environment stand in my way. Juggling everything was hard and I am fortunate I had my family, husband, community of working women and friends who supported each other and me.
CiscoEWN: And then, when you were at the top of your game, you quit and joined Lucent in a marketing job. Did you have any marketing skills?
Sharon: No, and I didn’t think about it either. It was a huge change but I was joining a field (Telecom) that was booming and would make me grow in ways that I couldn’t have grown had I kept doing only research. I also got a confidence boost when I saw that if you were willing to work hard and learn and problem solve then people are willing to take their chances on you and train you. I rolled up my sleeves, read a lot, learned from mentors on the job and because it was a technical marketing job, I was able to leverage my scientific training and differentiate myself.
CiscoEWN: Since then, you have taken the risk of reinventing yourself twice more – first as a defense contractor working on DOD projects, and now at Columbia University as an educator. Do you have any self-doubt as you set about proving yourself anew each time?
Sharon: Everyday – I think about how I can do my job better, how can I push myself harder? I wouldn’t call it self-doubt, but I always question if I am doing all I can. And when I am given the opportunity to reinvent myself, I am so grateful that someone took a chance on me, gave me the chance to learn and grow, that I work harder to live up to their faith in me.
I was 51 when Columbia University approached me; my first reaction was to decline the opportunity. But education and my teachers have had such a huge impact on my life, I felt this was my opportunity to impact other people and give back. While I have never felt that being a woman has held me back, I enjoy the opportunity to enable other women coming into an academic environment and encourage them to pursue any opportunity without impediments.
CiscoEWN: Leave us with your favorite Carpe diem statement.
Sharon: Life doesn’t always go the way you think it’s going to go. While it’s important to persist and believe in yourself and go after your dreams, it’s also ok for those dreams to change. Celebrate each dream and make the most out of it.
Thank you Sharon!