Alum finds new solutions to complex problems
Story by Erin Chesnut
Lina Patel (‘96) has a complex job at a high-tech company. However, when her children ask her what she does, she gives a simple answer:
“Accenture is like a doctor’s office for businesses. We perform well checks and create a healthy wellbeing plan – or if they’re sick, we will develop a plan for how to fix them,” she said.
Finding solutions to complex problems is what Patel has done with Accenture for the past two decades, and it’s hard to believe her path to life as a senior program manager with an international corporation began with a simple classroom assignment at UT Martin.
“I thrived in a project I did for the Waste Management Company during college and recall how thrilling it was to help the organization recycle their plastic waste straps,” she said. “The experience of working on a project to solve the waste problem … was much more than I could have learned simply in a classroom.”
“Accenture is like a doctor’s office for businesses. We perform well checks and create a healthy wellbeing plan – or if they’re sick, we will develop a plan for how to fix them.”
Patel and her classmates devised a process for the company to reduce the plastic straps to small pieces to allow for easier recycling and disposal. The process of creating an innovative solution within the company’s existing parameters helped Patel discover her love for corporate challenges, new ideas and the application of technology to solve problems. She ultimately graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and major in management information systems.
“I feel (real-world projects are) super important. (They give) students the exposure to what they want or even what they don’t want (to do with their lives). It’s always powerful to know, ‘Ok, this is not really for me,’ or ‘I can see myself doing this.’ Exposure is so important. It can change the trajectory of your life,” she said. “The fact that you’re actually going somewhere outside of school and being able to talk to people in that environment and knowing that you will be there someday (is powerful).”
After two decades with Accenture, Patel has worked with more than 10 different international accounts as a senior manager leading a team of subject-matter experts, engineers and others to improve existing processes and implement new designs around the world. She says her most rewarding projects are those where she can see results, such as new products arriving in stores more quickly or customers receiving items they have requested over the phone.
“Something I worked on early on in my career was an interactive voice response system for a health-care company where … our client’s customers were able to request a health-care ID card through just pressing buttons on (the) phone,” she said. “So, when we were testing that, I actually tested the system we built with my ID, and I got it in the mail! So, seeing the results at the end and knowing you contributed to impacting the customer is very rewarding.”
Patel says communication is a key component to completing a successful project, and she spends time listening to her clients to understand their daily processes before suggesting new ideas or improvements. Ironically, communication was not her strong suit when she first entered the workforce. As a young woman in a male-dominated field, Patel found it difficult to speak up and make herself heard in the professional world.
“Back then, there weren’t many women who went into technology fields. I remember being one of the few females in coding classes or computer science classes (at UT Martin). … Also, being Indian, it was even more challenging for me because I was still trying to figure things out and didn’t know what to say when,” she said. “My parents are from India, and in that culture, you are often taught not to speak back to your male counterparts. … So, I had a challenge speaking up. I had a fear of public speaking. In my meetings, I was always quiet; when I did speak, I was always sweating.”
“Back then, there weren’t many women who went into technology fields. I remember being one of the few females in coding classes or computer science classes (at UT Martin). … Also, being Indian, it was even more challenging for me because I was still trying to figure things out and didn’t know what to say when.”
However, Patel refused to sit down and be silent. Instead, she sought ways to improve her confidence outside of her professional routine.
“With my public speaking fear, the way I overcame the fear was volunteering for Junior Achievement where I taught financial literacy in front of kids in schools,” she said. “When I started, I had sweaty palms. As I became more comfortable, I moved into the corporate world and started to speak up and be conscious of when I was quiet or fearful.”
Today, Patel serves on the board for Junior Achievement – a non-profit youth organization focused on fostering work readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship in children – and coaches her two daughters to have confidence in themselves and their abilities regardless of what others may think or say.
The desire to give back to her community hasn’t faded with time, and Patel recently took a yearlong leave from Accenture to work with her daughters’ school system in Mason City, Ohio. She used this time and her professional skillset to organize more than 1,300 district staff members into teams of eight, each dedicated to approaching three core objectives – cultural change, personalized learning, and diversity and inclusion.
“Studies have shown that teams of eight provide the most meaningful connections, and with connections you get productivity on initiatives that you want to drive,” she explained. “The results were amazing because even the community started talking about some of the agendas and the work that the (school) district was doing. We also had other districts looking at us and seeing the work we were doing and admiring it.”
Her advice to new graduates in all fields is to focus on your network. “The power of networking is so important; you never know who you’re going to meet. If you meet someone now, you never know what that person will bring 10 to 15 years from now or how you will be connected with them,” she said.
She also urges students and young professionals to find a sponsor as well as a mentor. “The difference between a sponsor and a mentor is that a sponsor is going to take you and carry you everywhere that you go, similar to how a parent carries and cares for their child. … Whereas a mentor will give you advice … throughout your journey,” she said. “If you do not have a sponsor, then seek one out.”
“My career and my life have been shaped by my time at UT Martin,” she said. “I will always be grateful to the people who poured into me and the experiences I was given.”