SALT LAKE CITY — Becoming a successful leader in business requires strength of mind, an indomitable spirit and the ability to guide others to high achievement.
Here are the stories of three women who took different career paths to business success, marshaling their talents, education and work ethic into business success. Their message? Following your dreams requires preparation.
For Sara Jones, 42, her path to career success began with her birth in Korea and adoption by a Utah family at age 2, raised by two parents with two sisters.
As a child growing up, she became known as an academic overachiever, graduating from Jordan High in 1992, receiving her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Utah and a law degree from Brigham Young University.
She said her motivation was an overwhelming desire “to not be poor,” she says with a chuckle.
“My parents were incredibly hard workers,” Jones said. “(They) had me working all the time — doing a job or filling out an application to college. They really taught me how to work for things.”
Because there were only girls, each daughter learned “all the jobs that boys would do.” Those experiences instilled a dogged work ethic that continues today, she said.
Jones said the decision to apply to law school was prompted by a speaker she heard in college talk “about his career as a patent attorney and how he made a lot of money.”
“I sort of just fell into it,” she said. Jones parlayed that desire into a successful career and a partnership at a local law firm, working primarily on software patents, she said. But after almost 10 years in the field, she wanted a change and decided to pursue other interests.
“I made the decision to switch careers and do something that I felt had a much higher potential to make a difference in the world,” Jones said. She is co-founder and vice president of operations of Women Tech Council — a Utah-based nonprofit trade association that provides mentoring, visibility and networking for women in technology fields.
Through her involvement with the council, she is able to use her talents to reach and help more people than she did as a lawyer, she said.
“I don’t believe I would have been able to visualize the other things I could do with my life without having a community like Women Tech Council,” she said. “It was there for me in the critical years that I needed to be inspired.”
Being around other high-achieving women who are
entrepreneurial and creating career paths for themselves was the motivation she needed to pursue more fulfilling opportunities for herself, Jones said.
Since leaving the law firm, she has worn many hats in her professional life, including chief executive officer of a human resources technology firm, as well as leadership positions at two other small companies — all while raising two sons with her husband. She said her willingness to pursue new opportunities has been a strength throughout her professional career.
“I’m not afraid of reinventing myself and figuring out where I want to make an impact,” she said. “As long as I’m doing that in my life, I’ve been pretty happy.”
She said offering mentorship to young women is an important part of building a stronger foundation for the future leaders in the world of technology in Utah.
“(Tech) is the one (industry) right now where (as a woman) you are really guaranteed a great job opportunity, but doesn’t mean you have to stay in that job forever,” she said. “It is a great start.”
One of Jones’ co-founders at Women Tech Council is Cydni Tetro, 42, a married mother of three and a tech entrepreneur who has consulted for companies such as Microsoft, Target and Disney. She currently serves as executive director of the tech council.
Born in Chicago but raised in Lindon as the oldest of eight children, her parents instilled the value of education early on to all their kids, she said.
“Education was really important to my family,” Tetro said. “You were going to be empowered to get educated, have a lot of skills and be able to do whatever you wanted to do based on what life was going to demand from you.”
She said her parents were very good at identifying their kids’ strengths and guiding them toward opportunities in those areas of study.
Tetro holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science — with a dance minor — and an MBA from BYU.
“I was either the only girl in all-male classes or there were very few men in my dance classes,” she said. Tetro was one of just three women in her graduating class, she said.
The unusual class structure offered a unique perspective as she advanced through school and eventually into the workplace, she said.
Her first job was with Novell, where she worked for about five years on the product management team. She left for a management position with a tech startup, where she worked for seven years, making connections that helped her perform better at each new position she would take on.
In 2007, she — along with Sara Jones and Kim Jones (no relation) — established the Women Tech Council. It became one of her primary focuses and has grown to more than 10,000 members and sponsor partners, she said.
After nearly 10 years, she said the original mission of the organization has not changed, and membership has always been free to anyone who wants to join.
“We (consider) everything by how we’re going to impact the economic growth (of our community) and what can we do to create visibility, mentoring and opportunities for women that will help grow the economy and create a great platform,” Tetro said.
She said that among the aims of the council is to help show young girls and young women considering a career in business or technology that the opportunities that exist for them if they are willing to pursue them.
“They should dream big. They can do anything that they want,” she said. “The biggest impact they can have on the world is to recognize the talents they have to be able to create and innovate.”
She said they should develop the skills they need that allow them to take the many “cool ideas” they may have in their minds and let them become a reality.
Tetro also noted the importance of fostering positive relationships with professional acquaintances that could be beneficial in the long term.
“You have to build relationships with people that create value on both sides that help people along the way — especially if you have the opportunity to mentor people or connect people,” she said. “Sometime, somewhere down the road, you will reconnect with them or that experience will lead to something else.”
Those principals have helped forge her career, she said.
“Do whatever you can to help other people because it comes back to help you,” Tetro said. ”Even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because you’ve helped other people move forward. That attitude will help you be successful.”
For native Salt Lake resident Kris Liacopoulos, 54, the journey to exceptionalism started after graduation from Olympus High School. The oldest of three children with two younger brothers, she was the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business marketing and eventually a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in human resource management from the University of Utah.
“I always was able to do well in school, and I enjoyed learning a lot,” she said. In the summers growing up, she would read 10 books a week, and her mother would have to force her to venture outside to play with her friends and other kids in the neighborhood.
“Because I would prefer to stay in and read my books,” she said. “I had a natural affinity for education and learning.”
She took a job in the retail industry and credits her time as a manager in a local department store as among her most valuable experiences.
“It was very ‘people intensive’ and set my course for a lifetime career on a leadership track,” she said.
After three years in retail, she eventually moved on to a position with Fidelity Investments, earned an MBA, and now, 20 years later, is the regional general manager for the company’s personal investing business unit, directing about 2,000 employees — the first woman to hold the position in the region.
“As a woman, building your own internal confidence is part of the challenge (of succeeding),” she said. “Doing things like investing in yourself and building your credentials really helps you, as well as it helps the external perception of you as a qualified, credible leader.”
She said the financial services industry is seeking more diversity in its workforce as women and people of color become more prominent among the sector’s customer base.
“You start with wanting your employee base to mirror or match your customer base,” she said.
She said her experience as a minority in Utah — female, non-Mormon, gay and Greek — has served her well.
“I’m one of those people who is a good team player,” Liacopoulos said. “(Over the years) people would want me on their team because I was reliable, committed to doing good work, and I could find ways to effectively collaborate.”