Lisa Swank Patel on a career shift from drilling to Disney

Rice alumna leverages her engineering training and problem-solving skills in the entertainment industry.

Headshot of Lisa Swank Patel

Third generation Rice University Chemical Engineer, Lisa Swank Patel ’15 really expected to pursue biomedicine when she was in high school. She said, “Biology was one of my favorite subjects. Unfortunately, one of my least favorite subjects was physics and biomedicine had a lot of physics. Following my father and grandfather into chemical engineering at Rice, I was delighted to see the major —now CHBE— included bimolecular engineering.”

She was six weeks old at her first Rice football game. That November Saturday, the Owls were playing the University of Houston Cougars; Patel, bundled up against the cold, was escorted into the R Room by her grandfather and grandmother. She jokes that as she grew, she probably wore every size of the Rice cheerleader outfit sold by the bookstore. Ironically, her engineering experience led her into a different kind of cheerleading: pitching a product.

“Engineers are not typically known for having the best communication skills, but I disagree,” said Patel. “At Rice, we had to give a lot of presentations and our faculty always encouraged us to add creativity to the story. All my communication training came together at the Senior Design Expo, where teams create a solution and pitch their concept to an audience.

“It is really difficult for CHBEs to compete for the highest awards. We’re only presenting large-scale processes while the cross-functional teams are demonstrating prototypes and projects the audience can see and touch. The older CHBEs will tell you the whole expo is frustrating because your projects are considered boring, and no one wants to talk to you. So, we knew we would need to create a visual for people to see what we were talking about if we were going to really sell the idea of our project.”

Her senior year, the design prompt for CHBE students was to focus on a country in eastern Africa and find a way to convert an existing resource into a biofuel product that could be utilized by the people there. Patel’s team began exploring South Sudan and discovered one of the country’s staple crops is sorghum. They created a process for turning sorghum into a propane-like fuel called Dimethyl ether (DME) that residents could use in place of diesel.

“Sorghum is also grown in Texas, and I learned from the family of Rushi Patel (BIOE ’15 and now my husband) that some Indian families use it like popcorn, popping the seeds and sprinkling with spices to eat as a snack. So, I bought a bag of sorghum for our demo, popped some of the seeds at our table using a roommate’s popcorn popper, and gave out samples so people could taste the sorghum. It has less flavor than the popcorn we are used to in the United States, but it was a tangible part of our project that audience members could relate to,” Patel said.

“Our team put so much work and time into that project and presentation. In retrospect, everything we did turned out to be helpful in our careers. We learned to identify and solve a problem as a team, work through conflicts, to give succinct status updates, meet a deadline and pitch our solution to an audience that spanned a variety of expertise and industries. Our team won the award for ‘Best in Energy Design’ – but even without the win, it was an incredible learning opportunity for all of us.”

After the win and her graduation, Patel returned as a production engineer to the oil and gas company where she had completed two summer internships. Family ties had led her into the field and she loved the chemical engineering aspects of her role, but after three years she sought a career where her work would be closer to its end users.

“Drilling for oil is about as far from the end user as you can get,” Patel joked. “At the opposite end of that spectrum is entertainment —which is delivered directly into the consumer’s hands on their mobile device.”

An MBA was in her future, and her interest in the entertainment industry meant schools in California. She headed to Los Angeles where she completed an MBA with a certificate in Business of Entertainment from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Patel said, “In addition to teaching me to nail presentations, my Rice training also set me up well for group work; that was to my benefit in business school. The ability to communicate within working teams is extremely valuable. You may not get along some of your team members, but I had already learned about handling interpersonal conflicts in my Rice team projects. Rice prepared me for my time in oil and gas, and it helped in my MBA.”

At USC, Patel and her classmates had guest lectures by executives in the entertainment industry who also offered opportunities for real-world experiences in their organizations. Patel interned at Paramount Pictures.

“I got the Paramount internship because my team won a case competition. We had to work in a team, come up with an idea, and present it within two weeks. Obviously, I had a bit of presentation experience from Rice and that propelled me into creating an MBA project pitch,” she said.

Early in her internship with Paramount, she and the other interns were sitting around a table, getting to know the CFO. He asked about their backgrounds and Patel felt out of place with her oil and gas experience.

She said, “I love to quote that CFO. He said drilling a well and making a movie were not that different. In oil and gas, there are a lot of interested parties coming in, putting down money. They don’t know if the well will be a success or not, they just have to drill it and see how it goes. It’s the same with a movie. A lot of people are coming in, they have an idea, and they have to see if it works, if people like it.

“His response helped me see there are parallels across different industries as to how different parties come together to solve problems. But there is a second aspect to my CHBE training that spans industries. Being an engineer, we are taught a unique way of problem solving. We have to break down our approach to manageable regions. Let’s say I need to get to point C in an equation where A + B = C; when I look more closely at A, I see it can also be broken down into smaller parts. Now, I need to set a path from one point to the next to get to A then ultimately C.”

As a senior manager in one of the Disney organizations, Patel said she continues to draw on the engineering approach to problem solving as well as her oil and gas experiences, her MBA training, and her previous roles in the entertainment industry. Her role as a consultant also further honed her communication skills.

“In oil and gas, we didn’t spend a lot of time on Powerpoint slides but I had opportunities to finesse my presentation skills and keep building that toolkit as a consultant. Working in the consulting industry meant gathering basic information and turning it into a unique analysis to present to executives. At Disney, I am doing similar work.

“And to any current engineering students out there, I’d just like to say, ‘Your first job doesn’t have to be your last job and your first industry doesn’t have to be your last one.’ Only a handful of people from my Rice CHBE class are still doing the same first job or working in their first industry. Rice engineering at its core sets you up for a unique way of breaking down problems and communicating solutions, easily transferable into any industry you choose.”

This story is part of a series for our Activate Engineering Communication program.