Excellence in Action
Susan Tousi, MBA ’05
Interviewed by Monique Beals • July 24, 2018
Please describe your career.
I started studying technology and engineering through a really inspirational teacher. He was my calculus teacher in high school. When I was thinking about what career I wanted to pursue, I loved the idea of medicine and science and what my father had done for a career and largely my mother, but I knew I didn’t want to spend all of my time in hospitals. I loved technology, and I loved the high tech side of it. My calculus teacher, who was also my boss at a summer job when I was lifeguarding for the summer, worked on me for months saying “for a student who loves math and excels in math, why haven’t you considered engineering?” The reason I hadn’t considered it was because I really didn’t know any engineers. I didn’t know any female engineers for sure.
The first thing that popped into my mind was, “I really don’t know how a car engine works, and I have never tried to fix one.” That teacher really opened my mind and taught me that engineering isn’t really about things that we can always see, and if you’ve never worked on a car engine, that doesn’t mean you can’t be an engineer. Engineers are shaping the future with things that haven’t even been conceived of or created yet. Knowing me and the things I loved to do, my teacher thought engineering was a great path for me to consider.
I reflected back to when I was a child and my favorite thing to do was go to the Air and Space Museum. I made my father take me there every weekend when I lived in DC. I finally put all the pieces together and really considered engineering.
That was one of the most enlightening and inspiring things to see how optimistic engineers are. They see a problem, and they instinctively want to solve it. They are curious and constantly thinking about how to make the future better. I have never been happy with the status quo. I’m always thinking, “How can this be improved? How can this be better? How can I invent something that doesn’t exist today?”
By the time I got to UCLA, I was well into my career as a leader in engineering. I had taken over as General Manager at Kodak, which is a business based on technology. I really felt that I needed more business acumen. Although I kind of stepped into that progressively in my career, having the formal education and really understanding how you look at a market or market opportunity and understanding the economics behind that and all of the financial basis of decision making and the formal lingo that comes with this would give me more confidence as I became a technologist that creates business opportunities and a leader of businesses that are based on technology. It was a great step, because the confidence I gained there really helped me transition career paths. I had been in consumer electronics to biotech life sciences.
That was a point in my career when I wanted to do something truly meaningful. I wanted to get back to the roots of medicine that were deep in my family with many generations of physicians. I got the confidence to take what I know from different technology-based industries and apply that in a new way to really make a difference. That opportunity came along in the way of Illumina. I initially came in as VP of Engineering and am now the Senior Vice President of Product Development.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I think I was inspired by engineering because it was the culmination of technology and improving lives. It also has that optimism and curiosity about it. You can apply that to making a difference in the world. I pursued my MBA at Anderson, because I wanted to be able to apply that more broadly and ultimately make more business decisions, because if you can’t make good business decisions, than technology is not going to be able to reach the masses and have the impact that you want.
I really feel like it all came together for me at Illumina. Our entire mission is all about improving the world and unlocking the power of the genome to improve human health. It’s a problem that you feel compelled to put your heart into and to really make an effort to make a difference, to cure disease, to get out in front of families so they don’t have to suffer with disease, and to get out in front of everyone living a healthier, better life. That is naturally inspiring. Technology can really make a difference in solving some of the world’s biggest problems. At Illumina, we have this incredible opportunity to improve the lives of people. It is just amazing and that is how it came together for me.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
At UCLA, we had a lot of training on everything concerning a market and consumer need and how to also be able to speak the language of other functions such as our finance function, our marketing team, and other things. We also had courses on leadership. That was really important in learning how to become a good leader, what are examples that you can strive to, and how can you be a can-do, positive force within an organization that gets things done.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
When I was looking at changing career paths, I remember talking with the Alumni Career Programs Office. Through that, I have been on campus a few times, and I’ve served on panels for women in business and female leaders. We also hosted the program here at Illumina which was really rewarding for me to connect with so many UCLA alumni and hear their stories of how they are connected in the healthcare continuum and also to get updated on what’s going on at UCLA in terms of innovation around healthcare. It was really interesting to hear about that.
The recruiting we have been able to do at UCLA has been great too. In our finance function, we have had an internship program for MBA students. One of those students connected us to the opportunity to be the keynote at a UCLA Healthcare Conference. That was another great opportunity.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think having the confidence to make the next step is always a challenge. I’ve always been aspirational and optimistic. Any human being has the enormous possibility to change the world, and you just have to believe in that and make it happen. Many times in my career, I’ve had a boss or mentor see that before I have. Then, they had to convince me I had everything I needed to have a bigger impact with bigger roles, teams, and everything that comes with that. Having that confidence and the right kind of educational background is one piece of it. Believing in yourself is another piece of it. As a female leader in a role where we still don’t have enough around the table, I have a soft place in my heart when I see someone who is a really high power woman in our organization who needs a boost of confidence. You can see that they are going to make a huge impact, but they may not see it quite yet, because when they look around they don’t see faces like theirs or people who are balancing priorities like they are. That has been a challenge, but overcoming it has been possible by having incredible mentors, supporters, and friends that really inspire me.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
Go for it. Have confidence that you can achieve it. Especially if you are coming from UCLA, we know that you are bright and motivated. You’re already among the elite, and you have what you need, so don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. Everybody makes mistakes on a daily and weekly basis, so don’t let any one issue, meeting, or day weigh you down in your mind. Always have that big picture in mind. You can do it, and if you’re coming from UCLA, I know you can do it.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
I think one of the biggest ways is to share my story. I made a big change from one industry to another that was completely different and so steeped in medicine and science and terminology that I had to learn. I want others in the UCLA community to know that they are capable of that too and that they bring something really unique to the table. When you make a career change, you have to take everything that you have learned and apply that to something new and different and make an impact in your industry. I hope I can motivate and inspire students and alumni to look into the revolution that is going on in healthcare. Healthcare is right for disruption with new technology, new information, and more personalized medication that leads to better outcomes for individuals. If you are inspired by that or have passion for that, look into this field. We are just at the beginning of personalized medicine. We are right at the cusp and it’s going to happen in our lifetime and lead to a better future for us and our children, so explore this field. Don’t be shy and have confidence that you can bring something unique to the table.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
Who wouldn’t be proud? I think that the academic environment and the areas that UCLA excels in are so important to the future of the world and our country. I came to be a Bruin through my business degree, but to see that UCLA has one of the strongest programs in medicine and genetic counseling and engineering. It is phenomenal. Also, it’s the people. The people are warm. They reach out to one another. You can always count on a Bruin, and they will help you with whatever you might need. I’m so proud to be a part of the Bruin community, and I’d never think twice about hiring a Bruin.
And finally, what’s next?
I hope to make a bigger and bigger difference. I want to be a part of this revolution in healthcare that leads to better life expectancy, better quality of life, and the end of disease. Wherever that takes me in terms of next steps in my career is what I’m going to follow.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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