Friday, July 22, 2016

The Legend of Panama Canal, Part One

Hello my dear readers! 

It's been a while and I hope that all is well in your world! Today I would like to share with you an international success story, a story of determination, passion, vision, fight and self-assurance. Here it is! 

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As some of the most interesting things in life, this one happened by chance. I met Ima Ortega (hopefully my future collaborator) at the Women’s Business Conference and we hit it off. We discovered few things in common and after a short conversation and a meeting after, we’ve decided to work on a piece together.

Ima comes from Panama and offered me to interview one of her childhood friends – Ilya Espino de Marotta. It might not sound exciting but this friend is a fascinating woman, she holds a post of Executive VP for Engineering and Programs Management on the new project with Panama Canal. Of course I jumped on the opportunity! And so without any further delay I give you “The Legend of Panama Canal”.

It was a sunny day in late April and Ima and I were patiently waiting by my laptop to connect to Ilya via Skype. Ima’s excitement about upcoming “visit” with her friend passed on to me and I felt uplifted to about to interview a first woman in management in the 100-year history of Panama Canal. At last Skype worked and here appeared a beautiful, confident, passionate and driven woman.  She was ready to answer questions and I was ready to ask them.

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OD: Many words have been said, many songs have been sung. And after all the whirlwind of accomplishments I’d like to get to know Ilya “unplugged”, “unplugged” from your VP position; Ilya as a woman in a man’s world; Ilya as a wife and mother; and Ilya as a human being.  How about we start with your family background?

IEM: Sure Olga. I grew up in the wonderful family environment. My Dad is a well-respected Doctor and my Mom is a Speech Therapist. I was born in Mexico and eventually my family moved back to Panama. I was always an “A” student, was involved in sports, marching band and many other activities. So life was always busy and never boring. I loved travelling and taking photographs. Photos are my passion!

When the time came to make a decision about post-secondary education, I had no doubt in my mind that I would like to study in US. My parents however were not that crazy about the idea and tried to bribe me with BMW to stay in Panama. But it did not work! Sense of adventure was calling my name! So with my scholarship at hand, I was bound for Taxes. 

My degree in Marine Engineering arrived early and since it did not seem enough, I returned to Panama and enrolled in Master’s program in Economic Engineering. Although I had to travel 1.5 hours each way to reach school it was a lot of fun and I even had a chance to continue with my passion of photography. Working with university newspaper allowed me to fulfill my desire to see the student life around me through the lens of the camera. 

OD: Ilya, why did you choose Marine Engineer Degree as your first step of post-secondary education?

IEM: Well, it almost did not happen since my parents were trying to convince me to get a degree in a more “in demand profession”, degree that will assure future job security. But my passion for ocean, desire to make my own way and my sense of “I know what I am doing” took me in the direction we discussed earlier. I do not regret one thing and have a lot to show for the choice I made.  And my parents are very proud of me. After all I come from a line of family predecessors that held positions of 1st Prime Minister, ministers and politicians.

OD: It sounds like your family can add another accomplishment to their “wall of fame”. So, tell me
about the early days at the Canal. I am sure at the time it was a tough going since this was the man’s world.

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IEM: I started in the shipyard of the Canal in 1985 and yes this was the man’s game. There were only two girls in the shipyard. But this is exactly what attracted me – a dream job in the man’s world! I like challenges and there were always plenty. Dealing with people is more difficult than any technical challenge. It took a little time for the “boys” to accept me but with mutual respect and understanding it was soon clear to them that I am here to stay. And I got to be known as a “Powerhouse Ilya” due to the level of my desire to learn, engage and grow.

It did not take long for me to get involved in the work with the Canal and eventually the group of 80 people that were travelling around the country to get votes for the expansion project of the Canal. This was very exciting time! The vision of expansion had so much potential and endless opportunities for the country and me. And as a proud Panamanian I was not going to miss this!

Thus began my years of experience in different professional positions and climb up the corporate ladder. While in the position of Design Engineer I had to learn “how to sit”, with Mechanical Engineer came a task of learning “how to walk”, then Valuation Engineer position provided me with more “schooling”, and of course Capital Program Coordinator job offered an opportunity to be part of the Master Plan and be a Public Translator. 20 years and counting! This is my fourth baby!

OD: Incredible! You’ve already accomplished tremendous success with the project and somehow were able to fit a marriage and three children into your world. As a professional woman and single mom I know it’s not easy to manage all that you want to accomplish. How do you deal with this?

IEM: It was fun but not easy of course! I am very fortunate since I have a husband and children that understand my drive and support me in every way possible. We have a tight knit family and constantly cheer for one another accomplishments.

It does get challenging at times since my husband likes planning and controlled environment and I am not a planner at all. But we made it work! Love conquers all!

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And of course I was very fortunate while my kids were little; for 19 years we were able to have a live-in nanny/housekeeper. It would have been impossible for us to raise children on our own. Our jobs required quite a lot of travel and we could not pull our kids out of school and drag them with us. I am not afraid to admit that I cannot do it all on my own! We all need some help once in a while and in the process it helps all.

OD: Oh yes, I can relate! It took me a while to learn to ask for help. But when I did, so much more got accomplished. Now, since I’d like my readers to get to know your “unplugged life”, do you mind sharing a little bit more about your family life?

IEM: Not at all! I am very proud of my family! I have a wonderful husband of 26 years and three
beautiful children. We have 5 children between us; two are from my husband’s first marriage. Our children are all grown up and study in US.  I have two boys and a girl and all of them are quite accomplished in their own way. My husband and I are also 6 times grandparents.We love getting our large family together at our beach house: have visits, discussions, delicious meals and a lot of fun. Dinners are sacred for our family! After all, the family is where you go after a long and challenging day at work. And they welcome you with open arms no matter what!

Well, what do you think so far? There is more to this exciting story and you can come back tomorrow to read the conclusion.

And of course in the meantime,

Be Active! Be Involved! Be a Current Woman!

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