The Great Explorers

These three alumni are bona fide pioneers, either venturing into gender-imbalanced professional territories — and excelling — or forgoing a secure gig to find a true calling.
ByLaura Paisley

Although born generations apart, Virginia Carter and Alexia Tsotsis let their passions be their guide and broke through in male-dominated fields. Carter earned her wings in the aerospace industry before taking an unexpected turn into television entertainment in the ’70s. Tsotsis has traversed the digital frontier and is thriving in the startup capital of the world. Rodney Swan is another intrepid alumnus who wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb — he bade farewell to a job as an office-bound chief financial officer to run his own farm.

Technically Speaking

One of Alexia Tsotsis’ favorite books as an undergraduate at USC Dornsife was William Gibson’s postmodern science fiction novel Pattern Recognition.

She was drawn to the story’s heroine, Cayce Pollard, a brand consultant who chronicles tech trends and explores the burgeoning social media culture of the early 2000s. It sparked her fascination with technology and the digital age.

“In my creative writing classes at USC, I would turn in science fiction stories about social networks,” she said. “I was already writing about tech and the Internet back in the day when it was still unusual.”

It’s not unusual anymore. A decade later, the alumna is firmly entrenched in the tech media scene. She has made Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30: Rising Stars of Media list and she just won a Women 2.0 Award for Media Impact.

Tsotsis is co-editor in chief at TechCrunch, a highly respected website and blog devoted to breaking international tech news. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company was acquired by AOL for nearly $30 million in 2010.

In her current position at TechCrunch, Tsotsis, along with co-editor Matthew Panzarino, manages an editorial team of more than 30 people who produce news content on a constant basis, and organizes annual conferences.

“We watch the tech news cycle every day, from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed, because tech news around the world doesn’t sleep.”

In her job, she interviews the likes of Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook; Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber; and Kevin Systrom, co-founder and CEO of Instagram.

“Part of the job is getting access to so many brilliant minds. I’ve been in close proximity to some of the most intelligent people of our time. Getting to be around these world-changing ideas every day is a gift.”

It may seem like a stretch to go from fine arts and creative writing major to tech maven, but Tsotsis likes to push herself.

“When I got into painting and drawing, I wanted to study something that was difficult for me — something I was really interested in but never tried. I wanted the challenge. I like having things be difficult.”

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With bachelor’s degrees in creative writing and fine arts, Alexia Tsotsis pursued a career in technology and is now co-editor in chief at TechCrunch. She’s taken the lead in encouraging more women to enter the field.

Tsotsis says her liberal arts background gives her tech writing an edge.

“I tend to include cultural allusions and references to postmodernism in my tech writing, which is rare. I love quoting. That knowledge comes directly from the creative writing program at USC Dornsife. Sometimes tech news can be a hamster wheel, and inserting the rich history of English literature makes it better.”

One of her posts on the TechCrunch blog references both Albert Camus and the Greek myth of Sisyphus as they relate to the task of keeping abreast of one’s e-mail. Another post refers to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in the context of tech/San Francisco culture.

“Using literary references in tech writing helps further underscore how technology has become another form of self-expression, literature even.”

Tsotsis recalled arriving at TechCrunch five years ago and finding that the ratio of men to women was staggering.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not represented here.’ But I firmly believe that all different kinds of people should have a voice, so I made a pact with myself that I would not leave this job.”

Eventually she began to see other women in the industry talking about these issues. The 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead bySheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, became her road map.

“We are in debt to Sandberg because she has given us a framework for conversations around gender — not only in tech, but across industries. In the last five years I’ve watched being a woman in tech go from something you don’t want to talk about to an ongoing conversation. And that’s huge.”

Right now, one of Tsotsis’ most exciting projects at TechCrunch is expanding diversity in her industry through an initiative called Include. She, along with TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Editor Samantha O’Keefe, are committed to broadening today’s tech landscape, dominated by affluent, white males — dubbed “brogrammers” by some.

According to Google’s 2014 statistics, for example,  30 percent of the company’s 46,170 employees worldwide are women. Within its tech sector, the number drops to 17 percent.

“We wanted to take a lead in making the tech scene more diverse,” Tsotsis said.

For the past two years, Include has supported organizations that are committed to making tech more inclusive, such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code.

“I think that’s one legacy [former co-editor Eric Eldon and I] will leave at TechCrunch. Because once we launched Include, other groups started similar initiatives.”

When it comes to tech trendspotting, Tsotsis has had her eye on the Apple Watch, which hit the market in April.

“I can’t wait to see the ecosystem around that new platform evolve. The watch is going to change messaging. It’s part of the whole wearable tech space, which is a huge opportunity right now.”

What makes for a successful venture, in her experience?

“Luck,” she responded immediately.

Ninety percent of startups fail, she said, so it’s partially luck in connecting with the zeitgeist. For example, the Hot or Not online dating app, which does the same thing as the hugely successful Tinder app, wilted on the vine. 

“Hot or Not just wasn’t at the right intersection of mobile and social. The idea of Tinder wasn’t new, but that implementation on the iPhone caused a global phenomenon.

“So luck, timing and then of course the passion of the founder is huge,” she said. “You need someone with drive and tenacity.”

Tsotsis said USC Dornsife prepared her well for success.

“I have not loved USC more than in the past few years. Three people with USC ties were on the Business Insider’s 2014 “The Most Powerful Millennials in Technology” list: Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box; Sean Rad, co-founder of Tinder; and me.”

Both Levie and Rad attended USC Marshall School of Business.

“I really think the university is making the right moves toward educating the next generation of digital leaders,” she added.


From Finance to Farming

Rodney Swan is most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. Raised on his family’s small cotton farm near Blythe, California, he worked in the fields of several local farms as a young man.

But for years he donned a suit every day as the chief financial officer for Cigna Healthcare of California, a career he pursued after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from USC Dornsife in 1989.

Despite the success, something was missing.

“Over the years, I came to feel that I wanted to do something more with my life,” Swan said. “So nine years ago, I bought a farm.”

Dipping into his life savings, he started to build up his farm while still working at Cigna Healthcare. After a few years of doing both jobs, his investment and hard work paid off. He’d built up a thriving, profitable farm, and at the age of 41, he shifted his focus to that business full time.

He is now president of Swan Farms, which operates 4,000 acres of agricultural production plus another 3,000 acres of restoration land. The farms are located along the Colorado River in the vicinity of Blythe, in Riverside County. His crops include alfalfa, cotton, wheat and corn.

As a Southern California farmer, Swan is concerned about water management. For many areas of California, 2014 was the driest year on record. But from the perspective of an economist, every challenge also presents an opportunity.

Swan has contracts with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

MWD pays him in exchange for putting aside portions of his land that won’t be irrigated or farmed — nearly 25 percent of his acreage in 2014. The water he doesn’t use is routed westward.

He believes such contracts are beneficial for both farmers and urbanites. Cities get what they need: water during the drought years, and during wetter years the water is stored in Lake Mead and other locations. Farmers can set aside their least productive ground, maximizing efficiency and productivity.

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Alumnus Rodney Swan owns and operates Swan Farms, composed of 4,000 acres of agricultural production plus another 3,000 acres of restoration land around Blythe, California.

Swan has spent extensive time studying the results of conversion of arid farm land to drip irrigation systems, which employ a network of narrow tubes and valves to efficiently deliver water to the base of each plant. The resulting decrease in water use as well as production and quality improvements are applicable in numerous climates, he said. 

“Almost every type of crop in California, with the exception of rice, could use a change in water delivery. There’s just going to be a significant financial investment. So, a fundamental shift is needed in how we think about and share water.”

Swan advocates water conservation while he oversees land restorations on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau’s Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program was created to balance the use of Colorado River water resources with the preservation of native and endangered species — plants, birds, mammals and other wildlife — and their surrounding habitats.

Though the restoration projects aren’t profit-generating, he takes them on as a way to help out. He works with biologists to review their scientific reports and plans, and together, they come up with feasible ways to restore habitats. To date, he has overseen the planting of thousands of trees and native plants as part of this process.

“Now we’ve got thousands of acres operating efficiently even within this current environment of minimal water, which is pretty cool.”

Swan recently became chair of USC Dornsife’s Economic Leadership Council, made up of alumni who mentor students interested in their professions. He knows the value of an economics degree.

Without the economic lessons learned at USC Dornsife, he said, he couldn’t do his job.

“The basic economic tenet of supply and demand is, every single day, the basis of what I deal with,” he said. “Strategizing, planning and all the things I learned are fundamental not only to what I do for my work, but also to my sitting on charitable, corporate or government boards.

“No matter where you are or what situation you’re in, you always find yourself using these fundamental skills learned in the classroom.”

Swan entered USC on a scholarship through the Resident Honors Program. Not sure what he wanted to study, Swan took an economics class his first semester. It immediately clicked.

As a sophomore, he enrolled in the progressive master’s degree program in economics, allowing him to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four-and-a-half years.

Swan has come full circle in his life’s work, from the fields to sitting behind a desk and back again. But wherever he’s been, the strategic and analytical tools he gained as part of a liberal arts education have proven paramount.

“On the farm there are all these moving parts, and I spend a tremendous amount of time planning and mapping it all out, making sure we hit our targets.”

Creating the highest-quality product is the end goal, he said.

“With agriculture and land restorations, you’re always trying to improve and enhance your production, looking at what works, doing more of that, trying new things and getting rid of the things that don’t work.”

Just as efficiency is crucial in his work on the farm, so it must be for the future of water use in the state.

“I think public and private policy companies need to work together to try and develop new technology and recycling methods. I look forward to what’s ahead five or 10 years from now — there are so many enhancements that can be made.

“The reality is, there is a finite amount of water, and California’s population is growing. So we’ll just have to get more efficient in using it.”


Hollywood Via Aerospace

A bachelor’s degree with honors in math and physics under her belt, Virginia Carter was ready for the job market. She was living in her native Canada. The year was 1958.

Her best offer? Working as a clerk at a telephone company.

“I couldn’t get a job worth a peanut,” Carter recalled. “All the guys in my class had wonderful science job offers, and I was a woman and therefore I was to be a clerk. That made me so mad I got into my little Volkswagen and headed to Los Angeles so fast it would make your head swim.”

Her destination was USC, where she pursued a master’s degree in physics so she could better her chances for a career as a physicist, an almost exclusively male-dominated field at the time.

“I was very good at physics; it just came naturally to me. But I was essentially the only girl in my class — it was a different era.”

Despite the gender imbalance, Carter was delighted to find herself among gifted and collaborative peers at USC. Both faculty and students offered intellectual support, and she enjoyed discussions with professors during office hours.

“I liked the spirit of the people at USC. They really wanted to help you through and respected your efforts.”

Armed with the master’s degree she earned in 1963, she re-entered the job market.

This time, she was hired by McDonnell Douglas, a major aerospace manufacturing corporation located in Santa Monica, California. As she was a foreign national, a lengthy background examination was required to grant her security clearance. While she waited, she worked out of a trailer outside the company gates for about eight months.

Carter’s next position was at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, a think tank aimed at serving the U.S. Air Force in the scientific and technical planning and management of missile space programs. There, she worked with top scientists and conducted research on high atmospheric conditions and vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy.

Among the company’s technical staff members, Carter was the only female physicist.

“I was used to being very successful in academic realms, but at Aerospace I didn’t get any salary increases above the rating of ‘below average.’ I was not doing below average work, however, and it made me angry.”

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Armed with her 1963 master’s in physics from USC Dornsife, Virginia Carter became one of the few female physicists of her time. Then she changed careers, working as a TV executive for Norman Lear.

A Time magazine cover story about the fledgling National Organization for Women (NOW) and feminist movement struck a chord. Carter got involved in the organization’s Los Angeles chapter, becoming its president in 1969.

Her involvement at NOW would become a watershed moment in her life. Carter became friends with a woman named Frances Lear, who had come to hear her speak. Unknown to Carter, Lear was the wife of television writer and producer Norman Lear.

This was near the height of Norman Lear’s success with 1970s sitcoms: All in the Family, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times and Maude.

“You know, you should meet my husband,” Frances Lear said to Carter one day. Carter could not imagine why. But she agreed, as a courtesy to her friend.

As it happened, the two got along famously.

“Norman didn’t know a thing about physics, and I didn’t know a thing about show business, so we had to fall back on common ground,” Carter said. “I’d just had breast cancer, and we began talking about life and death, love and things emotionally connected to life. I was used to men in science who were more reserved. I’d never met anyone like Norman.”

Three weeks later, Norman Lear offered her a job. When she protested that she was a physicist, he just smiled and said they would figure it out together. He was intrigued by what she could teach him about the feminist movement and how that could inform the work he was doing during the pivot-of-change ’70s.

In 1973, Carter began working with Lear, or, as she put it, “sitting at God’s right hand.” She was hired as director of creative affairs, and once she adapted to her new role she discovered a sense of authority and respect that had been lacking in her previous career.

Within a few years, Lear had the top seven shows on TV. In 1976, Carter was promoted to vice president for creative affairs.

“Norman’s shows periodically touched on all kinds of delicate subjects, raising awareness on a wide range of issues from rape to women’s rights. He selected subjects his audience was already concerned about and hit them head-on. We wanted not only to entertain, but also to create positive change.”

In the early 1980s, Carter created a new division that focused on movies for TV. She executive produced The Wave in 1981, which earned Emmy and Peabody awards. The following year she produced Eleanor, First Lady of the World about Eleanor Roosevelt. It was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

With all of her fascinating turns in life, Carter thinks back to her years at USC as a time when she learned how to hold her own.

“The critical part of getting a science degree is the exactitude, the training, the necessity of linear logic,” she said. “You just have to sit there and figure it out.”

She applied those skills to the entertainment industry — staying calm and trying to find the right answer is exactly what one does in physics, she said.

“Working in science is working in a field where the rules are set. They are determined by theory, which is tested, and there is really no flexibility in this process. Working in the world of entertainment is guided by just one rule: The audience must be entertained.”

Carter was captivated by the power and flexibility in this other world, and amused and sometimes confounded by the lack of calm in the environment. Dealing with actors, directors, producers and delivery schedules, and with large sums of money on the line, her ability to stay calm was a major virtue. But there was more to it than that.

I wanted, as Norman Lear did, to make the material not only hugely entertaining, but also to make it matter. It was the hardest job I ever had, but it was worth it.”