For her, rocket science is just the start
The gig: Andrea Belz, 42, is an author, nuclear physicist, business owner and an assistant professor at USC’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Most recently, she was named academic director of a master’s program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation that begins this fall at USC. The program is intended “to give students the tools to create new business ventures in a climate defined by rapid change, increasing competition, shortened product life cycles and higher market volatility,” according to the university’s promotional materials.
Filling a need: Some of the 25 students she hopes to attract to the first classes will be new college graduates. But others, Belz said, could be “people who might be working as engineers for very large companies and want advanced business training, but want it to be focused on what it takes to get new ideas off the ground.” The native of Santiago, Chile, said that “large organizations need these skill sets” because “a lot of companies are struggling with how to transform themselves.”
Course change: A bout with cancer in the late 1990s, while Belz was working on her doctorate in physics at Caltech, led to a sharp career change. At the time she was working as a research associate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I didn’t have the patience anymore to be in a laboratory and work on experiments the way I had before I was sick. What I really enjoyed doing was building collaborations, thinking through the whole process of how organizations, businesses, move forward.” Belz left that job but was hired as a consultant to JPL, which sparked the idea of starting her own business, called Belz Consulting, in 2002.
A good fit: Belz was unsure at first how her company would develop but found she had a knack for turning innovation into profit. “Because of the broad technical background that I brought,” Belz said, JPL and NASA were already familiar with her work. They became her first two clients. The consulting business, which specialized in technology commercialization, gave her freedom and variety. One of her jobs for NASA was to help draw up a road map for how to manage a $100-million technology portfolio.
Getting noticed: Belz bought a fax machine and a second telephone line to make her company look bigger. Soon her credentials and expertise began to pay off. Occidental Petroleum Corp. hired her to work on a technology initiative. She advised another oil company on potential exploration technologies. She helped a venture capital firm conduct due diligence on its technology investments.
Refining a vision: Belz obtained an MBA in finance from Pepperdine University in 2007, seven years after completing her doctorate in physics. “I got my MBA because I wanted to understand how technology companies run and grow,” Belz said. “When NASA thinks about planning, they think about the missions they contemplate doing. They consider the technologies they will need. Then it’s a process of connecting the dots between where they are and where they want to be. I worked extensively in that connecting-the-dots process.”
Heading to USC: In 2012, USC’s Greif Center was looking for someone to run a summer program called AIM, which stands for Accelerator, Incubator and Mentoring. “They invited me to come and create it,” Belz said. USC liked her enough to make her a lecturer in clinical entrepreneurship in 2012. “I tell my students that they learn from three places,” Belz said. “They learn from the marketplace. They learn from each other, and they learn from me, and I am very low on the totem pole.”
Her heroes: Belz points first to her mother, Ana, who raised two children while maintaining a career as a psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration. Then there are astronaut Sally Ride, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Their successes “were really big landmarks for women of my age.”
Advice: “There’s no substitute for knowing your stuff,” Belz said. “Pretending does not work in the long run. Whatever it is you are focused on. If it’s law, really know the law. Be diligent. You need to be driven to excel in that space.”
Personal: Belz has been married to another nuclear physicist, Eric, for nearly 15 years. They met at Caltech, live in the Los Angeles area and have two sons — Nicholas, 11, and Stephen, 5. To relax, Belz plays music from the Great American Songbook, which includes George Gershwin and Cole Porter. “My piano teacher and I have a joke that one day I’m going to stop working and go play in a bar in Topeka,” Belz joked. “I have an inner lounge pianist who wants to come out.”
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