Alumni Spotlight: Joanna Martinez BS’75, MS ENG‘77

“There’s so much out of your control in life. But the thing you can control is how you react. You need to set up your life so that you can roll with the punches without being consumed by fear every time some disruption takes place.” – Joanna Martinez

Joanna Martinez, who earned her BS and MS degrees in Industrial Engineering, is a School of Engineering Distinguished Alumna and a member of the School’s Industry Advisory Board. She is the author of A Guide to Positive Disruption: How to Thrive and Make an Impact in the Churn of Today’s Corporate World, which draws on her own experiences implementing positive changes as an executive at companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Diageo, AllianceBernstein LP, and Cushman & Wakefield. A noted speaker and thought leader on global procurement and supply chain topics and founder of Supply Chain Advisors LLC, she currently works as a consultant, advisor and coach to clients ranging from start-ups and professional organizations to Fortune 500 companies.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Milltown, New Jersey and went to high school at St. Peter’s – which has since closed – in New Brunswick.

Why did you choose Rutgers?

When I went to my guidance counselor and said I was interested in engineering, she was perplexed and gave me a standard list of schools for girls – none of which had engineering programs. So I did my research and applied to Rutgers – and put myself through college.

How were you able to do this?

I had scholarships and worked as a grocery store clerk, although one year I worried I wouldn’t be able to make my tuition payment.

I’d gone on a vacation with friends during the summer of my sophomore year and underestimated the cost. It was really fun – and really stupid. I didn’t know how I’d pay my tuition – this at a time when tuition was $660 – as I was about $100 short. 

One day a couple I’d become friendly with came through my line at the grocery store. He said I didn’t seem like myself and asked if anything was wrong. I told him about my mistake. It turned out he was the head of financial aid at Rutgers and asked me to call him on Monday. When I called, I had a scholarship for double the amount, so I had enough cushion so I could eat. His kindness helped me finish school on time.

As one of a handful of women in your freshman class, could you say you were a positive disruptor even then?

I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess I was. There were six women in my class and in the end three of us graduated together, while two stayed an extra year and double-majored.

Nobody helped me get into college and it never dawned on me to ask for help once I was there. Today, as a member of the Industry Advisory Board at Rutgers, I’m envious of the awesome resources and programs available to all students.

Did you face any particular obstacles as a woman student?

It got old really quickly being one of a few women. Rutgers College wasn’t co-ed when I started, so women had to live at Livingston or Douglass. Even after Rutgers College went co-ed, I stayed at Douglass and took a number of my electives there, as I needed interaction with women. 

What was your first job after graduating?

A North Jersey pharmaceutical company hired me four months before graduation. Once I got there, I realized I was hired for affirmative action because I was female. They had no idea what to do with me. In fact, I was expected to have lunch with the secretaries. After working there a bit, I could see that this was not going to work out.

I’d done summer work for Johnson & Johnson and they called me soon after graduation about a position. I took it in a heartbeat, deciding to go to work in a company where I knew I would be treated equitably.

When did you realize that corporate churn could be a good thing?

During my corporate career, I’ve lived through 18 reorganizations. I realized early on I needed to cope with churn. This means learning that a corporate reorganization doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you. 

I realized that when I was at Johnson & Johnson. I started out in the engineering department, working on projects to improve productivity. J&J was a decentralized company that reorganized frequently. I found that the reorganizations gave me the opportunity to be considered for other roles and as a result, I had the chance to do a lot of other things in the supply chain manufacturing space, including procurement.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I have a coaching style. I’m happy to make decisions, but I try to coach people on my team to get to the right place on their own because they will learn more that way.

I always encouraged my staff to be disruptive – many of them were disruptors – at heart, they just needed some encouragement. We would collaborate and strategize on ways to make things better.

What do you most enjoy about supply chain and procurement work?

I love solving problems. Engineering school is one place everyone walks out of knowing how to solve a problem – the methodology becomes ingrained. During the best assignments, I’d wake up every morning and ask myself, “What kind of a problem will I solve today?”

Why did you decide to write A Guide to Positive Disruption?

I started speaking at conferences about 15 years ago because I was a nervous speaker and wanted to practice. There was a common theme – it all had to do with being disruptive, although I didn’t yet have that word. But when I started looking critically at the ideas I had been bringing forward, the narratives from my talks fit together like individual pieces complete a puzzle.

After I gave the SoE Senior Send-Off speech in 2015 and got positive feedback from parents, I decided to put it all together in a book. In the beginning, I thought it would be a book for supply chain professionals but it turned out to address a much broader audience,

What kind of tips did you give the students?

In being considered for that first job and for every position after that, it’s up to the students to distinguish themselves in some way. In the beginning, it’s by their contributions to the projects they do at school or as interns, or even by their extracurricular activities. Once they’re working, it’s about being able to point out the unique improvements they’ve made on the job– actions that make them stand apart.

What can they do once they land that first job?

There will always be disruption that is out of their control. One way to handle it is to be prepared by creating a financial cushion, starting with that very first paycheck. They also should be nurturing a positive social media presence, so they are easy to find when new opportunities come up.

Resolving to always be prepared is something that really works for a young person who is just starting out. When there’s a project at work, taking a little extra time to educate yourself and understand the background of a project, what the goals are, who’s who, and what the issues are can let you speak out at meetings instead of stepping back. You’re not going to go into a meeting and debate a point of law, but you can walk into that meeting more prepared than others – and it will be noticed. 

How else can you prepare yourself for change?

Position yourself to stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s the work you do or a skill you’ve mastered, it should be clear that you have something that makes you stand apart from your peers. In the book, I call that your “spark.” Identify your spark to identify what makes you different. That way you’ll be in a better position to be the one who gets tapped to stay or who can bounce back more quickly.

There’s so much out of your control in life. But you can control how you react. You need to set up your life so that you can roll with the punches without being consumed by fear every time some disruption takes place.

How do you disrupt these days?

I’m advising a technology company that is reinventing itself, coaching some high-potential individuals, and speaking at conferences, workshops and in-house events. I also do some writing for professional organizations and keep my skills current by doing a few consulting projects every year. The world is moving quickly and it’s easy to get out of touch, so when possible I focus on projects that deal with current business problems, such as robotics process automation.

What did you do for fun at Rutgers?

Besides frat parties and concerts at the gym on College Avenue, we got great delight getting into the math building with fake ID’s that passed us off as math grad students. The Texas Instrument SR-10 calculator wasn’t invented until my sophomore year and was out of reach financially, but we could get into the building and use the computer to get our homework done on the IBM 360 mainframe. Yes, I am a nerd.

What do you do for fun these days?

I like to scuba dive, travel, and be outrageous in front of my four little grandchildren. They call me “JoNana” and my husband and I run “Camp JoNana” every summer – tee shirts and all!

If you were to go on vacation tomorrow, where would you go?

I just returned from Cuba, and was pretty proud of having traveled to 60 countries until I met people who have been to 100. So there is some catching up to do. For our next big trip my husband and I are planning to go see the terra cotta soldiers in China and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.