This NJIT Alum Has Four Degrees and a Great Job at ExxonMobil

NJIT grad Liza Negron Sutowski is the keynote speaker at the STEM Summit for High School Girls.

Liza Negron Sutowski is an engineer, a lawyer and a business woman. And she uses knowledge of each field to excel at her job: She works as an intellectual property attorney for ExxonMobil Corp. It’s a high-level job but she started life in humble circumstances.

Negron Sutowski is the child of immigrants -- both her parents came to America from Puerto Rico -- and she grew up in Newark. After her sophomore year in high school, she took a physics class at NJIT, a course offered by the Center for Pre-College Programs. The class cemented her interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and she later enrolled at NJIT.

She graduated in 1994 with a chemical engineering degree, but that was just the beginning of her higher education. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of New Haven, a law degree from Pace University School of Law, and an MBA from Rutgers University.

“My parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico for a better life,” she says. “They were both factory workers and they instilled in me the idea that in this country you can become anything you want as long as you get an education. As you can see from my various degrees, I took that to heart.”

Negron Sutowski discussed her education and her career during the April 9 STEM Summit for High School Girls. About 200 high school students from all over New Jersey attended the summit. An NJIT official discussed admission criteria for prospective applicants to NJIT -- the school that gave Negron Sutowski the foundation she needed to succeed. She discussed her career at ExxonMobil and how, coming from an inner city, she was able to get a great job at one of the world’s leading corporations.

Growing up in Newark, Negron Sutowski says all she knew was the “four corners” of her neighborhood. She didn’t see anyone who looked like her doing the things she wanted to do. Her parents didn’t attend college and couldn’t help her expand her worldview or her intellect. So she had to find her own way.

“I love talking to girls because I see myself in them,” says Negron Sutowski, who was recently named a YWCA 2016 Tribute to Women in Industry (TWIN) honoree, an award that recognizes outstanding business women. “As a girl I didn’t see anything outside of my neighborhood. So I wanted to show girls there is life beyond your borders. And that if you set your mind to getting something, such as an engineering degree, you can achieve it.”

For the last few years, she has worked as an intellectual property attorney specializing in patent law at ExxonMobil. But last year, her job expanded to include giving colleagues advice on environmental and antitrust issues. Her clients include ExxonMobil researchers who use technology to develop alternative energy sources -- work she describes as “cutting edge and fascinating.”

She didn’t set out to be a patent lawyer. After working for a few years as an environmental engineer, she decided to attend law school. Her goal then was to become an environmental lawyer. But in a simple twist of fate, and with the help of a solicitous mentor, she ended up becoming a patent attorney. It is the perfect job for her, since it combines her love for science, math and the law. And her engineering background helps her understand the emerging technologies. 

“When I talk to young people I always tell them you never know where your path will lead you,” she says. “And a lot of your direction and success in life will depend upon finding the right mentors.”

The STEM Summit was intended to connect girls with the right mentors. A panel of distinguished women from various fields -- architecture, optics, engineering and media -- talked about their careers and advised the girls. And a panel of NJIT students discussed their college majors and their interests in STEM. The sponsors of the summit -- the Center for Pre-College Programs at NJIT and the Garden State Woman Education Foundation -- also presented prominent female role models shared their personal and professional stories.

“My main message to the girls was: don’t let your socioeconomic status preclude you from dreaming big,” says Negron Sutowski. “I am a first-generation Puerto Rican college graduate. My gender and race never held me back; they only made me stronger and more determined.”

By Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)