Athena San Diego’s Pinnacle Awards recognize women, men, companies/organizations and educators who personify Athena San Diego’s mission of fostering the personal and professional growth of women through mentoring, education, recognition, and leadership training thereby enhancing competitiveness and opportunity in the San Diego business community.

Awards are presented to the individual or company/organization that, through the identification, development, and advancement of skilled and talented women, has had a beneficial impact within their organization or the San Diego community. Awards are given out in 5 categories: Life Sciences, Technology, Services, Educator, and Company/Organization.

I recently sat down with the 2012 Technology Pinnacle Award Winner Adriana Vela to learn more about her path to success as well as her words of wisdom to the Athena membership.

Tell me a little about NanoTecNexus:

Our nonprofit is a catalyst for information exchange with a focus on nanotechnology and an impact on education and society. We use an eclectic model that connects the commercial side, the academic side, and the philanthropic community. With technology rapidly changing, this blended approach allows navigating across all areas while simultaneously having a larger impact.

Over the past decade, NanoTecNexus has had some great successes including a $20M grant from the Cancer Institute, being the only organization invited to the Milken Institute’s global study “Minds to Market” Report, created several international alliances and caught US Senator Dianne Feinstein’s attention leading to NanoTecNexus being featured in an award-winning video focused on the importance of nanotechnology. The last couple years have been challenging with the economic downturn and lack of grant funding however I remain optimistic for the future of NanoTecNexus and believe there are unprecedented opportunities out there – you just have to have the guts to do something about it. True leaders are not thwarted by the economic downturn. They keep their eye on the ball, look for new opportunities for growth and take time to sharpen their tools.

What was your inspiration in making a career move from big tech companies like HP and Compaq to nanobiotechnology?

I call this change in my career “deliberate serendipity”, part strategic move and part serendipity. The gateway to this was the Human Genome Project. It was early 2000 and I had been with HP for 10 years. I then moved on to Compaq whose digital (DEC) systems division was responsible for all the data crunching for the Human Genome Project. I was excited by the groundbreaking convergence of technology and the life sciences. High tech had become a little stagnant for me and this new field was not only game-changing, but it was also fertile ground for new invigorating opportunities.

What three characteristics have contributed to your success?

Every decision you make has an impact on your success. I have four tenets which I live by:

  1. Obstacles are things you see when you take your eye off the ball. My handball coach taught me this many years ago however it applies equally in life as in the sport.
  2. “Adapt, improvise and overcome”. Things will always change around us but accepting and improvising will help us overcome, otherwise, we will be defeated.
  3. DWYSYWD – Do what you say you will do; a motto of former CEO of HP, Lew Integrity is powerful.
  4. “Think like a man, look like a lady and work like a dog”. Women are wired differently and sometimes we defeat ourselves with our

Tell me about your experience with Athena San Diego’s Pinnacle Award:

This was one of the most wonderful surprises I ever had and I am not very easily surprised. It was an honor and a tremendous gift to be surrounded by so many other amazing and inspiring women. The icing on the cake was the Pinnacle Scholarship winners. I was inspired and humbled by their accomplishments at such a young age. I have a bad habit of always being focused on work and not taking time to step back and smell the roses. This evening was a rare opportunity to do that and I thank the Athena members for it.

Any career advice to those looking to transition careers?

The recipe for transitioning careers is simpler than you realize. You can learn from observations from those who have succeeded in their careers and seek mentors. Perseverance and conviction will get you through the tough spots. You have to be a fighter because if you let fear take over, you are done. Was it terrifying for me to present to scientists without a science background? Yes. Did I let fear take over? Not for one nanosecond!

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