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October 20, 2017

Denita Willoughby: 2017 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient

Written By: Staff

Denita Willoughby

Denita Willoughby
Vice President, Sempra Energy
BSIE ’88  (MBA Harvard)

Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Denita was among 10 engineers to receive awards in 2017 at an Oct. 20 banquet.

We honored her for her inspiring track record in sales, supply chain management and government affairs and for her passion for developing leaders and improving education among youth.

Recently, we chatted with Denita about everything from her memories as a student at UW-Madison to her career and her family. Here are her responses to some of our questions.

What’s had the greatest impact on your success?

The minority engineering program. Classes were centered around time management, interviewing skills, resume writing, study habits, things like that. I remember them telling me it was important to get a tutor. And I remember saying to them, “No, I’m a really good student. I’m pretty smart. I don’t think I need a tutor.” They were like, “No, you don’t understand. Smart people get tutored. You are going to need a tutor.” And they identified these different locations on the campus where you could go and get tutoring services for free. They also talked about the power of study groups. The skills and the lessons were invaluable and positioned me for success, and I don’t know if I would have succeeded without the program.

It was such a positive experience in my life. Being an African-American female in engineering, I really think UW got it right—the support structure, the personal outreach. When I talk at universities and to faculties, I share that these programs work. If people are really committed to getting minorities and women into STEM fields, UW-Madison is a great example.

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

When I was on campus, Rodney Dangerfield was filming Back to School. I got paid really good money just to be an extra walking up Bascom Hill. It was the only time I got to be an actress. That was a lot of fun.

How did your experience in the College of Engineering shape your career path?

IBM had loaned an executive to the minority engineering program who would always talk about her experience at IBM. I thought it sounded like the perfect place to work. I worked at IBM as a marketing rep and so I felt like it was a great way to use my engineering degree in a technical area but not be an engineer. My engineering degree helped establish and build credibility, even when I was a sales person in the aerospace and manufacturing industry. The school gave me the required skills and the confidence to be competent in an engineer’s world. I could be thrown into any situation and know how to solve the problem.
When I left IBM to go to business school at Harvard, I thought it was going to be so hard. But I told myself, “You have an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; nothing can be harder than that.” And I was absolutely right. It was hard, but University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering is no joke.

Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

I do a lot of mentoring and coaching, and I’m really proud of the difference that I see that it makes. A lot of people helped me, coached me, guided me or gave me opportunities. And it really makes me proud to look at all the people whom I have helped develop and navigate their careers.

What advice would you give engineering students today?

Enjoy this time in college because it goes really fast. The most important thing is understanding what makes you happy. Don’t get too hung up on what your major is. Think about the skills that are transferable. Think about the end game and you can’t go wrong having an engineering degree. I have never met anyone who regretted having an engineering degree.