Photo: Steve Cohn

Lessons From a ‘Four-Percenter’

The scholarship Usha Patel, B.S. ’92, M.S. EE ’95, received to attend USC Viterbi in 1988 changed her perspective on education. Today, as a successful entrepreneur, she’s bringing that perspective to a new generation of students.

Patel, as an undergraduate student in 1989, outside USC Viterbi’s Henry Salvatori Computer Science Center (Image courtesy of Usha Patel)

The moment Usha Patel stepped onto the USC campus as a freshman in 1988, she instantly became a member of a very exclusive group: female undergraduate engineering students. Together, women made up only 4% of her class. This was something Usha was reminded of daily — in her classes, walking around campus, and meeting with friends outside of school. But perhaps never did she feel it more acutely than during popular study sessions in the basement of USC Viterbi’s Science and Engineering Library.

“We pulled a lot of all-nighters in the library basement. For the male students, it was a bonding experience, but for me and the few other women, it was hard to find camaraderie,” Patel said. She was the only woman in her basement study group and acknowledges that not every female student felt comfortable in such settings – many felt completely ignored. Luckily, her group included a few men who ended up turning into long-term friends.

But it wasn’t just Patel’s gender that influenced her perspective. She was also a recipient of a competitive International Merit Scholarship that covered her full tuition “My experience as a student on scholarship had a tremendous impact on how I look at education in general,” Patel said. “An opportunity like this required commitment to excel in such a rigorous environment, even if it meant sacrificing many social activities.”

Patel(far right) at a football game. (Image courtesy of Usha Patel)

The challenges Patel and her female peers faced in those days can’t be understated. Women often felt ignored by the male engineering students and struggled to have full social lives, she said. The complete college experience, such an important part of what makes successful, well-rounded graduates, was not easily attainable for these female future engineers.

Of course, Patel did go on to be a successful, well-rounded engineer and businesswoman, and the current generation of female USC Viterbi students is richer because of it.

Today, Patel is vice president of business development and application engineering for Gardena, California-based Rayco Electronics — her family’s business. The company manufactures power components for the military, defense and aerospace sectors. She’s also a successful entrepreneur, having started different companies over the years. One of them, called Sofia Z., was inspired by her taxing travel schedule managing a global sales organization. “I’d travel 150,000 miles a year, running in heels from the airport to a meeting and directly back to the airport,” Patel said.

The experience became so uncomfortable that she decided to engineer a custom polyurethane composite cushioned high heel that looked on the outside exactly like a couture heel but offered the comfort of a tennis shoe. For Patel, who loves high fashion and appreciates the beauty of combining function with design, it was a perfect match.

“USC Viterbi was a good school in the early ’90s” said Patel, who meets with alumni to encourage their support and whose personal generosity has benefited several students. “Today, it’s a great school, and part of the reason is the alumni support that has propelled so many incoming talented students that go on to achieve great success.”

Patel has endowed two scholarships. The USC Mayan and Usha Patel Family Athletic Endowed Scholarship goes to an engineer athlete, while the Mayan and Usha Patel Family Scholarship goes to a female engineer. Last year, Patel went even further with her support in a way that’s especially close to her heart.

Remember that library basement where she spent so many nights as the only woman in the study group? That basement is the future home of USC Viterbi’s Baum Family Maker Space, which Patel has helped financially support with an endowed gift to build the outdoor work area. The same cramped space where she once struggled on UNIX workstations for Fortran and C programming at 2 a.m. will become a new hub for undergraduate innovation. Female students, who today make up 50% of the incoming undergraduate class, will work side by side with their male counterparts, designing all kinds of new devices.

“Engineers are problem-solvers,” Patel said. “I want our students to have more opportunities to not only design but actually build products, because it makes them better engineers.”

Patel, with her future husband and fellow electrical engineering student Mayan, at their USC graduation in 1992 (Image courtesy of Usha Patel)

There’s no doubt that this space is special to Patel. But not just because of her dedication to a new generation of engineers. One of those young men she studied with in that library basement all those years ago became more than just a friend; Mayan Patel, B.S. EE ’92, M.S. EE ’93, became her husband. The two met as first-year students in a freshman electrical engineering class and have been together ever since. It’s experiences and memories like these that helped Patel understand the value of giving back. And the family connection at USC Viterbi lives on today; the Patel’s daughter, Mala, BSE ISE ’20 is completing her MS in Engineering Management. Her sister Neera graduated from Keck School of Medicine in 2018 with a BS in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Studies and an MS in Global Medicine.

“We need donors who have vision,” Patel said. “But more importantly, we need donors who are committed to bringing in the best talent so the engineering program can flourish every year.”