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Businesswoman Feature: Cara Spicer

Being a woman in business can have its challenges. But, listening and learning from other women who have walked the road before you are so insightful. In this article, I had the opportunity to interview Professor of Practice Cara Spicer about her corporate journey, and how she came to teach Managing Risk with Derivatives and Financial Modeling at Virginia Tech.

To start, Professor Spicer has both a Bachelor of Arts in French and a Master of Teaching degree from the University of Virginia. She also completed executive finance and accounting classes from Rice University and a graduate course in marketing from the University of St. Thomas. Professor Spicer has always loved to learn and has taken classes in risk management, technical trading, general programming, programming in python, and French. When I asked her why she chose to pursue Finance she said, “I graduated from UVA with a degree in French and wanted to live and work in France. I was one of those students where everything was interesting to me, and I had to try it all. I must have changed my mind about my major four times before my advisor and my parents told me to pick one.” When she decided on Finance, she began helping her father during summer breaks at his commodity trading company and became fascinated with trading. Her father helped her network and connected her to the right people in the industry in France. Professor Spicer said, “I love the dynamic nature of the financial markets. There is always something to learn, problems to solve, and strategies to create.” With her fascination with the financial markets and her eagerness to learn, she was ready to take the corporate world by storm.

After university, her primary roles were centered around financial risk management and trading in crude oil, petroleum products, power, and natural gas. She started out in Paris working for Louis-Dreyfus as an analyst at a foreign exchange and bond trading desk, where she worked alongside two professionals with PhDs in economics. Then, she became a trade and portfolio manager at two very large U.S. utilities firms. She worked at Tejas Power Corporation in Houston from 1992 to 1995 and at Aquila Energy/Utilicorp United in both Kansas City and Omaha for 4 years after that. Furthermore, she managed a cross commodity financial derivative portfolio, portfolios in financial derivatives in natural gas, and started a financial derivative marketing business unit for Duke Energy, where she worked there from 1999 to 2003. Lastly, before becoming a Professor at Virginia Tech, she worked at Lewis Energy group in Houston from 2003 to 2008, then remotely in Blacksburg when her family moved.

When asking her why she decided to become a professor and leave the corporate world, she was candid about how she was seeking to shift out of those long stressful days on the trading desk and find a balance between work and her family. She highlighted that all people struggle with work life balance, regardless of being male or female. “Our son was about three when I decided that I needed to try something other than running a big proprietary portfolio. I started to work part time for Duke Energy at that point after talking with my amazing boss Nancy DeSchane, who encouraged me not to quit and to just try something new.” As a result, when Duke Energy pulled away from trading and marketing, she was hired by a former client, Lewis Group to work part time as a risk manager for their oil and gas company. After this transition, her family ended up moving to Blacksburg so her husband could pursue owning his own law firm and be closer to family.

About shifting to teaching at Virginia Tech, she said she met professors from the Finance Department in the community, especially through her son being local in school and sports teams over the years. “I was encouraged to apply to teach the Financial Derivatives course by Dr. Kadlec and a friend at the VT Foundation, and the rest is history.” Beginning her teaching career in 2012, she taught FIN 4264, Managing Risk with Derivatives. Teaching Derivatives led Professor Spicer to develop FIN 4214, Financial Modeling with Excel, which has become a mandatory class for many Finance students. Beyond Financial Modeling in 2015 she developed and began teaching a commodity investing portfolio class, as well. Currently, Professor Spicer is the faculty lead for FinTech and Big Data Analytics finance concentration, and the faculty advisor for the FinTech Club. She also helped write the curriculum for the Junior Analyst training program for COINS, which is the commodity investing club on campus run by students.

When asking Professor Spicer about the best part of her job, she said, “Seeing my students learn and grow as students as human beings. I get a big kick out of watching the proverbial ‘light bulb’ go on.” She also enjoys hearing from former students about how they are doing in their new profession, post-graduation. With regards to the most challenging part of her job, she mentioned trying to reach the students who are struggling or who are not engaged in the course. She tries to remind her students that she is here to help, but her students must also be trying to stay engaged in the course and make sure if they are struggling that they put in a strong effort to get the help they need. As a student in her derivatives class, I can see that she is always eager to help her students to learn and understand the material better. Also, she makes herself very accessible through study sessions and numerous office hours each week.

I continued to ask her why she continued to stay at Virginia Tech. “It’s all about the community, the students, and the quality of life in Blacksburg,” she responded. “I am a converted Wahoo! I am now a Hokie through and through. I am the only Wahoo in my family of all Hokies. My father, my sister, and now my son are all Hokies – it just took me a little longer to get here.”

Another question for her was how does she feel about being a woman in finance? Professor Spicer said she had some moments when it was difficult being the only woman in the room. “The vast majority of my male peers and superiors treated me as an equal and with respect, but there have been a handful of them that were not pleasant to be around.” Although the field has shifted so much over the years, she says the pay gap is still an issue in some places, but strides are also being made to rectify this.

Lastly, her biggest piece of advice for young women who are on the fence about getting into finance is that “women belong and can make a big difference in finance and business in general. If it is something you find interesting and challenging, then pursue it. The business world is wide open to you, and you must put yourself out there.”

A couple months ago she was fortunate enough to speak at a Finance Advisory Board meeting on breaking down the barriers for women in the field of finance. The theme agreed on was the stigma of Finance having always been an intimidating and male focused field. However, exposing women to positive female mentors and role models in higher up leadership positions will help close the gap.

In sum, if you can take one of Professor Spicer’s classes, please consider it. Her constant willingness to help her students to succeed in her classes and her 20 years of trade and portfolio management experiences speaks to her character and her passion for Finance as a whole. There is great effort being made to help women in the business world, but there is so much more progress that needs to be made. Don’t be afraid to take that jump and pursue the field you are most passionate about.

By Sarah Viebrock

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