When supply chain manager Zarina Zayas-Ortiz was in high school, she was fascinated by the physics that made roller coasters work. She tells us how the languages of science and technology are a foundational toolkit, following the “stronger yes” when deciding what path to pursue, and how supply chain is the circulatory system of a business.

Zarina, center, age 7 with her best friend and her younger brother at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Fast facts about Zarina

Where she’s from: central New Jersey
Grew up with: her mom, dad, and younger brother
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and a Master of Engineering in Logistics and Supply Chain Management from the Zaragoza Logistics Center
Where she lives now: San Francisco, California
Growing up she wanted to be: a doctor, then a lawyer, and then an engineer
Now she’s: Manager of a Distribution Center of Excellence, Levi Strauss & Company

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I was a super-shy, introverted girl. I was pretty supported. I loved to be outside. I loved to play, but then also I was a big reader. When it came to consuming as many books as I could, I loved the whole idea of just creating worlds and that sort of thing.

I’m originally from central New Jersey. The public schools that I went to were great. I really enjoyed math and science. It really felt like a language that was a lot easier for me to speak. I was definitely into physics and biology. Overall, I felt lucky having a pretty enjoyable school experience. Even if I did have one experience that was a little tough or one that I didn’t like, I would try to remind myself that there’s so much more for me to try out, and not to get discouraged.

What did you like to do outside of school?

I did play basketball and softball growing up, and that was good because it’s team-oriented. I grew up playing the saxophone, and a little bit of the piano. I found there to be a very interesting link between mathematics and music, keeping time and the different tunings and the different melodies.

I was in a jazz band in high school. It was a lot of fun. As part of that collective, we all kind of come together to create this really beautiful thing together, that symphony or that large song.

The internet and technology gave me a powerful toolkit when it came to how I could interact with the world around me.

You did some web design, too. How did you get into that in the 90s?

I’d visit [a website] about unicorns, for instance, and it really blew my mind that that was something that I would be able to create on my own. The internet and technology gave me a powerful toolkit when it came to how I could interact with the world around me. I had this technology teacher that actually showed us how to build a web site. It was really neat to find other people that shared the same interests, and also have people who were able to provide a supportive environment for us to learn and create together. Here in the Bay Area, one of the most common languages you hear is the language of technology and it’s nice just to have people to exchange ideas with or say, there’s a new trend I haven’t heard much about, for me to ask questions like, what is this about? It’s definitely a skill that I first started to develop when I was younger. 

What got you interested in engineering?

I’ll never forget, I was in tenth grade, taking physics, and we were going over momentum, and the whole equation behind momentum and how that works. We were reviewing how a roller coaster worked. I remember being totally blown away by being able to describe the world in another variety of mathematics. After that talking to teachers about, “okay, so how do I translate this world of physics into ways of getting a job?“

Engineering came into focus, and specifically mechanical engineering. When I think back to the love that I always had about bringing things to life or creating, I felt as if engineering was just such a great way of doing that. 

Why did you choose mechanical engineering instead of another branch of engineering, like electrical, chemical, or industrial?

I actually started as a chemical engineer. Growing up in New Jersey, one of the biggest employers are pharmaceutical companies. I thought, “Okay, if I want to stay close to my family, it probably would make more sense if I were to work in this particular field. Even though chemistry was a little tough for me, just, I like this idea also of pursuing this interesting industry.” But after the first year of chemical engineering, I thought, “You know what? I do feel more of a resonance with mechanical engineering,” and what that career path could sort of look like. My second year, I did end up switching.

I began to reframe decisions or problems by saying, “You know what? It’s not necessarily a no. It’s just a yes in a different direction. It’s a stronger yes.”

Zarina dressed up for Halloween as a flapper when she was 21. 

How did you find that balance between when to persevere with something that isn’t easy, and when it’s time to decide that it might not be the thing for you?

When I say I’m going to do something, I really try to do it, and sometimes it hurts when you say, “You know what? I cannot do it.” What I really began to do, though, is instead of looking at the world in terms of “Okay, no, this can’t be done,” I began to really reframe my approach to decisions in my life or problems by saying, “You know what? It’s not necessarily a no. It’s just a yes in a different direction. It’s a stronger yes.” I could continue pushing through with this more difficult major where I really didn’t feel a connection to it, but I feel a deeper connection to this other subject or this other pursuit. So let me just follow the stronger yes, because there’s probably a lot more to it.

I think it’s so important for us to really tune into our hearts, and to really look at what excites us. It’s totally okay for us to change our minds if we find something that fits better for us, because we’re continuously growing and evolving. As we become more in tune with who we are, we’re also going to shift our decisions to more fully resonate with who we are at that current point.

Can you tell us a little bit more about mechanical engineering?

What I loved about mechanical engineering is that it’s very broad. We focus on purely mechanical systems. The biggest example is a bicycle, for instance, and what goes into building that bicycle, in terms of the different gears and the shifting and the wheel systems. What I loved most about engineering was how it really taught me a structured way of approaching a problem, and arriving at the different solutions.

When I finished college, I went into financial consulting. Engineers are really good with numbers. But I could have the best idea in the world, and if I don’t know how to communicate it to people, no one’s going to listen to me. And what is it that consultants do well? They know how to tell stories.

supply chain really is the heartbeat, the circulatory system of a business. It’s not as if you think about it all the time, but if you didn’t have that heartbeat, nothing else can happen.

How did you get into supply chain?

I worked for a little while at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan as a mechanical engineer. I was shown how global of a function supply chain is. It’s everything from the conception of the idea, to manufacturing the product, to shipping it and having it delivered and sold to the consumer. That just blew my mind when it came to just how global, how complex, but also how exciting it actually was. It feels like supply chain really is the heartbeat, the circulatory system of a business. It’s not as if you think about it all the time, but if you didn’t have that heartbeat, nothing else can happen.

Supply chain still has a connection to engineering, because it has to do with solving problems. I applied to a bunch of different schools, and MIT has a program in Spain that sounded really appealing. My family is originally from Puerto Rico, so I thought, “Good, I can practice my Spanish, spend some time in a foreign country.”

What do like most about your current role with Levi Strauss & Co?

It feels like a marriage of what I loved most about mechanical engineering and supply chain. Right now in supply chain, the big things are technology, robotics, software, so I still get to work in that way. The supply chain part is making sure that we’re able to have things arrive on time, and how my distribution should work globally.

There is a way that we produce goods and ship them around the world, but a lot of this is very new because of what the consumer wants. How we deliver to people is always changing. For people who are looking for ways to get into something that’s new and exciting, that’s really what I love about supply chain.

How does your work help the whole business run more smoothly?

The work that I do is all about getting the package to people faster. I can really see first-hand, because I can test it. I buy a pair of jeans, and we can see immediately how we’re able to make a difference, because maybe before it would take three to five days for the order to arrive, and now it might take just two to three days.

There’s certain projects that I work on that are all about making the distribution center workers’ lives easier, how they receive product, how they handle product, how they ship it. It’s really neat just to get immediate feedback from people where it’s like, “Zarina, the project that you did where it re-looked at how we pick a product and how we pack it; you know what, that made my life so much easier. I’m able to do this thing faster.”  It could be also about ergonomics: are people comfortable in how they do their job? That’s a big part of what I do as well. It’s cool.

For people who like puzzles, this is a great place to be, because it’s a gigantic puzzle.

Do you primarily work with people in your department, or other departments, or by yourself?

One of my favorite parts about working in supply chain is you get to work with everybody, and especially for someone who was so shy growing up, it’s cool to say, “I love working with different groups now.” When you’re buying new technology, you have to work with finance on building that, the budget for that. In order for us to better predict how products are going to sell, you need to work with marketing to better understand, “Okay, with this big Levi’s ad that we’re doing, do we think the consumers are going to respond to it well?”

You work with procurement when you actually go and you buy new technology. I feel as if distribution, logistics, and manufacturing are all my right-hand people. I can talk about how I’m going to promise something at the store, but guess what? Logistics is who helps me get it there. For people who like puzzles, this is a great place to be, because it’s a gigantic puzzle.

It’s helped me develop an appreciation for anything that I buy now; everything has a past. All of these things come from somewhere. It’s helped me be a little bit more responsible as a consumer. Do I know where this thing is coming from? I love that idea of being able to support those companies where they’re doing good.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m still definitely very much into music. I’m actually getting into designing my own clothing. I like to travel a lot, and in December, I was in Bali. Bali is known for very beautiful fabrics. While I was over there, I felt super-inspired, and I began working with people there making different clothing and designs.

Whenever I can, I just love to travel, get outside of the city, even if it’s only an hour outside, and spend the time outdoors, and go hiking and reconnect. I love the beach as well. One of my favorite things about being in California is being 15 minutes away from the ocean.

Have you ever done any design work before?

This is totally new. Throughout my life, with either personal experiences or jobs, I felt pretty supported in terms of, “You know what? Just if something feels all right for me, let me try it out.” I don’t have a background in it. It’s been cool to really explore and see the direction that it’s been taking. Friends at work who are designers; they’re like, “Zarina, this is actually pretty good.” So, that’s cool.

That sounds awesome. I’ll have to keep a look out for it. What did you imagine your life as an adult would be like when you were in high school?

Zarina (far right) with her friends Melissa and Courtney at age 12, with no idea of the opportunities that were in store for her.

Gosh. I thought that I would live in New York, and I would have a job somewhere in the city; maybe have a family by now. I knew that I would be working somewhere technical. It’s so different than what I thought. To me, what that says is that the world is so vast in terms of opportunity. Even though this is something that I never could have possibly imagined, I’m so grateful, because I honestly do feel as if every year, life keeps getting better and better.

Be Open, because it's totally okay to change out minds, but once you find something that resonates with you, just go with that.

That’s a great way to feel about your life. What advice would you give to a girl who is like the girl that you were?

Be patient with ourselves, compassionate, but just to be open, because it’s totally okay for us to change our minds, but once you find something that resonates with you, just go after that, and continue doing that thing, because I think so much more comes out of it when we’re just super-psyched about something.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an engineer or be in supply chain?

Awesome, definitely go for it! Being a girl in STEM, there are going to be people that are maybe a little uncomfortable with you being there, because it’s always been a certain way. And my advice would be to continue doing it, if it feels right for you, because the more of us who do it, the more of us who can provide an environment where we can all feel welcomed and support each other. It’s a lot of fun. It’s going to feel tough at times, but it is very rewarding and very exciting to be a part of this world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out some of Zarina's favorite books and find out more about her work!