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GEEK OF THE WEEK: TERESA DI PALMA

by Michael J. Weiss | Oct 05, 2012
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As the first person in her family to attend a university, Teresa Di Palma has some experience with challenging the status quo. When her high school placed her on a non-academic business track, her complaints prompted a transfer to a university-bound program. In her first job as an analyst at Compusearch, she paid no mind to the
“Blazing New
Trails”

“desk” she was assigned—actually the top of a file cabinet—and went on to earn a reputation as the map-making guru of the automotive department.

This summer Teresa become director of the new Product Management group at Environics Analytics (EA) by following her lifelong philosophy of questioning accepted wisdom. “I’m always looking for a new challenge,” says Teresa. “You have to speak up if you want to get ahead.”

Admittedly, Teresa has succeeded by being assertive in a nice way. In her new role, she oversees EA’s product lines and services life cycles, directing the development of new products, software-driven solutions and automated research packages. The job involves working with many EA teams—from software development to client services—and she sees her role as a multilingual collaborator. “The developers talk one way and the client services people speak another,” she explains. “For the developers, it’s all about how we are going to create something and how much time it will take. The client services people are all about serving their clients’ needs. I like being the translator who understands what everyone is saying for the benefit of all.”

But achieving this fluency hasn’t been easy. The daughter of a construction worker and school janitor, Teresa grew up in a working-class Italian family living in a diverse section of Malton, Ont. Told in high school to choose between a career as an accountant or legal assistant, she initially selected accounting “because I like numbers,” she says. “But when I did a co-op course in accounting at Marks & Spencer, I found it the most boring job ever.” Her school counselor took one look at her stellar grades and suggested she transfer to a university-bound track, even though completing the pre-university coursework would require an extra year of study. But Teresa finished it in one year and graduated with her high school class. “Every time someone has said that I couldn’t do something,” she says, “I’ve gone out and done it.”

Teresa went on to Ryerson University to study geography with the idea of becoming a high school geography teacher. Instead, she fell in love with the business applications of geography, especially after her co-op placement at the school’s Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity (CSCA), which turned into a part-time job. When she saw an ad posted at Ryerson’s career center for an analyst position with Compusearch, Teresa was intrigued, even though it paid much less than other positions. Encouraged by the CSCA director, Teresa interviewed with Michele Sexsmith, now EA’s vice president and practice leader, took the job and started working a week after earning her Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in geography. And her concerns about the starting pay? “Within a few years, I was making more than double the salary of my contemporaries,” she recalls. “Some didn’t even have a job.”

Compusearch’s automotive department was a crucial first test for Teresa. “It was pretty intimidating,” she says of the male-dominated office. “There was a lot of testosterone and car talk in that office.” But Teresa was undaunted. She conducted market studies for automotive dealerships and developed an expertise in map-making, working on the largest automotive market studies for GM and other car manufacturers.

“My secret ingredient is ‘keep it simple’.”

After taking time off to have her children—she has twin boys, Peter and Alex, now 11, and a daughter, Isabella, 9—Teresa wanted to work again while still raising her toddlers. In 2005, she approached Jan Kestle, formerly president of Compusearch and then leading EA, to see if she could work out of her home in suburban Vaughan. When Jan agreed, Teresa became the first employee of EA’s Standard Research department and quickly learned to juggle work and family.

“I was very organized,” she recalls. “I’d turn on my computer at nine in the morning, check the emails, take my daughter to day care and my sons to school and then work half the day when they were gone. When they got home, the computer went off and I devoted the afternoon shift to them. Then after they went to bed, I’d start working again.” Teresa’s busy days resulted in independent and resilient children, she says. “Plus they can all describe the benefits of ENVISION,” she laughs. “They listened to all my conference calls.”

The Di Palma home is located in a Pets & PCs neighbourhood, according to the PRIZMC2 segmentation system, and is typical by cluster standards. “Every family has two or three kids, the same number of dogs, and I can’t even imagine how many computers, iPads and Xboxes,” she explains. Teresa describes herself as a traditionalist who insists that her family sit down to a home-cooked meal every night and her children attend church services every Sunday. When she gets free time, she likes to work in her flower garden—this year, it had a purple colour scheme, last year, hot pink—and also enjoys cooking. She believes in “old school cooking,” which she describes as dishes featuring veal, olive oil and homemade tomato sauce (recipe below). “My secret ingredient is ‘keep it simple’,” she says.

While she may be a traditionalist when it comes to cooking, Teresa enjoys blazing new paths at work. Since joining EA, she’s broken ground in three departments: Standard Research, Client Services and, now, Product Management. Her different assignments have allowed her to see how far analytics have come since her days making trade area maps as a part-time analyst and full-time mom. “It’s nice to see the Excel report that, seven years ago, took days to run is now an automatic marketing report that takes a few seconds,” she says. She believes that the same empathy she uses as a good mother has also made her a versatile employee. “If there’s any secret to my success, it’s listening,” she says. “If a client is confused, it’s important to find out why and make sure we’re satisfying their needs—even if it means helping them do it six times until they get it.”

And that goes for her career trajectory as well. “I don’t believe that it’s wrong to ask any question,” she says. “Some people are hesitant about asking questions. Not me. You have to speak up if you want to get respect.” It’s the kind of philosophy that’s earned her a much better office space with a proper desk and a lot less car talk.

–Michael J. Weiss

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Teresa’s Sunday Sauce with Meatballs

Sauce
1 diced onion – sauté in olive oil
add 2 liters tomato puree…homemade or any brand sold in bottles!
add 1 can of tomato paste…you need this in sauce whenever you’re adding any meat
Salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste…my kids are not fans of raw garlic
Bring to a boil…then keep on low heat for at least an hour
Meatballs
600 grams of ground meat – mix of ground veal and ground pork
2 pieces of toast bread crumbled up – soak it with some milk…not too much
1 egg
Parmesan and/or Romano grated cheese – lots
Salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste
Mix all ingredients (use your hands) and make medium size meatballs (if they are too soft, add more crumbled toast bread without the milk. Add meatballs one at a time to your sauce that’s cooking slowly, and continue to cook sauce until meatballs rise to the top. Then simmer the sauce for about another hour. I always add some more olive oil at the end. Make your favorite pasta and enjoy!