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State Press Play: An ASU alum's journey through engineering and public relations to her own company

Crystal Lee Patriarche is amplifying women's voices as a public relations CEO, a usually male-dominated position

"State Press Play." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

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Travis Robertson: 

Women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce. Among STEM graduates, men are more likely than women to actually work in STEM related positions. It is safe to say that STEM is a male dominated field, and it is not the only one.

Industries such as public relations may be female dominated. However, 78% of the CEOs are male showing that it is much harder for women to rise up to senior positions. 

However, one ASU alum from the class of 1998 has emerged as a voice of inspiration and support for women's stories in the face of gender disparities. Crystal Lee Patriarche is an ASU alum who started off as an engineering student at Purdue University before transferring to ASU for public relations. After navigating male-dominated professions throughout her young life, Patriarche is now the CEO of SparkPoint Studio, a storytelling brand with a purpose of amplifying women's voices and stories.

I sat down with her to find out exactly how she went from being a part of a male-dominated industry to owning a business that puts women in the limelight.

Crystal Lee Patriarche: 

So, my major when I was at Purdue was engineering, and I transferred to the school of journalism and public relations.

Travis Robertson: 

Why did you make the decision to change your major?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

So when I first moved out from Purdue University to Arizona and I was going to MCC, just to get in-state residency I was working for a space company as an engineering assistant in the Phoenix area because my internships and experience so far have all been engineering and they were launching a new business jet engine in France at the Paris Air Show, I got to be a part of the team who flew over there to launch this new business jet engine to talk about it too different Italian and French media in other countries who were interested in the engineering and aerospace industry.

I happened to be someone who was very outgoing and was someone who could understand the technology and communicate about the different parts and vendors and technology that were a part of this, so after I did that, I came back and that company said to me "you should really be in PR, we'd like for you to go to ASU and study PR because you're really good at this." And not many engineers are, they're very introverted so that's what I did. They sent me to ASU. I studied journalism with a PR emphasis and that's how it all began.

Travis Robertson: 

Was it a smooth transition from Purdue to Arizona State?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

It was smooth, I mean don't have any painful memories of being a transfer student other than one quick funny story: my freshman English credit did not transfer because I was in advanced English literature and ASU required every freshman coming in to have freshman comp, and I didn't have that. I remember going to the department and throwing a little bit of a hissy fit that I would have to take freshman comp when I was already a junior technically, and they wouldn't change it for me and so I did that English class and that's where I met my husband. I guess that's a good thing that that happened. 

It's funny, it's the second semester and classes started on a Tuesday instead of a Monday and so on your schedule it was this English class you were in a lecture hall three days a week and then a lab two days of the week and there was a small group of people who were like do we go to the lecture hall today or do we go to the lab because it's Tuesday but it's just the first day of school so there were some people who were confused so I went to lab and my husband was one of them too so we all went to the wrong classroom the first day and ended up roller blading, smoking a cigarette, getting to the actual place where we were supposed to be that first day of that English class and we just bonded from that point forward we became partners in the class, you had to break out in small groups so yeah that's how it all began. 

We got a cat once we were engaged and we named our cat after the professor of that class.

Travis Robertson: 

How was your experience in the journalism PR program?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

When I went, I mean I'm dating myself here but the journalism school was not in downtown Phoenix yet with the beautiful amazing building technology and resources. Having said that, I still had fantastic professors, I had a great time in my classes, we had the opportunity as students to really have an actual client and they now call it the PR lab, but you had an actual client and you do a PR plan and you have a budget and scope of work and different objectives, so it was incredible to get that real world experience but still being a student and I say to this day like that class in particular I still use those skills. 

I have so many new clients and I am doing proposals and I am talking to clients about their goals or their budgets and so even though we weren't in the fancy amazing Walter Cronkite building in downtown Phoenix, you know we still had a fantastic resources, professors, and opportunities. 

So, I loved that, and for me with students there's a big misconception when it comes to publicity, you hear a lot of people say, "well I like people, so I am going to be in public relations or I want to be a publicist and that seems like a very sexy and exciting job" and it is don't get me wrong sometimes, but there's also just a lot of gusto and guts you have to have because there's a lot of rejection, there's a lot of overbearing clients with large expectations, and a lot of rejection when you're dealing with the media and pitching your clients' stories.

I always say you have to have thick skin and realize it's not just about liking people its about really being passionate about your clients and their product and you know getting it out there as much as you can but understanding there's definitely going to be some rejection in public relations.

Travis Robertson: 

I'm wondering, what are some of your favorite memories as a student at ASU?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

Well, you know ASU at that time was still known as a party school, I do believe that that reputation has changed quite drastically and now number one in innovation comes up quite often but the frat houses were still there, my husband who I said I met in English class he was a Sigma Chi so you know you still had the fraternity houses we had a lot of fun there. 

I don't know it's just hard to say, my roommates you know I met a lot of fantastic women who I am still friends with today. One of my favorite professors was Renea Nichols, she's not at ASU anymore I believe she's at Penn State but she was this wonderful strong, beautiful Black professor who really motivated all of us so I am still connected with her today so her as a professor, the party scene and having fun, and meeting my roommates and all of that for sure.

Travis Robertson: 

What were your plans immediately after graduation, did you have a job lined up anywhere?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

I knew I wanted to try a different city, so I interviewed several different places so it boiled down to a job offer in Seattle and a job offer in Chicago, and the funny story is the job offer in Chicago was like a dream graduation job, like $80,000 a year at the time this was 1998 almost 1999, it was a beautiful corporation with a downtown building in Chicago they had a valet service for all their employees so you could drop off your suit and they would dry clean it for you, a $3,000 wardrobe allowance a month because you did have to dress very professionally. 

On the flip side of that the Seattle opportunity was a PR agency in the tech industry and it was $28,000 a year and as a starting account coordinator. The clients were Microsoft and other tech companies and there were no other perks. 

I took the Seattle job and people die laughing like "why did you do that?" and I am so glad I did, I love Seattle and I love the team. They were so creative and amazing. My first boss there became my mentor. He is still my mentor to this day. So, I just knew in my heart that that was the place for me so it was really hard to make that decision because the money and exciting perks in Chicago were very interesting and appealing of course who wouldn't want that, but I leapt the other direction and it definitely paid off.

Travis Robertson: 

How did the company SparkPoint Studio come to be?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

What happened was I started up in Seattle up in that PR agency doing work for Microsoft and other tech companies, I was there a while and then we moved back to Arizona, I took a job at another global PR agency based in Phoenix. 

We just wanted to be back in Arizona in the sun, Seattle was fun for a while we wanted to be warm in the sun and by family, and I led that agency's West Coast semiconductor clients other tech companies and startups. I did that for a while and then I became a mom, and traveling to the Bay Area in San José where most of my clients were based just became a lot. 

So I ended up saying to that agency you know I'll freelance for these clients, but I have to do it from home. I'll have to be with my kids and they were very young at the time and my company allowed me to do that because I had obviously worked there and done a lot for them and their clients and my boss there who I am still friendly with today was very supportive of that decision. So I was able to work in the industry for years and then freelance for my agency. 

Then eventually I started taking clients of my own and dipping my toes into other non-tech PR clients: beauty, restaurants, authors, things like that. Eventually I had so many clients that I established my own agency and that was SparkPoint Studio so it's been about 12 years ago now.

When I look back on my career I was in a very male dominated industry, first when I was studying engineering, when I was working at that engineering company and flew to that Paris show, when I was doing tech PR up in Seattle at Microsoft, and then back down here in Phoenix with the semiconductor and West Coast tech companies I think it was very male dominated. And don't get me wrong, I definitely had some mentors and people who supported me, and like I said still mentors today but it was very male dominated and when I started my own business I just gravitated towards clients and brands and authors that were telling their story and I wanted to be a part of that and uplift them and to be their mentor and to help their dreams come true by launching their book or their company or whatever they're doing. 

I guess it just kind of happened because I had been in such a male dominated industry it was just passion. Their stories were just interesting to me. I could relate to them because I am also a mother launching a company or a writer writing something I was doing a lot of freelance writing at the time. 

It just kind of happened and I love it. It's very important to me I get to work with authors all over the world at this point and tell their stories and other female brands, and I think women definitely flourish when there's space and community and support for them, I know I did when I had that, and so I am just proud to be a part of that.

Travis Robertson: 

And looking back, if you could tell your college self one thing what would it be?

Crystal Lee Patriarche:

That failure is OK. 

I think for me I was a student even from the time I was in high school. I was valedictorian, straight A student, wanted to get into college, got a scholarship to go to college but failure was not something I was used to, never failed a class. 

When you launch your own company, when you change your major, there are definitely times when you have to regroup. It's not necessarily failure, it's just life. Failure is OK and that's where you learn, you change, you find your passion and direction so I would tell her that failure is your friend.

Travis Robertson:

For the State Press, I'm Travis Robertson.

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