MBA preps alumna to oversee observatory’s financial operations

December 2, 2014
Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95)

Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95)

For decades, Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95) dreamed of moving to Hawaii. “The aloha spirit just resonated with me,” she says. “The way people respond to each other … it’s just a very nice, welcoming and open environment.” She’d sit with her colleagues, daydreaming during the brutal Chicago winters about how one day she’d live there. They’d laugh off her comments as idle musings, but in 2003, Scheffel did just that. She became the chief financial officer of the W. M. Keck Observatory, one of the world’s foremost observatories, located on the summit of Mauna Kea in Kamuela, on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Living in Chicago, you barely see the stars, but when you come out here, it’s just amazing,” she enthuses.

Scheffel manages the observatory’s $25 million operating budget, overseeing funding from two partner institutions—the University of California and the California Institute of Technology—as well as from NASA, the National Science Foundation and private organizations. “Compliance is a big deal,” she asserts. “We have to make sure that we’re abiding by all the restrictions of the various funds. That can get quite complex.”

To do this, Scheffel scours regulations line by line. “You identify those that you feel are relevant to what you’re doing,” she explains. “Then you ask yourself, ‘Do I have the systems in place to allow the transactions and processes to support that requirement?’ If you don’t, then you look at ways to implement new processes.” This process includes creating new systems to monitor how funds are being spent and efforts are being reported. “Then you cross your fingers and hope you did it the right way,” she laughs.

Failure to comply with regulations, no matter how obscure, may result in loss of funding, so Scheffel often turns to her colleagues for advice. “It’s difficult to do the job on your own, but when you can share what you’ve learned or hear what someone else is doing, you don’t have to make the same mistakes,” she explains.

Scheffel learned the importance of collaborating with her peers while at DePaul. “We would talk about real-life issues we were facing in our careers,” she notes. “It was interesting to be able to share our experiences and get help with them. The MBA program helped me see the value in that.” Her concentration in international studies was an unexpected benefit to her current position. “We’ve got people from different nations, and understanding the cultural aspects of management and how diversity can make an organization better has helped me,” she says. “There is value to their differences, and I use that in how I interact with them.”

When she’s mired down with an overwhelming amount of detail, Scheffel forces herself to take a deep breath. “Sometimes, I have to step back and say, ‘I’m supporting an organization that has the ability to find life in the universe—look at what you’re enabling the scientists to do,’” she says. “We’re just one small planet in the universe. It makes you think about the impact you could be having.”