Ilya Espino de Marotta: a life of challenges

Ilya Espino de Marotta is not afraid of heights, nor of endless project meetings, nor the uncertainty of high-level negotiations. Three decades ago she completed her degree in marine engineering – traditionally the preserve of men - and since then nothing has stood in the way of her passion for her chosen career.

As Executive Vice President of the Panama Canal expansion project’s Engineering and Programme Management, her role takes her up in a helicopter once a month to direct a photography/videography team and to monitor progress of the ambitious work underway on the canal. She lectures to experts from around the world about the engineering challenges of the canal, and attends conferences to discuss its future.

Canal workers call her 'The Lady of the Expansion'

As a young student she discarded all the career options then thought suitable for a woman and opted for a profession which, at the time, was exclusively a man’s world. After being awarded her Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Engineering from Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, USA, she completed her M.A. in Economic Engineering at the Universidad Santa Maria La Antigua in Panama.

As she worked her way up in the world of engineering and project management, she studied Management Development at INCAE (Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas) Business School and a few years later at the Kellogg School of Management. In 2007, she was certified as Project Manager by the Project Management Institute.

Ilya’s place at the forefront of such an important engineering project comes after 20 years of work on the canal during which she explored every corner of it. She first served as a design engineer in the Industrial Division, repairing floating equipment. She also worked as a mechanical engineer in the Engineering and Dredging Divisions.

In 1994, she was assigned to the Canal Accounting Division as a valuation engineer; and in 1998, she served as Capital Investment Programme Coordinator for the Department of Maritime Operations. Four years later, she was selected to join the team for the Coordination of the Master Plan which developed the Panama Canal Expansion Proposal. In 2006, the plan was approved by the people of Panama in a national referendum. Then transferred to the Office of Programme Development, Ilya help plan how various expansion projects would be put into action.

The Expansion Programme was formally launched on 3 September 2007, shortly after she was appointed Executive Manager of the engineering department’s Resource Planning and Project Control Division. It was tasked with the execution of the Expansion Programme, supervising environmental services, security, budget, risk assessment, cost control and execution time, communication and historical documentation and legal services.

Outside this demanding job, she has found time to qualify as a licensed public translator. She describes herself as someone who 'loves family life and nature, with a special love of the sea' and firmly believes that God is the manager of her success and that every obstacle she has had to overcome has made her stronger.


The Panamanian Government and international organizations have recognized her work through numerous awards and honors. Most recently, she was awarded the prestigious 2014 ‘Outstanding Woman of the Year’ by the Panamanian Association of Business Executives. She has been recognized by The Circle of Intellectual Women of Panama for its Technology and Engineering achievement award, and holds the Distinguished Woman Award from the Association of Professional and Business Women of Panama. Forbes Magazine of Mexico recognized her in its list of the 50 most powerful women in Central America.

Ilya is the only woman to have held the highest post in the Panama Canal’s management in the canal’s 100-year history

She manages not only the canal’s expansion but also a myriad of investment projects, such as the construction of the new bridge on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama. She also supervises the canal’s maintenance, operation and construction contracts, and the purchase of goods and services.

Ilya played a key role during negotiations with the company now designing and construction the canal’s new locks, the Grupo Unidos por el Canal. But as an engineer at heart, she says she likes action and confesses to being impatient, open, direct, and more interested in getting things done than talking. Those who work with her consider her a natural leader.

The Expansion Programme is nearing completion and Ilya is already looking to the future, hoping to find a role on the board of a national or international company. She wants to share the wealth of professional experience she’s gained during the past thirty years.

She also wants to devote time to charities. Two close to her heart are the international Ronald McDonald House hospital charity founded by the McDonald fast-food chain, and Panama’s National Cancer Association because both have supported her and her family over the years, when one of her sons and then her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Ilya Espino de Marotta describes herself as a person with profound faith in God. As this important engineering project nears its end, she takes great pride in having been a part of it, and in the fact that it has been wholly conceived and executed by Panama’s own experts, workers and Government. 


Written by: Panama Canal

Photo Credit: Panama Canal

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