“Always raise your hand to take on new challenges, even if you don’t think you are ready.”

In Taoist philosophy, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This saying has certainly held true for four women whose careers have taken them all the way to the top of the field of data science.

One of those women is Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S., who said data science was a destination she never imagined when she started out as a young graduate with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

“I was convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “After about 11 seconds in a lab, I realized that probably wasn’t a good fit for me.”

Four women panelists smiling on a video call

Johnson was a keynote speaker during “2021 Women in Data Science Philadelphia @ Penn,” a virtual week-long conference in February aimed at informing and inspiring female students. Joining her were speakers Barkha Saxena, chief digital officer at Poshmark; Didi Huang, director of data science (business opportunities) at Facebook; and Christine Cox, vice president of data and analytics at IKEA Digital.

The conference theme, “This is What a Data Scientist Looks Like,” was chosen to challenge the gender stereotypes prevalent across technical fields.

“Wharton has always been a trailblazer in supporting women,” Wharton Dean Erika James said during her opening remarks. “In the fall of 2009, Wharton was the first of our peer MBA programs to welcome a class to campus with over 40 percent female representation. We have not dropped below that mark since and continue to push that boundary.”

The four speakers — who all earned MBAs from Wharton — shared their personal stories and hard-won career advice. Here are some highlights:

Speak Up

Kate Johnson (left) and Barkha Saxena (right)

Saxena was a statistics major who landed a good job in the dot-com boom in her native country of India. Then she quit and moved to the U.S. to pursue a career in data science. During her decade at FICO, she moved from data analytics to sales because she wanted to bridge the gap between building data systems and helping companies and organizations better understand their value.

“The skills and the learning I gained during that period have been instrumental in all the things I have done since then,” Saxena said.

Her advice to students: “Speak up. We as women are generally not very good at it. Always speak your mind and ask for what you want.”

Network Strategically

Like Saxena, Cox said her journey “has been more like a winding path than a ladder.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English then went into consulting at Accenture, where her work on coding a tracking system for a delivery company piqued her interest in technology. At American Express, she “fell in love with learning about consumers” through big data and connecting that data to improving the customer experience.

Cox emphasized the importance of networking both inside and outside your organization. “Have a plan of attack and an agenda,” she said about coffee chats. “Be clear and concise.”

Didi Huang (left) and Christine Cox (right)

Also, make sure your mentors are people who can actually help you. They should have more or different knowledge and experience than you or hold positions that can help you strategically.

Saxena said she looks for mentors who have a high IQ and a high EQ — or emotional intelligence. “I need to be able to connect with that person and trust the person to be super honest.”

Take Risks — and Don’t Be Afraid

Remember that your career is a marathon and not a sprint, Cox said. If you want to run farther, you have to challenge yourself along the way. Have a learning mindset, collaborate on new projects, try jobs outside your current industry to stretch yourself.

“I did not start my career as a data scientist or an analyst,” Huang said. “Data science didn’t exist as a career, and the internet was still in its infancy” when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1995. Her current role as director of data science (business opportunities) at Facebook is broad and encompassing, a long way from her entry-level job as an electrical engineer.

“Always raise your hand to take on new challenges, even if you don’t think you are ready,” Huang added.

And don’t be afraid if you end up somewhere entirely different from where you started.

“For those of us who don’t know what we want to do, or think we know what we want to do and we’re wrong, I’m living proof that it’s OK,” Johnson said. “The pivot becomes a part of the journey.”

— Angie Basiouny

Posted: March 3, 2021

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