4 Women Leading the Way in Business Intelligence


It’s no secret that there’s a disproportionately low number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. A 2010 study by the American Association of University Women found that men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field by college graduation, with women receiving just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in these areas.

Though clearly hard to break into, technology can be a highly attractive field for women, as it provides a much greater opportunity to stand out than other industries. Salaries are also frequently higher—The U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration reports that women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their counterparts in other fields.

Business intelligence (BI) is one STEM field where women, however scarce, have done well. To find out what it takes to become a successful female executive in this area, we interviewed four female professionals at the top of the BI field. Here are their stories.

Cindi Howson

PositionFounder, BI Scorecard, author of Successful Business Intelligence
EducationBA - University of Maryland, MBA - Rice University

Though always mathematically inclined, Cindi Howson didn’t jump into BI from she start—she earned a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her entry into BI occurred because of a boss who saw she had the ability to understand both business and technology, an essential BI skill.

Howson began her BI career as office systems coordinator for Dow Chemical in Switzerland in 1988, (back when BI was referred to as management reporting), creating management reports using software programs Lotus 1-2-3 and FOCUS for Mainframe. When the company began a data warehousing and BI project in 1992, she was tasked with evaluating BI tools, which was a highly fragmented market at the time.

Part of the initial team that created Dow Chemical’s first data warehouse, Howson says that one of her biggest accomplishments was the global deployment of a client-server reporting tool for for thousands of users around the world. Despite her success, however, Howson made a unique decision 10 years into her career: to go back to school and earn her MBA in Management Information Systems from Rice University.

This decision, Howson says, stemmed from two reasons. She had recently been passed over for a position by a man who was less qualified, and she was frustrated at having to design reports such as income statements and balance sheets that she didn’t know how to interpret herself. “I recognized that I had a knowledge gap to fill,” she explains.

While the decision wasn’t easy, Howson says earning her MBA was a pivotal point in her career. “It’s hard to do, after you’ve had a great career and salary. But everything I learned—marketing, navigating politics and people’s hidden agendas—is the single biggest factor of why I’m not a report developer any more.”

Eventually gaining enough experience to start her own business, Howson launched BI Scorecard, which provides side-by-side analyses of BI software products, in 2003.

Howson attributes much of her success to her strong listening skills and close attention to detail. “I can help clients focus on the BI requirements that matter most, rather than being overwhelmed by unanticipated situations and too many conflicting requirements,” she says.

As an example, Howson points to a recent discussion she had with a financial services company, where users weren’t sure which BI products or pre-built analytic solutions would best meet their needs. She noticed, however, that they kept talking about the need for alerts on real-time trading positions—capabilities that not all vendors support.

“We debated these requirements within the larger context of self-service and dashboards, and I could immediately tell them which vendors supported real-time alerting, allowing them to narrow the scope of their evaluation,” she says.

Howson also credits certain mentors with helping her find her voice in her field. After she lost the promotion at Dow Chemical, “I was devastated,” she says. But when a female executive told her it was because she was too quiet and unassertive, it changed her perspective on how she needed to position herself in order to succeed.

“That was a real eye opener for me,” she says. “I thought doing good work would be enough to promote me, but that’s not the case.”

Howson believes many women find it hard to promote themselves, and says that despite her success, it’s still a challenge for her.

“For women who are employees, [self-promotion] might mean reminding a supervisor of particular accomplishments. For me, as a service provider, when it comes to negotiating a contract or rate, I may first ask, ‘What’s the going rate? Am I above or below?’”

Howson also recommends that women attend workshops, read books and attend networking events that teach how to assert themselves in the workplace.

Jill Dyché

PositionVice President of Best Practices at SAS
EducationBA - UCLA

Jill Dyché was on the fast track to a career in the legal field when she stumbled into technology. After earning a BA in English from UCLA, she got a job as a technology writer for Honeywell, a large technology and manufacturing company. There, she wrote a user’s guide for a new product called a relational database, which forced her to learn about database technology.

This experience led Dyché to be hired by Teradata, which at the time was a small start-up firm focused on data warehousing. In her six years with the company, she became highly conversant with all aspects of storing, using and and protecting corporate data.

“I learned it all by watching early-adopter customers use data warehouses to make decisions differently,” she says. “It was not at all part of a plan.”

Seeing market growth in the BI space, Dyché left Teradata to join another start-up firm and eventually co-founded Baseline Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in BI and data integration strategies. It was acquired by software giant SAS Institute in 2011.

As a partner at Baseline, Dyché says she learned a lot from watching how her clients, which included many Fortune 100 companies, ran their businesses.

“Companies are often political and rife with personalities and social structures,” she explains. “A huge company can have a lot of talent, but with a lot of talent comes a lot of opinions. Understanding human dynamics is a big part of high tech.”

Like Howson, Dyché credits certain mentors for helping her throughout her career, including an engineering colleague who taught her how to break down complex technical topics into simple, understandable ideas.

“From him I learned that it doesn’t matter how complex the topic, you can explain it through metaphor and storytelling,” she says. “Also, that few people are interested in technology architectures—they want to hear about how technology can solve their business problems.”

Lessons like these have taught Dyché to truly appreciate her education. “I used to downplay my English degree, but I learned that, with all due respect to STEM fields, there’s a real place for a liberal arts education in high tech,” she says. ”You can teach people technology, but you can’t necessarily teach them how to communicate clearly.”

Dyché also says that living and working abroad has taught her that geographical and cultural perspectives play a crucial role in the business world.

“How company leaders run their operations, make decisions and reward and penalize behaviors can be very, very different,” she explains. “The one thing you learn quickly in management consulting is that companies, like countries, have entrenched cultural norms, so change can be hard.”

As a female executive, Dyché readily admits that women often have to work a little harder than men. There will, she says, invariably be what she calls a “boy’s club moment.” But she also maintains that there are men in the industry who truly value having women on their teams.

“Show me a man who invites a woman to the table to enrich the collective perspective, and I’ll show you a leader, not just a manager,” she says.

For young women starting out in high tech, Dyché has a final piece of advice: “Don’t plan your career too meticulously, because life will throw you a few curveballs. If you’d have told me as an undergrad that I’d be an executive at the world’s largest privately-held software company, I would have burst out laughing. Serendipity is a beautiful thing.”

Piyanka Jain

PositionCEO of Aryng Consulting, former head of Analytics at PayPal
EducationBS - University of Delhi, MS - Texas A&M, MS - University of Minnesota

As a child growing up in India, Piyanka Jain was always good at math. She dove into STEM fields from the very beginning, earning a BS in civil engineering from the University of Delhi, an MS in environmental engineering from Texas A&M University and an MS in computer engineering from the University of Minnesota.

Though attracted to math, Jain wasn’t initially interested in statistics—a mainstay of BI—until she was required to learn it for her first Master’s degree. “I had to ‘befriend the enemy,’ and it was in doing so that found my passion,” she says.

After completing her degree at the University of Minnesota in 2002, Jain founded and ran a small media company called Out Of Box Media, which placed ads on food boxes. “That’s where I learned about the ins and outs of a business,” she says. “I learned how to manage cash flow, selling, marketing—all things that I was completely unaware of in my career at that point.”

Jain says this business knowledge has been crucial to her success. Though she was a strong technical analyst, she didn’t know how business decisions were made, or how to communicate or negotiate.

“To succeed, you have to understand what the problem is from the business side and the technical side and marry them together,” she says. Jain also credits classes in communications, negotiations and leadership with helping her learn these skills.

A couple years later, Jain joined Adobe as a senior analyst, eventually working her way up to a senior management position. She helped provide database-driven analytical support to the company’s product and relationship marketing team, resulting in a revenue impact of $18 million. She also built a predictive model that resulted in a six fold increase in the adoption rate of Adobe Acrobat and reduced marketing spend by 50 percent.

Jain then went on to become the head of analytics for PayPal’s consumer and merchant segment. Using analytics to create better products and customer experiences, she worked on five strategic projects that resulted in a $70 million revenue impact.

in 2011, Jain founded Aryng, a management consulting firm focused on analytics. The motivation to do so, she says, came from first-hand experiences about data from her peers in other organizations over the years.

“They were overwhelmed—with data, Big Data, analytics, predictive analytics—and while many had jumped on the bandwagon, their investment in analytics wasn’t delivering much ROI,” she says. “The whole scene was vague and complex. There was a big gap that needed to be filled, and I had some inkling of how to solve it.”

One of Jain’s biggest accomplishments took place when she worked with a popular software vendor. The client was seeking new prospects for one of its most popular products (let’s call it Product X). Jain’s task was to use analytics to find a new revenue source for the product.

The vendor had a database of 50 million prospects that had downloaded a free version of another of its products. Using a technique called logistic regression, Jain and her team compared the prospects’ characteristics to those of Product X users before they adopted Product X, and gave each an adoption probability score. The top four million prospects were then sent an offer for Product X.

As a result, the vendor’s addressable market grew by 400 percent and resulted in $35 million in new direct revenue, and the prospect set because a source of incremental revenue for all future releases of Product X.

Jain says her willingness to take risks to do what she believes in has been a big factor in her success. “A lot of people know what they believe in but don’t take risks; they don’t change their career to do what they believe in,” she says. “Give yourself permission to take risks.”

Carla Gentry

PositionFounder and CEO, Analytical Solution
EducationBS - University of Tennessee

Carla Gentry’s entry into the BI field was longer and more convoluted than the other women featured here. She married at 17, and by 23 was a divorced single mother with two young boys. She had no high school diploma, let alone a college degree, and her prospects were dim. “I was very intelligent, but had no common sense,” she says. “I thought I knew everything.”

In search of a better life, Gentry completed her GED, and at 27, entered the University of Tennessee. She was introduced to econometrics (statistics applied to economics) by an economics professor, and found it was a field she really enjoyed. In 1997, she graduated with a BS in advanced mathematics and corporate structures and a BS in international and domestic economics.

After graduation, Gentry took a position at Ronald J. Krum and Associates, an econometrical consulting firm based outside Chicago. Several years later, Gentry left for better opportunities at a direct marketing company called The Weinstein Organization, where she stayed for five years.

Subsequent positions included a short tenure at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business where she taught Ph.D. students how to work with data, and a position at PromoWorks, where she worked with consumer packaged goods companies such as Kraft and Kellogg’s.

In 2008, Gentry returned to her hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., and took a position with Tandus, one of the largest carpet companies in the world, doing competitive analysis and other analytical tasks. Her next job was at a data holding company called Terenine, where she helped build the company’s data warehouse.

Around two and a half years ago, Gentry founded Analytical Solution, which provides data mining and analytics services. “I was frustrated with the game called ‘Corporate America,’ where if you’re a women, your answers are always subject to interpretation of someone with no experience in what you do,” she explains. “So I set out on my own.”

Gentry considers her greatest strength to be her analytical ability. “I have the ability to see things that other people don’t even pay attention to,” she says. I have a strong ability to identify patterns.”

She gives one example where she worked with a large consumer products company on an in-store sampling campaign. Based on the data, everyone thought the campaign was successful—but Gentry was skeptical, and noticed that one particular person doing sampling seemed to have inflated numbers.

“Everyone else was looking at the overall data, and not noticing any outliers,” she says. “No one else was looking at the patterns pictorially; they weren’t looking at the right time frame.”

Gentry conducted a comparative analysis that excluded seasonal and marketing spikes. As a result, what had initially appeared to be a 4,000 percent increase in sales turned out to be a mere 43 percent increase.

“The trick is to look at the raw level of data, even if you have to scroll through one line at a time,” Gentry explains of her approach. “There have been many times when I had to go to IT and tell them that they had missing data.”

Like many of the other women profiled here, Gentry has encountered obstacles as a woman in BI. “When you are speaking to all male board, they go behind you to make sure what you say is correct,” she says. She’s also encountered people who won’t do business with her because they think she’s not as smart or capable as men.

Because of this, Gentry says, women who succeed in BI need to have both strength and desire. “You need a lot of mathematics, a lot of analytics and a lot of business knowledge,” she emphasizes. “But if you stick to the STEM fields, they will always put food on your family’s table.”

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Alan S. Horowitz

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Alan S. Horowitz is a contributor to Software Advice.

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