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Women in analytics: Swetha Valluri, 1-800-Flowers.com
From math-hater to a double master’s in econometrics and biostatistics
By Anne-Lindsay Beall, SAS Insights Editor
Swetha Valluri hated math. “When I was in seventh grade, I cried when I had to take my math final. So when I called my mom from college and told her I was majoring in mathematics, she thought it was a joke,” laughs Valluri, who holds a double bachelor’s in finance and mathematics from University of Massachusetts Amherst.
And she didn’t stop there. She went on to get her first master’s in econometrics, also at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and then to George Washington University for her second master’s in biostatistics.
“I got to college and I couldn’t stop taking math classes,” says Valluri.
What changed? Two things helped her forge a new path. First, a father who had a triple master’s in physics, chemistry and engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Chennai (the MIT of India). “Anytime I asked him a question, he’d walk me through the nuts and bolts of how things are put together and the science behind it,” says Valluri. “That mind frame propelled me when I got to college.”
Work on your interpersonal skills. You can do all the statistics you want, but if you don’t have communication skills, you’re not going to succeed.
Second, her very first statistics professor, who, with incredible foresight, told Valluri, “Statistics is the next frontier – you really should go into it.”
Valluri not only accepted the challenge, she relished it. “I loved the complexity of statistics, and the way it forced my brain to think in new ways.”
Two vital skills needed
Now Director of Analytics at 1-800-Flowers.com, Valluri is glad she took her professor’s advice – but she’s the first to tell you that it takes more than math skills to succeed in analytics.
“With analytics, you learn how to think logically and critically, but that doesn’t get you where you want to be,” says Valluri. “The two biggest skills that have made me successful in my career are communication and listening. Understanding the true needs of the business comes from listening, asking questions and drilling down beyond what you’re initially asked for.
“The result is that people begin having confidence in – and respecting – the work you do.”
A supportive workplace
Mathematics, data and analytics are still largely male-dominated fields, but Valluri has landed in a progressive workplace: “1-800-Flowers.com is encouraging to everyone who wants to succeed and do well.” She’s had good luck in her managers, both male and female, who became her mentors and supported her desire to take on more responsibility.
Her workplace also supports balancing work with personal life and family, a challenge for Valluri, who says she “tends to be a workaholic.”
The trick, she says, is putting a hard stop to it. “I tell myself after 6:30 p.m., that’s it. No more emails, no more work. That’s personal time for me and my family.”
“You have to give yourself that deadline and stick to it by realizing that the work will always be there, but it’s your family and friends who love you that are your true source of support. Recognizing that will get you that balance that you need,” says Valluri.
Advice for women pursuing a career in analytics
“The STEM fields can still seem – or be – inaccessible for women. This is a historical artifact that’s steadily changing,” says Valluri. “My advice for women is to take that risk and explore the field of analytics. It has a lot to offer.”
Her final word to budding analysts: “Work on your interpersonal skills. You can do all the statistics you want, but if you don’t have communication skills, you’re not going to succeed.”