Interview with Sarah Leonard, STEM Woman and Data Scientist
March 8, 2018, by Jessica Titlebaum Darmoni, Founder of the Title Connection
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“It’s exciting to see the growing number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); my advice is to not be afraid to jump in headfirst,” said Sarah Leonard, graduate student at the University of Chicago. “It is a difficult field but also lucrative and rapidly growing.”
Leonard sat down with CloudQuant to talk about her experiences in data science, her insight as a female in a male dominated world, and the intensive process it took to find her dream job.
Initially, Leonard was on track to pursue a career in clinical psychology. She graduated from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor with a Bachelors of Arts, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Applied Statistics.
“I have always had a strong capacity for mathematics and analytical thinking” she said. “However, after spending two years researching early childhood cognition at the University of Chicago, I realized the world of research and academia was not a good fit for me. As someone who thrives in a collaborative work environment, I often felt that research was an isolating field which didn’t allow me to best utilize my strengths. I believed that combining my unique knowledge of psychology and mathematics with my strong communicative and teamworking skills would make me a compelling candidate for the field of analytics.”
After her realization that she wanted to make a career change, Leonard’s grandmother pushed her into studying data science.
“My grandmother believed that achieving a Master of Science in Analytics (MScA) as a woman would open doors that would have never been achievable prior to obtaining the degree. She would always tell me ‘if you have the brains and the drive to do it, why wouldn’t you?’”
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Leonard had the opportunity to work on a large variety of projects, ranging from forecasting U.S. wine production trends through time series analysis to creating a computational facial recognition method using principal component analysis.
“What excites me about analytics is taking a complicated problem, understanding the proper model to solve it, and implementing the results,” she said. “I wanted to learn modeling and programming so I could eventually lead teams to strategize and make large-scale business decisions with the power of analytics.”
Leonard said that her program is about 65% male and 35% female, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be closer to 50/50.
“This is certainly a male-dominated field, and there is a stigma that women aren’t always as left-brained as men,” she said. “Being a young woman, I find that I have to work harder to prove that I am on the same level as my male counterparts. I use this as motivation to be a top performer in the program; my goal is to graduate the University of Chicago with a 4.0 GPA.”
While the MScA program focuses heavily on helping students find jobs in data science, there is not a lot of assistance for analytical consultant positions.
“Consulting sees an extremely high application rate; in order to have a shot of getting your resume pulled out of the stack, you need to network,” she said. “I started networking a year and a half before I needed a job even though the application process starts a year in advance.”
Leonard went on multiple coffee chats and networking events, and applied to about 20 consulting firms.
“The interview process is intense; it involves a series of case interviews that mimic a consulting project in a very short period of time,” she said. “You are given a business case and have to solve it by thinking holistically and analytically.”
In the end, all the networking and applications paid off. After Leonard graduates in June, she will start at a large consulting firm in their Technology Advisory Program in August.
“It’s a 2 year experiential program centered around technology consulting practices,” she said. “I will work with clients on projects surrounding data analytics, digital transformation, and system implementation.
Looking back on her career pivot, Leonard is glad she pursued these opportunities in STEM but emphasizes the hard work it entailed.
“If you are not taken as seriously as your male counterparts, you need to work twice as hard to prove yourself,” she said. “Women can do anything men can do, and we need to value ourselves as smart and capable individuals who can not only perform as strong as men, but outperform them.”
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Opportunities are regularly available to innovative, qualified, and motivated individuals. Don’t wait for something to be open. If you have the passion and drive reach out and create your own opportunity.
Jessica Titlebaum Darmoni
Founder of The Title Connection
Jessica Titlebaum Darmoni has over 15 years of experience building relationships, networking and connecting the dots. Jessica was able to build an extensive network as co-Founder and President of Women in Listed Derivatives (WILD). As WILD’s President, Jessica led WILD’s parent Board in Chicago from 2009-2014 and established branches in London, Frankfurt, Toronto, Mexico City and New York.
Jessica also spent time as the Marketing Director for the Americas at Itiviti, previously known as Orc Group, as well as a Communications Specialist at the National Futures Association and the Senior Vice President of Sales/Editor at Large at John J. Lothian & Company.
Currently, besides managing The Title Connection, Jessica is also the Head of Business Development for DyMynd, a financial empowerment firm that provides educational resources to help women feel confident about their investments and build healthy relationships with money. She is a frequent contributor to The Glass Hammer and her content has also appeared in Automated Trader and Markets Media. She is a re-occurring presenter at the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Options Institute, a member of the Futures Industry Association’s Operations Americas’ Board and co-chairs the Board’s FCM Committee.
Jessica has a Bachelor’s of Arts in English from the University of Maryland in College Park and a Master’s of Science in Journalism from Roosevelt University.