Episode 2 features Jessica Weitzel, the president and Co-owner of VIA Evaluation an evaluation firm located in Buffalo, NY. Jessica talks about how her background in english helps her to better understand the implications of her data. She also gives advice for students starting in data science including tips for networking and starting a new job.
(soft techno music) - This is "Buffalo State Data Talk" The podcast where we introduce
you to how data is used and explore careers that involve data. Hello, and welcome back to another episode
of "Buffalo State Data Talk". I'm your host, Heather Campbell. And thank you for joining
us for Episode Two. Today, we will be talking
to Jessica Weitzel, the President and Co-Owner
of VIA Evaluation.
A majority women owned and led business located in Buffalo, New York. (soft techno music) Thanks for joining us today, Jessica. - It's good to be here.
- So can you start us
off by letting us know what kind of work VIA Evaluation does? - So we actually just call it VIA. Some people say vie-ah we just say vee-ah. And the reason it matters,
is because our tagline is,
The Way To Better Results. - Ah, nice. - And VIA is using data
to get to better results. So the kind of work we do is, we work with nonprofits, schools,
sometimes foundations. And we really work with
them to help them understand their communities and also what interventions
work in those communities. And we do that by bringing our expertise
and evaluation methods in data analysis. And then kind of pairing
it with their expertise in what they do and what they
know about their communities. So we use a lot of... We do some traditional,
statistical, quantitative analysis.
But we also do a lot of
gathering of information and pairing with different
types of expertise. And doing capacity building, for example, a lot of the nonprofits we work with are maybe just starting to collect data
or have a little data. And so we end up spending a lot of time with them on what data are you collecting? Why are you collecting? What are you going to do with it?
Will it be meaningful? So we really focus a lot
of our efforts on that. You know, your expertise is
programs and what you're doing. Our expertise is data and evaluation and kind of trying to marry those together
so that we can create
something that they can use. And that also has validity for them. - So basically, a company
would hire you guys to come in and collect
the data, analyze it, and give them a final report?
- So that's, yeah, that's one way. Generally, we don't really
work with for-profit companies. We're more working in that
nonprofit, school sector. And so we have some projects
where, they maybe get a grant, and it requires that you have evaluations.
So they say, "Hey, we
need somebody to tell us do we meet our metrics?
Do we meet our goals?" And so we will do that kind of... We tell them how to gather the data. We interpret it. We write up reports.
And they use that for kind
of compliance reporting and for improvement. So that's kind of one arm of it. And the other arm is people
who want additional methods and things beyond the compliance.
So maybe they say, we
want to have data systems. Right now, we're maybe collecting paper data here, paper data there, and we need to put this
together in a way that we use. Or we need to develop some data dashboards
for continuous quality improvement. So that's kind of
another route that we go. - Yeah. Finding the right questions to
ask is always very important. - Mm hm.
- So, I saw on your website that VIA is a majority women
owned and led business. Could you tell me a bit
about what this means to you? - Yeah, so it's something
we're really proud of. I have a co-owner, Komani,
who is also a woman.
And it's something that
both of us talk about. That we've both learned
a lot of valuable lessons from men in the business. And have seen different
people lead in different ways. But, it feels good to be representing
an underrepresented group. Because as we know, there aren't as many
women who own businesses. There aren't as many women who
are leading in corporations. And so to be part of
that is really exciting.
And it is something that we're proud of. But in the end, running a business is still running a business. And so, it's not that different. But it is something that I would love
to see more diversity of perspective. Not just from women, but
different racial backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic backgrounds. The more we can get diversity
into leadership and business ownership, I think the smarter we're going to be. - Diversity is super
important to think about when you're collecting data. Because I know that a lot of people,
when they don't think about that, they might end up collecting
their data in a biased way. So I think that's really great that that's something that's really
important to your business. - Yeah. And we talk about that a lot.
We actually just had a
whole team meeting today about that thinking through
equity in our evaluation, and always bringing that lens to things. - That's excellent. So as the Co-Owner and
President, can you tell me
a bit about what your main
job responsibilities are? - Yes. So because I have a business partner, I'm very, very fortunate
in that I don't have to do some of the things
that a lot of business owners have to do. Komani is more of the traditional
business side of things, in the sense that, she makes
sure that our budgets are done, our invoices are sent out,
the office is operating. She has a team to help her with that.
And I get to focus more on client development and helping the staff develop and making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs well.
So it used to be, when
I was more starting out, in a actual project role, I was responsible for talking to clients, figuring out their needs,
designing evaluation plans, analyzing data, writing reports.
I was doing a lot of that. And now in a leadership
role, I spend a lot more time making sure we have systems in place and supports in place for
our other evaluation staff to do that same kind of high quality work.
- Yeah. So now that you've told me a bit about your responsibilities, could you tell me a bit
about what typical day or a typical week would look like for you?
- I get asked that question all the time and the answer is there is no typical one. Because that's part of what
makes a consulting really fun. Is that, it's not like you're coming in and doing the same thing every day.
There is a flow, a little bit, to it. I would say in any given week, I'm going to be checking in a
lot with the different staff where are their projects, are
they finding any barriers, also just overseeing them in general.
Making sure that they
have development plans and what they need. And then, I also look
into new opportunities. Reviewing requests for
proposals, reviewing... If a client calls and says,
"Hey, I need a proposal from you." I'm gonna lead up that proposal and work with some other people on it. And then working with Komani to make sure that we're really communicating
our company priorities.
Especially right now, because our 15 staff are
all working from home. Have been for four months. So there's a lot of
communicating going on. And we're in the process of rolling out
a new five year strategic plan. So a lot of our efforts are
going toward that recently. - So it sounds like you
spend a lot of your time meeting with people and working with them. So do you spend more of your time
in meetings and working with other people or more of your time working by yourself? - So when I was on the
practice side of things, it was more time working by myself. Like I might meet with, we
have Research Associates
and then we have Project Leads. So, Research Associates
are more really diving into the data and the nitty gritty. And the Project Leads are more thinking, what does a client need?
How do our reports look?
How do we communicate it? So when I was more in that role, it was a lot of independent work but with some collaboration. But now in a leadership role
that has changed more
to the collaboration. - Yeah. So I'm sure that you
guys are extremely busy, but it sounds like you said
something about working with development plans for your team.
So I'm just wondering, are
you able to set aside time for personal development
or going to conferences or anything like that? And if so, what kind of
activities do you do? - Yeah.
So, one of our core values as a company is professional growth and development. So it's something that's really important. And it's something
that, if you're somebody who's interested in data science careers,
or really any career,
being a lifelong learner and bringing that to
a job is so important. So we really hire people
who are eager to learn more. Who are eager to say,
"Hey, there's a webinar I want to go to.
Hey, there are books I want to read." And so that development
and the conferences, it can look like, full on conferences. We send our staff to
the American Evaluation Association Conference almost every year,
But then it's a lot of ongoing things. You know, people are
reading articles or books. They're signed up for LISTERVs. They might listen to podcasts. And then we do, right now actually weekly,
and sometimes less frequently,
depending what's going on, we do whole group learning too. And the example was today, we had this whole conversation about how to bring an equity
lens better to our work.
What does that mean? What
resources do we need? So it really, it filters
through everything that we do. And I think I can't
emphasize how important it is when somebody is entering the workforce to show an eagerness for
wanting to learn more.
Because you'll often be
supported in doing that. - Yeah. I'm somebody who works
in higher ed, of course. I'm always interested in
people getting more education and continuing to learn.
I think that's super great. So one thing that a lot of students get a little nervous about
and a little worried about is doing networking at
conferences or events. Especially when they're really young
and they've never done it before. So I was just wondering,
do you have any tips for anyone who's doing networking or is new to the experience? - Yeah.
So networking has gotten a bad rap. Because people think of it as like go, and give your card, and shake hands, and talk to every single person, and, like, put on a face.
But, that doesn't work for most people. And it doesn't feel
genuine to most people. So I am not an actual
networker in that sense. But I've learned over time, that my style for it is
being a really avid listener.
You know, if you say to somebody, "Oh, what brought you
to this event today?" That's a great little basic ice-breaker. You're both there at that event, so you must have some
sort of common interest.
And then kind of listening
to what they say. That can then lead to more questions. And having that genuine
interest in what they're saying can lead to a lot of open doors. So it's not about, "Hey, this is who I am
and this is what I do." It's about, "Hey, tell me about yourself." And then kind of adapting from there. That's the way that I
really like to network. And then there's also
things like LinkedIn.
I've actually gotten to
know some people really well from just initially something on LinkedIn. We both commented on something connected. And then sort of having
some real conversations. - So you've connected
with people on LinkedIn
that you didn't necessarily meet in person and created like a genuine
network connection? That's really cool. - I mean, don't go stalking people. (both laughing)
It's more like if you
have someone in common or people have commented
on something in common It's like, oh, I think we
have similar interests. And kind of reaching out, "Hey, I see that you both are interested
in this aspect of things, do
you want to talk some time?" And if people say, no, they say no. - Yeah. I think thinking of networking more as just an opportunity to meet people,
rather than I'm gonna go in there and get this job or get this interview. It's a really great way
of thinking about it. And I think it'll come
across a lot more natural than when you're trying to get something
from everybody that you meet. - Yeah. And even asking for
informational interviews. I very rarely, and if I'm really
busy, might have to say no, but usually I will take
the time to fit those in.
Because if you say, "Hey,
can I take you to coffee for an hour just to hear a little more." And you come prepared with some questions. So I just talked to someone and she came, she had a few questions for me.
Wanted to learn more about consulting. That's a good way to approach people, too. - It's a great way to
learn about new positions. So, I was just wondering, what is your favorite part of your job?
- I really love a lot
of things about my job. When I started this job, I was just like, this is the job for me. - That's great. - I just, I love so much about it.
I think the thing I love the most is, when we watch our clients grow and evolve in how they understand
data and how they use data. It's just so rewarding. You know, we're seeing
them sit down and go from,
"Hey, we just wanna do good in the world and wanna help this group of people." To like, "Here's how we're gonna do it." And then they can go to
Funders and it makes sense. And then they adapt over
time as they see the data
Saying, "Hey, maybe you could tweak this, maybe we can do this better." And then they do it better. That is just incredibly rewarding. - That sounds really great.
So, you mentioned that you
didn't necessarily think you were going to be a
business owner to begin with. So can you talk a little
bit about your background and how you ended up in your position? - Yeah.
It's, it's not what you
would typically think. So I think you have a question later that we can just answer now. But I was an English major in college with a sociology minor.
And I thought I'm gonna be a journalist. Or maybe I'll be a professor. You know, read lots of great novels and really thought that was more my path. I did not think the path
was going to be data.
But, as I got out of the world, I learned that those
skills that had I gained, those analytical skills, having to support your point
through what you're reading, were really valuable, but could
be used in different ways.
And I kind of stumbled into a job. I lived in Washington DC
and I was in journalism. And I was kind of looking for a new job and ended up working for The
National Academy of Sciences. And it was just great.
Then suddenly I got exposed
to this whole world. And learned, I did not know what a Master's in Public Health was. I had a Committee Member who
had a Masters in Public Health. I asked him about it.
And I was like, "Ooh. This
sounds really exciting." You know? And so when I went back to
school to get my master's after, by the way, taking off four years, which was an incredibly
valuable thing to do.
After that four years,
came with a new perspective and took classes in
Biostats and Epidemiology. And I was like, now I love,
I was always a good at math, but I didn't love math. And when I saw what I could do with it
and think about, hey, how
can we look at patterns? How can we help people
understand disease better? Then I was like, yup,
data, we need more data. And my whole public health
program is really focused on, obviously it's public health,
you have to have data to inform that. And I just found a whole new love for it and really genuinely
enjoying the math behind it and the concepts behind it. So, it isn't the typical background to it,
but that is kind of how I came into it. - I can tell by the way
that you're talking, that you really found your passion there, that you're really excited about it. And that's great to hear.
So coming from an English degree and moving into a STEM
field is a big leap. So was that really a
difficult change for you? And do you think having that
unconventional background, was it a disadvantage or do
you think it actually gave you
an advantage in the job that
you're currently in now? - Yeah, so I see it as an
advantage in a lot of ways. I think also, like I said, that that time off and working... When I came into grad school,
I had a much different perspective from having been out in the working world than some of my friends who
came straight from undergrad. So it wasn't traditional,
but I think it did add a different perspective
that some people didn't have.
But I'm a huge advocate,
especially for undergraduate, of a liberal arts education. Because something I see, people new to the field
of research or evaluation, they struggle with it,
the piece of, like,
what does the data mean? You know, so maybe I can
analyze this a hundred ways, but what does this mean in human terms? And understanding the humanities, I think really helps you
do that bigger thinking.
We talk a lot about this with big data and people who work at Facebook
or Google, and it's like, you can analyze all this
data, but what does it mean? And what are the implications? And especially when you get
into ideas of bias and data,
and thinking through that. I think that humanities
education or liberal arts was great for that. Also specifically with
being an English major. Obviously the writing skills
are incredibly important.
Something that I hear a lot
of professors talk about that really people need to
improve their writing skills and how they're drawing conclusions, how they're communicating. And my husband happens to be
a high school statistics teacher. So I talk to him a lot about this. He does make his students
do a lot of writing. A lot more writing than
most of the math teachers. Because the point of statistics,
is to communicate some
information to people, more so than other math, which is really figuring out... For example, in Calculus
and figuring out a problem the point isn't to then communicate that
to your average person. So I do think the writing skills are just so incredibly important. - Yeah. I think communication
is extremely important
in any STEM, data-based field. And I think that a lot of
people who are in those areas don't necessarily realize that. And so if you're able to get those skills, it's really important if you
want to go into that area.
So, I'm just curious when
you were really little or when you were in high school, did you see yourself in
a position like this? I know that you went into English and you mentioned you were thinking
you were going to be a journalist, but did you think at all that you'd end up in the area that you are in now? - No. Well one interesting thing is
the area I'm in now barely existed. Evaluation as a field,
I mean as a real field and a practice, wasn't really a thing. There weren't very many people doing it.
And so I think that's
something that's interesting to think about if you're
in high school or college. The thing you end up
being passionate about may not even exist. Especially in these days as jobs
and fields change so quickly. Being open to that is really important. Because I never would've
thought of any of these things. And even being a business owner was not ever high on my list.
And I do love it. And it makes a lot of sense. But I didn't grow up saying, "Oh, this is definitely
what I want to do." But I also wasn't exposed to it.
So, I think that's something interesting for people to think about, is seeking out exposure to
different kinds of careers and how helpful that could be. I hadn't even thought
of some of these options
because I never was
exposed to them at all. - Another reason to do
informational interviews. - Mm hm. - So the very last question,
before we let you go, is there anything else that
you want our listeners to know
that we didn't get a
chance to cover today? - I think we did cover a lot. But I think it's just that, there's so many ways
to go in data science. And that's part of what makes it exciting.
Because, you can go that route of I'm gonna be collecting
millions of data points, I'm gonna be doing predictive modeling, and that's really, really cool stuff. And then there's also the side,
that's more our side of
how we approach things. Which is like, okay, I'm
going to maybe not gonna do the most advanced statistical analysis but I'm gonna help people understand what these data are saying
and how to collect the right data. So, there's so much variety within that. And I think there's also a lot of room for change within that. I mean, like I said,
I did not think I'd be a business owner. I came into it like, I
love looking at data. I'd love to help some organizations. And over time, with the right company, you can evolve and say,
"Well, I like this skill.
But now I can evolve this skill too." And, it's just such a valuable thing. Also, I just think in larger societies, especially these days, being a person who understands
and can use data is,
is just really important. People are sometimes making decisions based on very, very faulty
analysis or assumptions, or pseudoscience and fake data. And being able to be a
person who (indistinct) data
and say to people, "Hey,
you know, maybe this study of 30 people, isn't really that robust." And that's something that's
important to society as well, is to be able to share those things. - Jessica, thank you so
much for joining us today.
And to all of our listeners, if you've not already checked
out our first podcast, go ahead and check it out now. For more information
about starting your career as a data scientist,
go to dataanalytics.buffalostate.edu. And don't forget to subscribe so that you get a notification each time we release a new episode. And join us October 1st
for the next episode of
"Buffalo State Data Talk".
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