Annual Women in Data Science Conference continues mission of expanding opportunity

Categories: General News

Across a full day of thought-provoking discussion, collaboration and career development, UNC Charlotte’s Women in Data Science Conference convened a group of hundreds of industry professionals, corporate leaders and students invested in the same goal: increasing representation of women in the critical, rapidly growing field of data science.

Organized by UNC Charlotte’s School of Data Science and Madlen Ivanova ’16 ’17, Director of Data Science at Lowe’s, the conference has been a passion project for the School of Data Science alumna and current Computing and Information Systems Ph.D. student. The inaugural conference was held in 2018, and routinely takes place in March in honor of Women’s History Month.

In her introductory remarks, Ivanova, who founded Charlotte’s Women in Data Science Worldwide chapter in 2018, reiterated the organization’s goal to increase the percentage of women in the data science industry to 30%, up from 21% today and from 15% in 2020.

“You all are a very critical part of this movement,” said Ivanova, “because all of you here in this room can be ambassadors of the change we really want to see in our industry.”

Participation and partnership

Held on campus at the UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel and Conference Center March 21, this year’s conference drew over 450 attendees. The annual event has become a point of pride for the School of Data Science — the first School of Data Science in the Carolinas — and a key reflection of the School and University’s joint commitment to increasing female participation in the world of data analytics.

That commitment extends well beyond the University’s campus, said Betty Doster, Special Assistant to the Chancellor for External Relations and Partnerships, thanking the North Carolina General Assembly for their continued support of the School of Data Science and the University. “The Legislature has really doubled down on investing in science and technology, in North Carolina and here at UNC Charlotte specifically,” she said.

The conference was also made possible by the School’s corporate partners, including title sponsor Lowe’s as well as Truist, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, Sia Partners and the Fisher Family Foundation. These partners were joined by exhibitor sponsors Truist, DataRobot, the Duke Fuqua School of Business, Honeywell, Alteryx, and The Hartford. “This conference doesn’t happen without your support,” said Doster.

“It has been fantastic to see the growth of this conference since 2018. The support from Madi Ivanova and Lowe’s as well as the rest of our sponsors has turned this into a premier event for the School of Data Science.” said Doug Hague, Executive Director of the School of Data Science.

Liz O'Sullivan - WiDS keynote speaker
Keynote Speaker, Liz O’Sullivan

A safe AI future

Infused throughout the conference’s programming was the topic of artificial intelligence and the myriad ways AI-related developments and industry practices have upended countless aspects of data science and day-to-day life.

“This is a societal-level transformation that we’re experiencing, and everybody has a say,” said Liz O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of AI firm Vera, in her keynote address on artificial intelligence and the progress made in recent years to steer AI development and implementation in a safe direction.

O’Sullivan, an AI safety thought leader with years of experience in both the nonprofit and industry sectors, spoke at length about the need for corporate and government institutions alike to approach AI not as an infallible source of truth, but as an extremely complex, hyper-powerful set of tools that inherently contains some of the biases and blindspots of the humans responsible for its creation. Public education is crucial to ensure the safe use of these technologies that make up the global AI industry — valued at $207.9 billion as of 2023 — O’Sullivan argued, as all citizens will need to understand artificial intelligence’s power and potential pitfalls alike in order to effectively advocate for smart, sensible AI regulations and best practices.

“When we think about building a safe future for AI in this world, it’s not any one company. It’s not any one government. It’s all of us,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan also took part in an afternoon panel discussion on designing “responsible” AI systems moderated by Amy Peterson, Partner of Transformation & Change at Sia Partners.  Also participating in the panel were fellow female industry veterans Meenu Tomar, Google’s Head of AI Services, and Hind Kraytem, Deployment Strategist at Palantir.

Madlen Ivanova - WiDS Ambassador of Charlotte
WiDS Ambassador, Madlen Ivanova

Empowering the next generation

Between marquee talks and discussions, the conference hosted over 20 breakout sessions covering a wide range of key subjects in contemporary data analytics and beyond. Attendees also participated in a bustling career fair where partner exhibitors shared insights and opportunities, with ample time for participants to network and build community with industry leaders and other female data scientists along the way.

One of the day’s most insightful and impactful sessions was an executive fireside chat moderated by Ivanova, who spoke with two pioneering female data science executives: Seemantini Godbole, Lowe’s Executive Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer, and Sheila Jordan, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Technology Officer at Honeywell.

Throughout their conversation, the two industry veterans shared invaluable insights about what they’d learned throughout their careers, and offered advice in particular to the younger generation of women in the audience who hoped to one day shape the data science industry in their collective image.

“You have to do the job really well, but what you also have to think about is how you’re going to differentiate yourself. Raise your hand!” Jordan implored the women listening on, before encouraging them to “stop asking permission to use your voice” in corporate settings.

On the topic of how aspiring female leaders can build momentum toward effective change in their institutions, Godbole spoke to the importance of thinking big and setting bold goals in catalyzing impactful, lasting results. 

“The bigger the vision and the grander the angle… I think it energizes people, and they really want to work for it,” Godbole said, before stressing the importance of balancing humility “with hard work and determination, and the confidence that whatever it is we put our mind to, we can achieve it.”

Learn more about some of the trailblazing female researchers leading the way in UNC Charlotte’s School of Data Science.