When making a business decision, it helps to have access to large amounts of data about the company and its customers—but only if you understand what the data is telling you. Organizing and studying business data to gain insight is called business analytics. Considering a career in this area? At the Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Chicago, a panel of MBA alumnae and company representatives discussed their experiences in business analytics to help future MBAs determine if the field is right for them. Jamie Mathews-Mead, Senior Director Graduate Career Management, Ohio State University (Fisher College of Business) moderated the panel, which featured Kelene Kaplan, director or space and formats insights at Walgreens, Smruti Desai, global competency and training supervisor for the finance transformation program at ExxonMobil, and Mirth Hoyt, digital product manager at Nalco Water. For people who are new to business analytics, Kelene Kaplan explained it as a kind of translation. She said, “You have this huge pool of data, and there's more and more every day. Part of what business analytics is, is taking that big data, combing through it and looking at it in ways that you can pull out useful information, and then translating that to a business team so that you can then make recommendations that have an impact on profitability, customers’ lives, etc.” One way that Walgreens uses business analytics is by studying customer data and loyalty program data to determine whether the company’s new programs are working. In Business Analytics, Good Communication Skills Are Essential. For any MBA students considering a business analytics career, Jamie Mathews-Mead noted, “Employers will often talk about wanting MBA students with certain functional areas of expertise, of course, but also they very consistently emphasize that they're interested in having MBA candidates who have strong emotional intelligence—the soft skills—as well.” She asked the panelists to share insights on the non-technical aspects of their work. Kaplan said, “One of the things that I really love about being a woman in this space is I think it's really hard sometimes to find people who can pair the data analysis ability with the ability to communicate with business stakeholders and leadership. And I actually think women have a big leading edge in that area.” While Kaplan took some communication classes in business school, she said she was more focused on her technical skills. She told the MBA students in the audience, “Take at least one or two courses that might read as mushy, but are actually really worth it.” To keep learning when you’re on the job, she suggests asking your manager for the opportunity to be in the room—or on the phone—during conversations with business partners. You’ll learn a lot from watching your mentors and managers in action. Mirth Hoyt agreed about the value of clear communication. She recalled a data scientist who interviewed for a job at Nalco Water, but wasn’t hired because he couldn’t explain technical concepts in a digestible way. Hoyt said that while communication skills should be a priority for every MBA student, they’re especially valuable in this field. “When you’re in a role like analytics that can seem highly complicated and technical, you have to be able to teach people about it, because you’re going to be running into a lot of people that have no clue what you’re talking about—and you have to do your job and make them understand. So that element of teaching is really, really important.” When Kaplan has something complex to explain, she sometimes tests out her explanations on her husband or her sister. She’ll say, “I’m going to explain this crazy technical thing to you,” and then ask, “Do you get what I just said?” If they say no, she knows she has to refine the explanation. Women tend to have better communication skills and tend to be more empathetic toward the other people in the room, which can be a real advantage on cross-functional teams, but Hoyt mentioned one challenge she has faced as a woman. She said, “Many of our data scientists and developers and even many of our leadership are from cultures that may not see woman as on an equal footing, so what I find difficult at times is to get my voice heard.” She has learned that, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to be HBIC, get your voice in the room, and make them hear you and respect you.” She said that on a recent phone call, she had to say, “Look, everybody stop talking over me right now.” They did! To be sure everyone gets a chance to speak, Smruti Desai shared that one of her mentors would make a point of hearing from everyone in a meeting. “She went around the room and asked everyone, ‘What are your thoughts? And what are your thoughts?’” Desai said, “Sometimes you have to do it, and lead by example.” She recalled that after the men in the office saw her mentor doing this, they started doing it, too. She thinks it helped them realize that even the quieter people have smart things to contribute. Be Brave and Curious. A tech background isn’t required to work in business analytics, and it’s okay if you’re not sure how to use certain tools. Desai told the audience, “I learned on the job.” She said that while it’s helpful to know the basics, technology is changing so fast, you’ll always be learning to use new tools. She said, “What you do need is a drive to learn, agility, and a curious mind.” She recommends finding a workplace that encourages you to keep developing your skills. Hoyt encouraged women interested in business analytics careers to be willing to step out of their comfort zone. She said, “If an opportunity feels a little scary, lean into that, investigate why that is, and then probably do it. Because often, if you're in these fields, you're being asked to do lots of new things. You may not feel necessarily prepared to do it, but there's nobody better prepared than you are. So investigate it, and then just go do it.” Learn more about how to make the most of your MBA, and network with business leaders at the Forté Financial Services FAST Track Conference and MBA Women’s Leadership Conference.