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For data scientist, love for numbers adds up to success

September 28, 2018

Managing Director Angela Zutavern has always been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, believing that business leaders bear the responsibility of bringing out the best in their people. Read her story below.

Angela Zutavern danced into a career in consulting, quite literally. Zutavern, now a managing director in AlixPartners’ Digital group and an artificial intelligence and data science specialist, was casually referred into an internship by a fellow member of her college dance company when she was an industrial engineering undergraduate student at Virginia Tech.

“We were at rehearsal, and my friend asked me if I would be interested in taking over her internship when she graduated,” Zutavern said. “I said, ‘Sure!’ and at that point had absolutely no idea what consulting was. But once I started, I just kept going and going because I love learning, and [in consulting] there is always something new to learn.” Thirty years later, she is confident she made the right choice. Zutavern joined AlixPartners in January 2018, bringing along decades of industry experience and many achievements, including co-authoring a much-lauded book on the use of machine intelligence to form a new type of organization

Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., with a mother who worked in a statistics laboratory and a father who familiarized his two daughters with early computers, numbers were a source of endless fascination for Zutavern. Her father even worked for computer science pioneer Grace Hopper. However, this interest -- from her time as a teenager dreaming about being an astronaut, onto college as an industrial engineering student, and then as a data scientist-consultant – has meant that she has often been the only woman in the room.     

“You definitely notice it,” Zutavern said of the gender imbalance in her areas of specialization. “I try to react to it by thinking of it as an opportunity to influence things.” She said she is proud to have been able to use her influence to increase diversity at places she has worked during her career.  

Zutavern said that every person has unconscious biases, but that once you get past them and learn to have an open conversation, diverse points of view and backgrounds make for incredibly successful professional setups. “I’ve seen these amazing high-performance teams grow out of diversity,” she said.

Leaders have the biggest role to play in setting the right tone around culture and ensuring different paths of success are all considered equally valid, Zutavern said. As conversations around diversity and inclusion have evolved over the years, she has been encouraged by the fact that more leaders are recognizing that not only is it the right thing to do, but it also leads to better business outcomes.

“I was very purposeful about seeking out certain roles, getting to know people, finding out what was and wasn’t available and really advocating for myself.” 

Leaders bear the responsibility of bringing out the best in people, but Zutavern also believes strongly in self-advocacy. When she took time off to have her two children, Zutavern decided to get an MBA during the break in work, and then found her way back into consulting by taking on government and internal projects that allowed her to travel less frequently. “I felt like it was always up to me to manage my career,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t look out for their people, but I was very purposeful about seeking out certain roles, getting to know people, finding out what was and wasn’t available and really advocating for myself.”

When she is looking to mentor or sponsor a more junior colleague, Zutavern tends to seek out outliers in the group. “I look out for people who are out of the norm in some way,” she said. “They either have a unique skillset within a team or they might come from a different background. I seek them out because I want them to feel that they are included and part of the group.”

This often becomes a two-way learning exercise, leading to growth for both the mentor and the mentee. “The more people I talk to from different backgrounds, experiences, locations, cultures, I feel it adds to my knowledge base,” she said.

Zutavern realizes that sometimes, especially in her areas of specialization, the talent pipeline can be a real roadblock in hiring more diverse teams. Especially when it comes to science and technology, the problem must be tackled at the root. So, to be part of the solution in this area, she has organized hackathons for middle-schoolers and helped start an internship program for high-school girls.

That’s how it all started for her, after all. “I have always felt that things were possible, and not just convincing myself, but truly believing that they were possible,” she said. “I think having the belief that I can figure things out helped me take on roles that, if I was less confident, I wouldn’t have gotten.”

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