A data scientist’s stepping stones to Spotify
As she embarks on her dream job as a data scientist with Spotify, UBC Master of Business Analytics (MBAN) alum Ali Dunn reflects on the early beginnings of her passion project, Data Feminism Network, the strong relationships she built with her classmates turned collaborators, and how an education in business paves the way for ‘purple people’ like her.
Only a few months after finishing an internship with the United Nations’ Statistics Division in New York City, Dunn is preparing to join Spotify's Algorithmic Responsibility team as an Associate Data Scientist.
Dunn will be part of a team that works to assess the algorithmic impact of Spotify’s products on audio culture. She says a big part of her role will be understanding data gaps and advocating for new data-informed strategies, skills she honed during her UBC MBAN.
“Data is often perceived to be fact, evidence or objective truth, but in reality, data is shaped by factors like who is collecting it, how it is being collected, and what kind of questions are being asked to collect the data,” says Dunn. “Because of that, bias and assumptions can creep into data.”
Data whizzes like Dunn can help organizations address biases in data sets and paint a more representative picture of their customer base. “By understanding who your customers really are, you can better serve their needs with the products or services you sell,” says Dunn.
“What I’ve taken out of the UBC MBAN program and what makes me a great data scientist is my ability to contextualize data problems and translate them into business problems and vice versa,” says Dunn
Leveraging data for gender equality
Dunn uses her talents for more than just boosting the bottom line of businesses. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Data Feminism Network (DFN), a non-profit organization that seeks to promote equitable and gender-sensitive data practices for better, more inclusive decision-making.
The team of six volunteer staff focus on community-based education and knowledge sharing through their social media, podcasts, and events like monthly book clubs and ‘DFN lounges,’ where guest speakers explore biased data systems and inclusion strategies.
As its leader, Dunn’s responsibilities vary from the ideation of projects that align with DFN’s vision, to more ad-hoc tasks like writing podcast descriptions and planning social media posts. “My team knows that I won’t assign them anything that I’m not willing to do myself,” says Dunn.
With the important role it plays in the conversation around data equity, Dunn credits her involvement with DFN for much of her early career success.
“DFN is such a critical stepping stone in getting this [Spotify] job and I believe it was the biggest reason I was selected for the position,” says Dunn.
From would-be student club to leading a movement
The idea for DFN was born at the UBC Sauder School of Business. As an incoming UBC MBAN student, Dunn knew she would have access to a network of like-minded students who would be interested in learning more about data science, ethics and intersectional feminism.
Dunn asked the Student Experience team at UBC Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School for help in distributing applications to students in the UBC MBAN and UBC Master of Management (MM) cohorts to join her newfound passion project.
“When I started DFN, it was almost as a student club and then it grew so quickly into something so much bigger than I expected,” says Dunn. “I had only a vague idea of what the organization would look like, but a few people applied and we got a team of students together to start building this vision.”
The call for applications piqued the interest of MM student Jade Greer and MBAN student Simran Panatch. Both women joined DFN in its earliest days and helped Dunn build the organization from the ground up. Since then, their careers have taken them in different directions. Panatch is leveraging her MBAN degree as a Business Analyst with TEALEAVES, a luxury tea company with unique social impact initiatives, and Greer returned to her alma mater to work as an Associate Recruiter at UBC Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School. Still, the collegial relationships have blossomed into years-long collaborations. Today, Greer is the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Panatch is the Director of Business Development at DFN.
Positioning ‘purple people’ for the future
Having just gone through an intensive job search, Dunn can speak confidently on how the UBC MBAN has positioned her in the competitive market.
“During the program, we learned about how ‘red people’ are the technical people and ‘blue people’ are the business people, and then there are the ‘purple people’ who bridge that connection,” says Dunn.
“The UBC MBAN program is really special because it’s at the intersection of data and business,” says Dunn. “Every job application I’ve seen emphasizes how valuable a skillset that is.”
Dunn applied for data scientist and business analyst roles and landed interviews for both types of opportunities, which further emphasized the agility of her training.
As she moves into the next phase of her impressive career, Dunn can pinpoint the two major stepping stones to her pinnacle opportunity at Spotify: her UBC MBAN degree and her involvement in DFN. Both inextricably linked for igniting and nurturing her passion for data equity and both having roots at UBC Sauder.