Women in Big Data Global



Conversation with Theresa Kushner

Women in Big Data

By WiBD Team,

February 27, 2023


We are delighted and honored to showcase the inspiring career journey of Theresa Kushne, a member of Women in Big Data’s board. Theresa has not only achieved remarkable success in her own career, but she is also a strong advocate for women in the field. In this feature, we will share her valuable career advice and insights, along with other fascinating aspects of her story. Prepare to be amazed!

WiBD: Who is Theresa Kushner?  

Theresa Kushner is a data-vangelist.  That’s someone who is passionate about ensuring that the data used to run businesses and the world is valued for its contribution.

WiBD: Tell us about your career journey. 

I didn’t set out to do anything in the tech world.  In fact, I wanted to do anything BUT go into computers.  My dad owned a computer company when I was in high school and I found no joy in working in that high tech environment.  So, I went to school to become a journalist.  Got out of college with a masters degree in Journalism and started working at a local newspaper.  I lasted 3 months.  Because I couldn’t afford my Mastercard bill, I started looking for another job.  I ended up at Texas Instrument in the Merchandising department of the Consumer Products department.  There, my skills in journalism and education were put to the test to document products, create advertising and merchandising for the TI line of Learning Aids. Intrigued by technology and skilled in how to simplify complicated ideas for ordinary people, I continued to work for high tech companies, joining a software start up in California, then to IBM’s new direct marketing division in Dallas, and on to Cisco, VMware, Dell and NTT Data Services.  During my time at IBM, I served as the Director of EMEA Direct Marketing and discovered something very important – we didn’t have data for the new world of email marketing.  That led me to work side by side with the IT lead who was responsible for creating a database for marketing.  Maria Villar was the IT IBM executive and in 2008, we wrote a book together on how to manage your business data.  The book positioned the new job role of Chief Data Officer.  At the time, there was only one person in that role. When we finished the book, even he had left that position. But that book was the reason VMware plucked me from Cisco to begin building a governance program and supporting the build of a new customer data source.  When we had made progress on that, I recommended that we combine the efforts of all the people who were generating reports and performing analytics.  The result of my request was for the company to establish the Enterprise Information Management organization.

WiBD: Do you have advice to give to others who are thinking about their career choices? 

First, decide what you want someone to say about your career at your retirement party.  It helps to put your career choices into perspective.  Then, decide what skills you have or would like to have that can get you to that desired outcome.   When you start your journey, remember to remain flexible.  Opportunities will present themselves and you need to be able to evaluate each one as it comes your way.  You can only make a decision on the information you have at the time.  And don’t second guess your decision once it’s made.

WiBD: Can you tell us why you have been supportive of women and help to elevate them?

I was one of the women in college who gave up our bras in protest.  So, you might say I’ve been a women’s libber for a long time. I think I am that way because my mother and grandmother were both contributors to the family income.  My mother worked in accounting for her entire career and my grandmother (before she married my grandfather) was a secretary at a time when there were few women secretaries. Both these role models were adamant that I have a career to support myself independent of a man.   Then when I entered the workplace in high tech, I discovered that it was hard to make your mark as a woman.  On one of my first big marketing strategy meetings at TI, my boss called for a break and went to the restroom with the men attending the meeting.  Since I was the only woman attending, I was not included. When he returned, the men had made a decision without any consultation with me.  I told my boss that that was unfair and that the next time, I would be following him to the restroom.  Through the years, I’ve watched a lot of women be passed over, overlooked, and generally not supported,  And the sad part is that the lack of support doesn’t come from the men in their workplaces, but from the women,  I wanted to change that.

WiBD: How did you learn about Women in Big Data and what has been your engagement with the organization?

I learned about Women In Big Data from Tina Tang.  Tina was introduced to me by my friend Maria Villar when they were both at SAP.  When Tina was starting WiBD, I was very interested in the group and so happy to be asked to be part of the Advisory Board.

WiBD: What are unique challenges for Women and how could WiBD help to overcome as much as possible?

The unique challenge for women is how to be assertive and get a point across without being seen as overpowering and bossy.  That is very important in the data world as women try to convince managers and executives (often men) that data is valuable and should be considered an asset.  They must be strategic in their positioning of data.  Also, women in the data world tend to be the workhorses, they get things done.  Unfortunately, because data is not often recognized as important, what they get done is not often appreciated. 

WiBD can help women in several ways:

Creating a support network that understand what you are encountering

Providing training and expertise for changing careers or enhancing existing ones

Providing a worldwide resource for opportunities

WiBD: How does big data (or simply data) play a role in your career?

When I was at Cisco in 2008, big data was THE topic for all companies.  We were adding to our data types – web data, streaming data, IoT data – but also to our volumes and the velocity at which this data moved.  One of the challenges that my management put on me at the time was to prove that data had a value.  So with my highly skilled analytics team,  we developed a project whose goal was to create a $1B of incremental revenue in a year.  This BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was near impossible.  But after a year’s time, we had generated $964M against that goal, won a direct marketing award and put the team on the map for creating value with big data because our project combined all the data available to us within Cisco at the time.

WiBD: Why should more women take an interest in Data careers?

Data will drive more and more of the applications and technologies that are developing.  Without a clear understanding of what data is, what it can do, how it should be managed, we will not be able to exploit its opportunities.   Women are half the population but only represent about 17% of the technology workforce.  We must be involved in data so that we can remain relevant in the world of tomorrow.

Also, managing data requires collaboration, and women are great at collaboration. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time.  You see on cave walls depictions of women solving for the problems of feeding and caring for their tribes.  They could do that because they banded together, collaborated to feed their families.

With that kind of collaboration today, women can make connections across datasets and create value for companies not seen previously.  For example, consider the value of being able to connect HR data to sales force data and to be able to ascertain the productivity of a sales rep.  Or combining product design data with distribution information to determine the most cost effective way to deliver a product.   

Helping companies solve problems is not only rewarding, but also a great way to help a career. 

WiBD: What motivates you?

I worked my way through my masters degree teaching high school.  And I still get a genuine burst of pleasure In watching someone learn.  That light in their eyes when they discover something they did not know before is priceless.  Watching women learn about data, learn about how to navigate the data landscape is what motivates me.

WiBD: What bothers you?

What bothers me are people who will not examine their beliefs and choose instead to harden them into irreversible positions.  A belief is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists without objective evidence, but it is not proof of its truth or its existence.  One of my favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming is “In God we Trust.  All others must bring data.”

WiBD: Any fun facts about you? 

One I always love to tell is that I am a published children’s author because I have a short story that was included in a Scholastic textbook for middle school children.  My other fun fact is that I complete the NY Times Crossword puzzle online every day.

WiBD: Any Quotes or inspirations that you live by?

I have two favorite inspirational quotes, both from Mahatma Ghandi:  Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.  And:  Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

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