We sat down with Michelle Liu, President and Founder of Analytics By Design (ABD)! Michelle was driven by her curiosity to seek answers around the technological changes around us. Michelle found similarly curious and passionate peers and together they sought to hold a conference with the purpose of bringing together experts and audiences to have deeper conversations about the changes in analytics, digital, and design. ABD has since expanded its activities to content production and other events, all with the goal of humanizing and telling the stories about the developments in analytics, digital, technology, and design. Read below to know more about Michelle’s story and her insights on being a Founder!
Why and how did you create Analytics By Design?
I started my career as a Digital Transformation Consultant at Deloitte, which exposed me to emerging technologies like augmented reality, IoT and artificial intelligence. That experience made me curious about the future of technology and its inherited relationship with humans. Spending a few years as a Consultant and a Banking Analytics and Innovation Lead, made me aware of my unique position to bridge the gap between technology and business. I became obsessed with cross-disciplinary study and the power of collaboration, particularly around computational creativity.
Around that time, I researched the impacts of technology and how the Fourth Industry Revolution would be different from the previous ones. I realised there was an action to be taken, specifically around broadening the knowledge base of the current workforce and fostering an environment for cross-disciplinary learning.
Back then, most conferences in Canada were still centered around promoting the analytics product suite. However, I believed there was a better way to connect practitioners with a deep knowledge of analytics to business/operation professionals with business problems. Participating in industry events highlighted the disconnect between academia and industry which solidified my vision of creating a community that fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Internally, this was also my way of pushing myself to continuously learn and keep up with the latest technological trends. I quickly discovered that it was not just my personal interest but also of many other practitioners. At the time, I was pursuing my Masters degree in Queen’s University while working full time. So I naturally gravitated towards the Queens network to pitch the idea of an Industry Conference. I pitched the idea to some of my classmates’ employers and I secured the initial funding from TD and Scotiabank. With the support I received, I created Analytics By Design, a not-for-profit organisation with a vision of embedding humanity into technology, data and design.
Tell us more about ABD’s programs and initiatives!
Right here in Canada, there are so many technological innovations that companies are making but we rarely get to hear about it. Vice versa, there are novel businesses that leverage data and technology in other parts of the world, and as a Canadian, we rarely pay attention to them. So that’s the problem that we try to solve. We are providing a platform where large corporations like BMO, Scotiabank or IBM can come and showcase their developments in the areas of AI and machine learning. We also encourage early stage companies to share with us their latest technology and success stories. Regardless of the size of the company, ABD seeks to create opportunities for all parties within the ecosystem to be fairly presented, and encourage deeper cross-industry, cross-discipline collaboration.
The entire organization is run by volunteers. So far, we have had over 130 volunteers who have volunteered their time in supporting our initiatives. We have launched a few successful programs like “Women Up”, which is a campaign to feature aspiring female leaders working in the fields of data analytics, technology and design; “Unstoppable Millennials” featuring millennial entrepreneurs and change makers who are making positive impacts in the world; and the annual signature conferences often attracting upto 500 participants. During COVID, we also opened up our LinkedIn community to help connect job seekers with hiring managers.
How have you adapted to the pandemic and the shift to this online world?
Just like other businesses, the acceleration of digitization is an undeniable trend. As an organization that often organizes events, the challenge we faced was to quickly pivot to a completely digital setting. Without much hesitation, we doubled down on new digital contents like videos. We were in the middle of shooting videos for the “Women Up!” Campaign when the social distancing policy forced us to put video shooting projects on hold and we were only able to release videos that were recorded prior to the lockdown.
We explored other methods of creating digital contents, like Podcasts and Zoom recordings. These provided some limitations in terms of creative storytelling but we were able to leverage existing technologies to continue keeping the conversation alive. We hosted a Pause and Restart panel last August, through which we highlighted the industries that are affected by the pandemic the most – small businesses. We invited the Country Head of UberEats to tell us stories about how some restaurants completed the “smart pivot” during the lockdown.
The most challenging part of the lockdown was the inability to have in-person brainstorming sessions. Because we are all volunteers, we value our time together. To many of us, the one brainstorming session every week was a way for us to escape from our other responsibilities and whiteboard the future of our interconnected communities. Often after the sessions, we would go to a local bar and keep the conversation going. Unfortunately, we had to pivot completely due to the pandemic and we saw this really affected team morale. We have not yet perfected the mechanism of meeting remotely but we have certainly got better at coping with the situation.
How do you decide who becomes a part of the ABD family?
We asked ourselves – what is the most important trait or the ideal profile of ABDers? Reflecting on the past three years of running this nonprofit, the qualification and skill requirements do not seem to be as important as someone’s passion and curiosity. We tend to give others a chance in a field that is exciting to them rather than a field that they are familiar with. For instance, we gave a strategy and operations role to an engineer who is interested in pivoting his career from being completely technical to something more strategic. We also have a video creator who works in the strategy department of a bank. For us, we are not robotically matching people’s job titles with our volunteer positions. Instead, we ask questions about where they see themselves in the next 5 years and how a volunteering position with us can help them get there. Intrinsic motivation is the best way to motivate someone.
Another thing is “curiosity” – we constantly ask the team about their views on the future of technology and data, and how our lives are impacted by emerging technologies. We want people to have an opinion – we might not necessarily agree with each other but it is important to have an environment where we constantly push our thinking. If we don’t even ask ourselves these questions, who would care to answer?
One more thing to highlight is our highly selective recruitment and rigorous onboarding process. Sometimes, we are overly conservative in our recruitment (we pay the price as the team is often stretched) and sometimes it is the opposite. There was a point in time when the team had about 50 active volunteers and we felt it was hard to stay connected with everyone. After that, the executive team made a conscious effort to make sure we don’t onboard too many new people within a short period of time, in order to maintain the core values of the organisation. We really try to get to know our new recruits by scheduling onboarding calls, regular check-ins and mid-year conversations.
What’s your strategy for maintaining and developing ABD’s network of individuals and businesses for creating content or collaborating on events?
Be Authentic! It really comes down to being genuine and going beyond a transactional relationship. Building a community is a long term commitment. I often get requests from people and I try my best to assist them. In situations where I can’t, I keep them in mind and if an opportunity presents itself in the future, I reach out to them. I really think little gestures like this make a huge difference. With a shift to remote working, we receive a lot of messages. As much as I would like to read all the messages, it is unavoidable to miss some. I have developed a habit of reviewing older messages on a monthly basis – I can’t say this strategy is perfect (it is not), but at least it helps me recover some relationships.
Be Organised! When you are managing multiple collaborators, being organised is extremely important. We have trained ourselves to document conversations and jot down the next steps on how we can strengthen our relationships. We ask ourselves, “what can we do to help them?”, in addition to just “what we want from them?”
What are some of the top things you have learned as a Founder?
Don’t underestimate processes and governance! I was naïve enough to not pay attention to any legal, privacy or security matters. Later, I realised how important it is to have all these protections. I think this is a steep learning curve for a lot of growth companies because we don’t want to establish processes and constrain ourselves.
Pace yourself! You have to find a balance between how fast you want to go and how controlled you want to be. I started being more forgiving towards myself and I asked myself questions like “how big of an impact am I making by putting in this additional hour of work”, “can anyone else from my team take this on?” I believe by asking questions like founders’ marginal value is a way for us to prioritize the most value-add activities, delegate either the nonessential to someone else or delegate work to someone who has a better skill-task match than the founder.
Track your goals and measure your performance! In a small company, it’s easy to get busy with tasks. But the struggle is identifying whether these tasks are going to add value. So it is extremely important to track and measure everything you do.
Know your blind spots! Funnily enough, my previous jobs were all catered towards measuring and increasing efficiency. But I was so passionate about my company that I didn’t realise a lot of the tasks I was doing were not actually adding any value. I let my perfectionism get in the way. Thus when trying to solve a problem with my team, I try to remove my role as a founder and a president to ensure objectivity. My team is also my mirror, I often call them after an important meeting and ask for their candid opinions. If it is difficult for them to share in a crowd, I want them to be honest with me when no one is around. Sometimes, they point out things that I could have done better; sometimes, they offer me a more balanced view on issues which I thought were disastrous.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring Founders?
Know what really matters! As a founder you will have numerous sleepless nights and you’re going to struggle – the only chance you have of making it is if you know what really matters and whether you really believe in the things you are doing.
Hope you enjoyed getting to know Michelle as much as we did! Want to know more about Michelle? You can connect with her here. Interested in volunteering or collaborating with Analytics By Design? You can find more information here.