Meet Lousie Maynard-Atem, Head of Data Insights at GBG, who talks about overcoming challenges, breaking through barriers and changing the narrative of black people, in the below interview.
Why did you choose a career in data?
It would be a bit revisionist to say that I chose a career in data; I actually chose a career in teaching! My intention was to become a chemistry lecturer, so I went through all of the steps required to do so, and it wasn’t until partway through my PhD that I realised that a life in academia just wasn’t for me! I had what I would call a quarter-life crisis; the north star that I had been working towards suddenly disappeared, so I had to reassess what I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time thinking about what skills I had, what I enjoyed doing, and what I could make a career out of, and data analysis/problem solving was at the intersection of that Venn diagram. It turns out to have been a fortuitous decision to rebrand myself as a data person (prior to the data science hype cycle), because every business utilises data, and being able to analyse data and make decisions from it is possibly the most valuable skill any person in the business world can possess.
A career in data has given me the opportunity to work across many different sectors, and the demand for data skills only seems to be increasing, so I’m excited to see where this path will take me in the future.
What have been the biggest three challenges in your career or through your studies?
Generalist vs specialist – studying chemistry to PhD level made me more and more specialised over the years, and moving away from that meant I had to develop more generalist skills very quickly. I still struggle to find that balance between being a subject matter expert who wants to get into the weeds and technical details of a problem and being a strategist who needs to see the bigger picture. I believe it is possible to be both, but not at the same time, and different situations require different skills. I’m very fortunate to be in a position at the moment where I can hire brilliant people who are the best at what they do and ensure that my team has the right balance of generalists and specialists.
‘The only’ – even though I’ve seen changes in the time that I’ve been working, I’m still usually the only person that looks like me in most rooms. It can feel like you’re carrying additional responsibility because you don’t just represent yourself, you represent everyone else that looks like you. There are so many harmful stereotypes, particularly around black women, that I definitely don’t want to encourage or reinforce, but I also want to be able to be my most authentic self in the workplace. It can feel like a pretty tough balancing act, and it’s a silent struggle that others in those rooms don’t have to go through.
Imposter syndrome – I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t struggle with this, and I feel like the further I progress in my career the louder that little voice in my head becomes. There’s a considerable amount of luck in everyone’s career, and to say otherwise would be misleading; but it’s so important to recognise that it’s talent, capability and hard work that allow us to continue to succeed. It’s also really easy to give advice to others on how to handle imposter syndrome, but really hard to take that advice and implement it ourselves. Definitely, something I will continue to work on!
What have been the biggest highlights of your career?
My current role, as Head of Data Insights, didn’t exist before I joined GBG and it feels like a great achievement to join a company and create a new business area and team from scratch.
In 2018 and 2019 I won a number of industry awards, the last of which was being named as one of the top 20 women in data and technology. It’s always a wonderful feeling to be recognised by your peers for the work that you’ve done and the contributions that you’ve made. What I’m even prouder of is being able to use the platform that those awards gave me to encourage and inspire others to pursue their passions and never limit their ambitions.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to championing inclusion in front of Congress. I was able to testify in front on House of Representatives Financial Services Committee on the topic of diversity and inclusion within digital identity systems. It was a huge honour to have an opportunity to influence the decision-making at the very highest level of US government, and to talk directly to Chairwoman Maxine Waters (major fangirl moment)!
What does changing the black narrative look like to you?
As a teenager, my mum always told me I could be anything I wanted except for a singer or an athlete. I don’t know how seriously she meant it, but I understand her logic; growing up, black excellence was so often defined by individuals who were either entertainers or sportspeople. For me, changing the narrative means seeing black people represented and succeeding in any and every field. We’re definitely starting to see greater representation, and more black people in positions of power, but there’s still such a long way to go, especially in the corporate world.
I recently read Ursula Burn’s memoir “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are”, where she talks about her time as CEO of Xerox and what it was like to navigate that journey as a black woman in America. I’ll consider the narrative truly changed when the experience of a person in a role is the same regardless of their gender or the colour of their skin.
What daily actions help change the black narrative in work or even society?
Within GBG we have a great inclusion and diversity program, be/yourself, which I’m proud to be a part of. I try to take as many opportunities as I can to start important conversations around the black narrative as it exists today, and how each of us has a role in changing that narrative for the better. I’m also working closely with our I&D leads to bring more diverse talent into the business through partnerships with local community groups and apprenticeship providers.
Outside of GBG, I'm using my platform to be as visible as possible in my areas of specialism and interest. I work with a number of organisations, like The Access Project and Black in Data, to provide support and mentoring to young people of background (but particularly girls and people of colour)
I may often be the first black woman in a lot of rooms, but I’ll be very disappointed in myself if I’m the last.
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