When Barkha Saxena, WG’11, came to Wharton’s EMBA program in San Francisco, she was working in sales and strategy at FICO. Having started her career as a hands-on data scientist, she hoped to transition into an executive-level data science role, focusing on technology. Today, she is chief data officer of Poshmark and an advisory board member of Wharton Customer Analytics (WCA). She also was a featured speaker at the Women in Data Science @ Penn Conference, where the theme was “This is what a data scientist looks like.”
Barkha credits Wharton with helping her achieve her career goal. “As a student at Wharton, I talked with Prof. Leonard Lodish about my interests and he suggested that I look at comScore. He even sent an email about me to Magid Abraham, who was comScore’s CEO at that time. The company saw that I was a match for their needs and created a job for me as vice president of data science. Talk about the value of the Wharton network and connections!” she said. “My role involved building out a new machine learning product for the ad industry, and I was excited to start my journey as a senior leader in the tech industry.”
A few years later, she joined a startup as vice president of data science before moving to Poshmark as vice president of data. At the time, Poshmark was a small company and she worked to build the data function from the ground up, starting with building data infrastructure, establishing data management and data tools function to democratize usage of data across the organization, and building out the full data science and analytics function. In 2019, she was named chief data officer of Poshmark, which recently became a public company.
Deciding to get an MBA
Growing up in India, Barkha studied to become an engineer, and her first job after college was in software engineering during the dot.com boom. “That is when I started to realize that data was my calling, but there were not too many data jobs at that time. So, I moved to the U.S. for graduate school, earned another Master’s degree in statistics, and joined FICO, where I worked for 10 years in data science development, product, sales, and strategy,” she said.
While working in a sales and strategy role at FICO in San Francisco, she began thinking about the next stage of her career. “I was passionate about data and wanted to move up the ladder in the data field itself, but I needed to develop the skills so that I can be highly effective in my next role from the day one. I also was familiar with Wharton because my husband attended the full-time Wharton MBA program and I had observed several of his classes. I really liked the School’s combination of rigor and focus on both quantitative and ‘softer’ skills. That is very unique,” she noted. “And with Wharton’s EMBA program offered in San Francisco, I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Today, Barkha is often asked if the EMBA program was worth it. “I always say, yes! The knowledge I gained in those two years was invaluable. Every single thing I learned gets used in one way or another in my day-to-day life. I still draw on case studies on people management, finance, accounting principles, strategy, and more,” she said.
Joining the WCA Advisory Board
Barkha was “thrilled” to join the WCA Advisory Board when asked by Prof. Raghuram Iynegar, faculty director of the WCA. She said, “Wharton is the best place to connect the technical sophistication of data science with creating value for the businesses. As a board member, I think about WCA’s brand and value proposition, as well as how to elevate the group to the next level. I enjoy staying engaged with Wharton and connecting with other alumni.”
She also was a speaker at the recent Women in Data Science @ Penn Conference. “I try to engage in speaking opportunities focused on women and minority groups. Just like the broader technology area, data science is also dominated by men, and it gets worse when you look at the senior leadership levels. There aren’t as many women role models and mentors for women thinking about data as a career or wondering how to move up in the field,” explained Barkha. “This conference was a good opportunity to share my story and hopefully inspire the women attending.”
She added, “The role of data is to solve business problems, but how you view the problem and approach the solution will vary based on your perspective and experiences. Diversity matters, and who is in the room where decisions are made matters. Diversity brings a much broader and holistic perspective on every business problem and helps businesses arrive at much better solutions.”
Advice for Women in Data Science
When Barkha speaks at events like the Women in Data Science Conference, she is often asked for advice on how to succeed in the data industry. She shares these five tips:
- “Speak up. When you want something, whether it is a project or that next opportunity to get a raise or level up, ask for it. Women sometimes are hesitant to speak up, but we need to just ask.”
- “Find the right mentors because they can be the key to success in your career. Find people who will guide and champion you.”
- “Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do not be satisfied with the status quo. That is the only way to get to the next level and learn new skills.”
- “Be your authentic self. Never try to do something that is not natural to you or that you do not really want to do. If you think you want to be a data scientist, ask yourself why. Does data really speak to you, or is it because data is a hot career these days? Only go into it if you totally love it. It can be hard to fully commit to something which you are not passionate about.”
- “Focus on a career track. Choose your mentorships and opportunities wisely. Are you trying to be a data scientist on the business side, in machine-learning, or someone in the middle of both sides? Those decisions will take you on different journeys, so spend time on introspection.”
- “Consider getting an MBA to round out your business knowledge if that aligns with your career journey. When at school, keep an open mind because you may change your mind about goals as you meet classmates with different experiences and perspectives and are exposed to new types of career opportunities through a number of Wharton resources. Be intentional about your choices.”
— By Meghan Laska
Posted: April 26, 2021