Today we welcome Anju Gupta, Vice President of Data Science at Northwestern Mutual to our CXO of the Future Podcast (“The Three Questions” edition). She joined Northwestern Mutual as VP in October 2020 where she’s responsible for enabling and driving business activation of AI/ML across all of Northwestern Mutual which includes driving the straight-through processing charters for NM using machine learning models and various other activation levers.
She has also been featured in Marquis Who’s Who list of professional women in the US.
Question 1: First Job: What was your first job, and how did it help you build your career?
First, I wanted to thank you, Gamiel. I’m very much looking forward to be part of this podcast as well. And it’s the Ohio State University.
So again, I’m reflecting back many years. And this was my first job. A first job that I started out right after my freshman year and undergrad, and I picked that one for many reasons. It was a job where I still feel today that I learned more. I was doing my freshman, and I got hired by this guy called Harry. He was the CEO of a company that he built by himself. It was a startup, and he was a one-man show with a vision to change the higher education available to all Indians.
And this was almost 25 years or so ago when the Internet was not that widely available. Indians weren’t able to search for universities, especially for universities in the US. So if somebody was aspiring to go for higher education outside India, that information was completely unavailable. This guy had the mission to build a database of all the Higher Education institutions around the world and make it available to whoever wanted it.
So, I met him, and I said, what’s the job? And the job was, literally…It was more like a yellow pages book that he had paid tons of money for. And my job was to take that and build the data, entering everything manually into the computer.
He had given me a computer, and there weren’t too many people. It was just me and him running the company.
The intent was to build the database manually. So, I got really fast at typing on the computer.
And then he included me in going with him and selling the vision to the clients. And these clients were folks who were providing tuition – Tuition was very common in India at that time. We sold his vision to a lot of clients who would buy the database.
It was an amazing experience. He believed in something, which ended up being the outcome, and I learned in depth all about the US colleges. Because I had to enter the addresses for each one of those universities manually, this job definitely taught me a lot of resilience. There were moments when we would walk into a client’s house. Sometimes we went to their houses, sometimes to their offices. And we were, you know, negated at times completely. That there’s no place for him and me to be there. It showed me the importance of how to communicate your story.
Question 2: Leadership: What is the most important leadership skill that you have learned over your career, that has a positive impact, and can you explain with an example?
Absolutely. You know, I’m trained as a data scientist, right? And when you are trained as a data scientist, when you are trained as a technologist, you tend to believe – especially the younger version of me tend to believe – that if the numbers are telling you one thing, that’s it. And you go and sell your numbers.
But over the years I got a few exec. coaching through which I essentially learned it’s not about the numbers. Yes, the numbers tell us a story, but it’s about how you influence the folks who are not trained like you, who are not trained within the data science space. And help them understand what the bigger purpose is here. And that learning goes a long way.
One thing that I have really homed in over the years is how to influence the room. This is something that I still focus on heavily. Having a lot of those one-on-one conversations. Sometimes there are meetings before the meetings, especially if you’re going to a boardroom conversation. The meetings before meetings are absolutely needed because that’s where you help them understand, and get them on your side on why you want to do this, and why you think it’ll be better for the company. Because, at the end of the day, the hope is to be able to shift gears around the company for which you are wanting to make a change, and the only way that will happen is not by bullying your way through with numbers, but by ensuring that you are able to influence the broader, the larger team Also, I do believe that as a leader it’s critical to believe in yourself.
There are certain things and certain passions that you’ll have, and there are certain things that you think are right. So, having that belief in yourself. That is something I always tell my team. “If you have a conviction about something, then make sure you believe in that conviction because that’s the only way you can sell your story”. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.
Question 3: Prediction: Do you have a prediction around the core technology, and core changes that are happening in the industry that we should all spend more time learning about?
I would definitely learn about generative AI, that’s what I think everybody should be doing, especially the folks who are in AI/ML space. I feel like it’s more on to them than anybody else.
But at the same time, one thing I’ll tell you again, having been in the tech industry for so many years, it’s that I feel that scientific communication is something that scientists aren’t taught properly, science storytelling.
When I think about some of the scientific technologies that are coming in, even AI, the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of AI is that it’s an evil robot that’s going to destroy the world. And the primary reason why this happens is the scientists out there who believe in this technology aren’t enough vocal about it. People have to go beyond the sound bites that they hear on Twitter or other social media feeds.
How do we provide training to scientists so they can be better story communicators? I feel like we owe it to the industry. Not just the tech industry, but the world in general.
So, if there’s one thing that I ask anybody listening to this podcast. That is: focus on training your scientist to become better story communicators.
Bonus: If you had the CEO of your company standing in front of you, what would you tell them right now about Generative AI that helps assimilate this down? How would you help them properly understand what the opportunity and risks are
That’s a great question. And I’ve had this discussion as well. It’s the technology that’s going to change how we look at things. We have not seen anything like this since 2012. What we are seeing today is 10 to 100x more of what we saw in 2012.
We need to understand, and we need to test out for ourselves what it is and what it can do. But we also need to ensure that we have the right guard rails within which we need to operate.
Anju Gupta joined Northwestern Mutual in 2020 as Vice President of Data Science where she’s responsible for enabling and driving business activation of AI/ML across all of Northwestern Mutual which includes driving the straight-through processing charters for NM using machine learning models and various other activation levers.
Prior to NM, she was responsible for overseeing Enterprise Holdings’ data asset strategy and AI/ML insights that help positively impact the future of mobility – from enhancing day-to-day operations and customer experience to leading strategic decision-making and technology innovation efforts. She has also been featured in Marquis Who’s Who list of professional women in the US. https://www.whoswhoofprofessionalwomen.com/listee-features/anju-gupta/
Before Enterprise, Anju held roles leveraging data and analytics insights for the global agriculture industry, including managing the global social media analytics and strategy at Syngenta. Additionally, at Monsanto, she helped build a unique startup ecosystem platform that rapidly enabled the digitization and adoption of artificial intelligence in agribusiness.
Anju Gupta is the Vice President of Data Sciences and Analytics for Northwestern Mutual (NM). She joined NM in October 2019 and has been instrumental in shaping all of company’s AI initiatives since then. She has been actively developing, enabling and driving the business activation of AI/ML products across all of NM along with building an ethical framework for implementing data science products. She is a member of NM Data Science Institute executive steering team. Prior to NM, she was responsible for overseeing Enterprise Holdings’ data asset strategy and AI/ML insights around the future of mobility – everything from enhancing day-to-day operations and customer experience, to leading strategic decision-making and technology innovation efforts. Prior to that, Gupta was at Monsanto (Bayer) for more than a decade where she worked in statistical genetics, global analytics, technology strategy, and digital innovation, partnerships and outreach. Gupta is an active member in the community, serving as an executive advisory board member for Artificial Intelligence World, which is owned by Cambridge Innovation Institute. Gupta has also earned several awards, including the YWCA Women Leader award in 2014, the CIO100 Innovation Award in 2018, and several Above and Beyond Awards for her innovative work with Monsanto. Currently, Gupta holds 17 granted and published patents and has a PhD in genetics and statistics.