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eBriefing

Leveraging STEM Skills in Data Science and Beyond

Leveraging STEM Skills in Data Science and Beyond
Reported by
Mercedes Vega Villar

Posted November 12, 2020

Mercedes Vega Villar holds a PhD in Psychology from the City University of New York and is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Presented By

Graduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) prepare students for academic research careers. However, the skillset of STEM professionals is a highly valuable asset beyond academia—one that companies large and small are actively investing in, no matter their core business.

On September 18, 2020,  leaders in research and development (R&D), data science, and human resources (HR) at PepsiCo reflected on the value of STEM skills. The panelists discussed why PepsiCo is building a workforce of talented STEM professionals and explained how the company fosters creativity and innovation to address complex challenges. They also talked about their career paths and the opportunities available to STEM professionals and offered practical advice on leveraging STEM skills when applying to industry jobs.


Highlights

  • STEM professionals are well equipped to tackle challenging problems, deliver results, and navigate complexity; this skillset is sought-after by top companies.
  • Leading companies like PepsiCo can be a perfect ecosystem for those with a STEM background seeking to grow and exercise their creativity.
  • A STEM-proficient workforce leads PepsiCo's innovative efforts and helps the company identify emerging scientific trends.
  • Soft skills like perseverance, curiosity, or the ability to work well with others are critical parts of PepsiCo jobs and need to be showcased during the application process.

Speakers

Ellen de Brabander
Ellen de Brabander, PhD

R&D Senior Vice President

VR Basker
V.R. Basker, PhD

R&D Senior Vice President

Kristina Birukova
Kristina Birukova

HR Manager

James Yuan
James Yuan, PhD

Senior Director, Data Science & Analytics

Eric Higgins
Eric Higgins

Global Vice President, Data Science & Analytics

PepsiCo Perspective: Leveraging STEM Skills

Speakers

Ellen de Brabander, R&D Senior Vice President at PepsiCo, believes a STEM background is a safeguard for achieving lifelong professional success. “I still benefit from the fact that I have a STEM training and education,” she said. According to the executive, STEM professionals are good at adapting to new situations and efficiently solving difficult problems. Hence, a workforce that includes scientists and data experts is the key to a future-ready company.

V.R. Basker, her fellow R&D Senior Vice President at PepsiCo, agrees. Basker thinks that STEM programs spawn professionals with a unique blend of talents: learning agility, a focus on execution, and soft skills. Meeting complex problems with innovative solutions is how companies become leaders in their sectors. For instance, PepsiCo needs a workforce that can tackle multifaceted challenges, such as building a more sustainable food system or reinventing plastic packaging. STEM professionals are ideally poised for the task. Through their training, scientists learn to identify key questions, systematically break down problems, seek and absorb relevant information, and deliver results fast. Recruiting that kind of talent gives companies a competitive edge.

Panelists also discussed how, in the era of artificial intelligence and machine learning, professionals with strong quantitative backgrounds are essential. Eric Higgins, Vice President of the Data Science and Analytics team, explained how his training in theoretical physics has helped him solve intricate business problems for companies like Amazon and PepsiCo. “My career path has built upon the STEM principles that I acquired in grad school,” Higgins said, underscoring the versatile power of disciplines like mathematics, statistics, and physics.

The interdisciplinary nature of a scientific education is another reason why STEM professionals are heavily recruited outside academia. According to James Yuan, Senior Director of the Data Science and Analytics team at PepsiCo, scientists and engineers adeptly navigate the intersections between fields. As someone whose background straddles the food and computer sciences, Yuan recounted how meeting unique organizational needs by connecting different teams propelled his career at various food and beverage companies.

But what specific opportunities are available to candidates with a STEM background at a company like PepsiCo? De Brabander indicated that PepsiCo relies on STEM professionals from almost every discipline to optimize each step of the business—from agroscientists perfecting raw materials, to nutritionists protecting consumers’ health and safety, to statisticians investigating the impact of sales strategies. As Basker puts it, “the range of STEM careers goes from the seed to the shelf and beyond.”

Kristina Birukova, HR Manager at PepsiCo, shared advice on how to land a job in a top corporation. For instance, recruiters at PepsiCo seek applicants who have the right technical skills, and the potential to be leaders. In fact, during the final interview of the recruitment process, questions are typically aimed at assessing soft skills. Birukova said the right candidates are those who can provide specific examples of situations when they displayed intellectual curiosity, effective communication skills, adaptability, perseverance to carry a project from start to finish, and the ability to think critically. Displaying these traits is crucial beyond the application process. “Soft skills will help you succeed and thrive in any merit-based organization,” said Basker.

Many STEM professionals choose academic careers because they enjoy the creative freedom and the potential for continued learning. The panelists discussed the ways in which top companies also encourage creativity, foster innovation, and offer opportunities for growth. “It is not that creativity is encouraged, it is required,” said Higgins. According to the physicist, the problems they face are always changing. As a result, his team’s job is to think up new algorithms and systems. To that effect, they are encouraged to draw inspiration for their solutions wherever they can, often in scientific literature, but also in surprising fields. He talked about one of his team members, a graduate student in music theory and composition. “This person has contributed perspectives that we had no access to previously,” he said, urging candidates to highlight their creativity instead of hiding it.

Birukova also discussed how PepsiCo invests in the continuing education of its employees. “Everyone is encouraged to learn beyond what they do,” she said. Employees are encouraged to take rotations, enroll in leadership development programs, and attend talks to learn about emerging trends. Furthermore, the company has a curated online learning platform that employees can use to acquire technical skills. And if they decide to go back to school, they can apply for tuition reimbursement. According to Birukova, companies realize that employees with a holistic understanding of the business will have a greater impact.

All panelists agreed that one of their favorite things about PepsiCo is the diversity of its workforce. Yuan observed that his team is diverse horizontally and vertically; in terms of educational and ethnic background. “I have a strong accent, but when I speak to my team, I forget about it,” he explained. “I can easily blend in and make my contribution.” This is not a coincidence. Birukova pointed out that a company with a global presence needs to have a workforce that is representative of their consumer base. “People bring different perspectives to work, and we need to bring out their full potential; […] we need to make them feel like their voice matters,” Basker explained. Birukova also asserted that there is room for improvement and commended PepsiCo’s renewed commitment to increase diversity and inclusion at every level, even when that means having difficult conversations.

Several panelists pointed out that being able to have a real impact in communities around the world is one of the most exciting parts of the job. The company is present in over 200 countries, and it has almost complete market penetration. “We sell to everyone in society,” Basker claimed. Higgins suggested that PepsiCo has such reach that “it might have a greater influence on the way people eat and their health than the World Health Organization.” They see this as an opportunity to accomplish positive change. As de Brabander put it, “PepsiCo is a company that has the scale and resources to move the needle.”

Leveraging STEM Skills in Data Science and Beyond


de Brabander/Basker/Birukova/Yuan/Higgins (PepsiCo)

Further Reading