Trailblazer is a series of short interviews designed to inspire more women to lead the data conversation. This is a partnership between Discovering Data and Women in AI. Today we learn from Lillian Pierson, CEO and Head of Product at Data-Mania.
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Hi and welcome to Trailblazer, a series of short interviews focused on the person behind the leader. Here we will learn that anyone can dare to lead and we hope to inspire many more women in particular, to lead the data conversation. This series is produced in partnership with Women in AI a nonprofit do-tank working towards inclusive AI that benefits global society and this is my co-host Debbie Botha.Our first Trailblazer is Lillian Pierson, CEO and Head of Product at Data-Mania where she supports data professionals in evolving into world-class leaders & entrepreneurs. Lillian has 16 years of experience launching and developing technology products and delivering strategic consulting services. Many of the products she’s managed educate learners on how to apply data science, data strategy, and business strategy to increase profits for their companies. To date these products have been consumed by 1.3 MM+ learners and have generated over $5.5 MM in revenue. Join me and Debbie as we learn from Lillian Pierson.
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Loris Marini: Hi and welcome to Trailblazer. A series of short interviews designed to showcase exceptional data leaders. In this series, we'll learn that anyone can dare to lead. We hope to inspire many more, women, in particular, to lead the data conversation.
My name is Loris Marini. I'm the founder and CEO of Discovering Data, a community of people that want to connect and learn from one another. Above all, they want to take responsibility for how data impacts the world around us. This series is produced in partnership with Women in AI, a nonprofit do-tank working towards inclusive AI. I have the fortune to co-host this series with Debbie Botha, chief partnership officer at Women in AI.
Let's kick off the first of this series. The first trailblazer is Lillian Pierson. Lillian is the CEO and head of product at Data-Mania. Inside their company, Data-Mania, she supports data professionals to evolve into world-class leaders and entrepreneurs. Many of the products she's managed have been e-learning products that educate learners on how to apply data science, data strategy, and business strategy to increase profits for their companies. To date, these products have been consumed by more than 1.3 million learners and have generated over $5.5 million in revenue.
Super-stoked to have you, Lillian, welcome to the show. Thanks for being with us.
Lillian Pierson: Thank you so much for having me Loris and Debbie, it's really an honor to get to speak with you today.
Debbie Botha: Lillian. How did you get to be the phenomenal personality in data and AI that you are today? What were your main challenges along the way?
Lillian Pierson: One thing that I did in order to grow my brand to the scale it is now is market research before entering the industry. With anything in your career or business, you have to be super strategic and use the data that's available to you.
Back in 2012, I looked at the market and I saw the demand for big data, the level of saturation, and I knew it aligned with my passion and what I was doing professionally. I said, “Okay, this is an area where I can actually make an impact.” I got in early and then I started a personal brand and grew that, but I feel like a big part of growing the impact I've been able to make was in having my own company.
I started my own company. I quit the day job. That prevented me from being pigeonholed into any one role or one company defining what I'm able to do, who I can work with, and also, it gave me the capacity to work. At the beginning of my business, I worked like 60 hours a week instead of on the side, trying to juggle a day job and grow a business.
I used social media strategically from the beginning. Still today it's like, don't just throw content out there and hope it's going to work. You really have to have a good data-driven strategy behind it. That helped scale reach.
The challenge that I faced really along the way is I started off as an individual contributor with no business sense or expertise. I had to work with tens of business coaches and mentors, and I learned, “Okay, so I have to really specialize. That means saying no to a lot of opportunities.” I have to hire and delegate, build processes and systems, build a team and learn to work as a leader who enables others to show up as their best selves and support others. That's a big transformation coming from someone who was building SAP dashboards for a local government. I had to learn all of that in my own business.
Loris Marini: That resonates a lot with me.
Let's talk about mentorship for a second because we know that the right person at the right time can be an extraordinary accelerant to one's career. I wonder, was there anyone in particular that played that role of a mentor for you?
Lillian Pierson: Gosh. Okay. I didn't have a data mentor in the data space. What I had were two women when I was young in my teens. I had Mrs. Walker, a woman who taught me chemistry and showed me that women actually can do arithmetic and can be good in STEM and can be world-class professionals because she had been not. They can also be free-thinking and just incredible.
I went on to work with a woman named Dr. Gao at the University of Houston. I did undergraduate research with her. She was from China and survived the communist revolution. She was building DNA chips; this was 1998 when I worked with her. She showed me that it doesn't matter if you're a woman. You get out there and you have the opportunity and you take it. That's what I learned from these women and it resonated with me.
I never had a data mentor, really did not. In fact, I'd say that is a problem. I could have done better because there weren't mentors, honestly, back when I started, but also, I have been too disconnected from what other leaders were doing. For probably half the time, from 2012 to 2019, it was competition. I was competitive, so they were my competition. Now, I understand that it's collaboration over competition. That's how we all grow together.
I understand that the future truly is in community but I had to learn that the hard way. I didn't have data mentors, they weren't available, but if they were, I wouldn’t have probably hit my head against a brick wall like I did.
Debbie Botha: You’re one of the pioneers in the entrepreneurship field for women. What do you think of the state of women in entrepreneurship and specifically women in AI?
Lillian Pierson: That's a great question. I love working with female founders and aspiring founders. I've got a course, Data Creatives & Co., and it helps people get started in their own data business. 50% of those participants are women. The demographic is definitely not typical. Particularly, I like working with people that want to get ahead in their lives, who don't see their gender or race, or sexual orientation as an unfair advantage because it shouldn't be.
Honestly, it's just fun to be part of this because when I got into the industry in 2012, the women were not nice. I will not name names. I have flown across the world and met them face to face and been nice to them. I've been on calls, programs with them, and kind of fan girl-ed, "Oh, it's so great to meet you,” and have them snub me. Just not nice people and that's okay, but that's not getting them anywhere.
Honestly, it doesn't make you feel welcome and it doesn't help us grow as a community. For reasons we will discuss later, I really believe that the future of business is in community. I'm glad that I get to be a person in the data world where the focus 100% is on mentoring, like, “Yes, I'm open. I want to share all of the secrets.”
I don't do implementation. I do share all of the secrets I learned along the way so that people don't have to learn the hard way or spend tens of thousands of dollars on mentors from other types of businesses in order to grow quickly.
Loris Marini: Yeah, it can be quite frustrating to go and look for the information you need, that's for sure. I'm wondering regarding the diversity aspect of working in data, there are so many domains. I really believe that we could be way more effective if we had exposure to a wide range of knowledge of ideas, of information.
I'm wondering from your perspective, what are some of the things we could do in data to improve diversity and inclusion?
Lillian Pierson: I really like this question. As I touched on just a few moments ago, of course, it's to be welcoming. None of us have an infinite amount of time, so we can't respond to a trillion DMs. When we meet new people, try to be welcoming and be out there and help people achieve their dreams.
I feel like there's a big shift going on in the world, in the industry, particularly online. People that are new online, either leaders or entrepreneurs, most of them are not yet aware of. As individuals, we need to stop focusing on ourselves.
I grew my business around a personal brand and that worked because it was 2012, but this is 2022. The focus cannot be on me or Loris or Debbie. It has to be on the cause. What is this aggregation of people? What do we believe in? This ties into the future we're creating in Web3 with DAOs. It's not about one person being the start. It's about what we believe in and how we are all working together to support the cause.
Honestly, in 2012, there was no saturation on the line. It was easy to build a personal brand, blah, blah, blah, but everyone now wants to be the star. It's very saturated. A few people will make it and you can be a chosen one for a little while. I have been a chosen one and then they will change the algorithm. They will decide they want to make someone else a chosen one.
This is something I hadn't even built into my business programs yet because I haven't fully fleshed it out. I feel like you guys are on the right track with Women and AI and with community because the way forward cannot be around individuals. It needs to be around causes and communities.
Debbie Botha: This is so awesome. I'm really, really inspired. I can see lots of good things that we're still going to do together, Lillian. Absolutely. What is the best way to get hold of you?
Lillian Pierson: Okay. Of course, I would love people to join my community. We have a newsletter at data-mania.com/newsletter. I encourage anyone, if you're on the newsletter list, every email is like, “Please reply.” It's just me and my community managers so I'm going to see. That's the best way really to get a hold of me. Of course, everyone is over on LinkedIn so that works too as well.
Loris Marini: I hate to do this, but we are running out of our allocated time for this short interview. I'm afraid that we'll have to wrap it here, Lilian, but I just want to say again, thank you very much for being with us today for sharing your insights, your knowledge, and your experiences.
We sincerely hope that these stories will inspire someone to take action and to realize that no path is a straight line. There are always challenges, but it's possible if we resolve, if we decided to do something, then there is nothing that can really stop us.
Absolutely a pleasure to have you on the show.
Lillian Pierson: It's truly been an honor to be on with you. I love what you guys are doing and yeah, I'm going to spend some time after this call, digging in and seeing how I can contribute to the work both of you guys are doing.
Debbie Botha: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Lillian Pierson: Thank you, Debbie, for having me really.