How can a Kinesiology major with a passion for health and wellness help millions of consumers make better choices at the grocery store?
Answer: by spending a year in the McIntire School of Commerce’s top-ranked M.S. in Commerce Program, completing the program’s new Business Analytics Track, and landing a plum job with a cutting-edge customer analytics organization.
“I’ll be working in the data analysts program at 84.51—Kroger’s analytics arm—where I hope to support Kroger’s health and wellness initiatives,” says former long-distance runner Susannah Derr (A&S ’15, M.S. in Commerce ’16), a Kinesiology major as an undergrad, of her post-graduation plans. “I’d love to start uncovering new ways to encourage consumers to make more healthful purchasing decisions.”
Thanks to the track’s intensive real-world curriculum, Derr isn’t just excited about her new job—she’s also incredibly well prepared for it. “I think that whatever they ask me to do, I’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, I can do that—I have those skills,’” she says.
That feeling of preparedness is the result of the track’s carefully crafted curriculum, including 17 credit hours of critical foundational coursework in such subjects as finance, strategy, marketing, and organizational behavior; 14 credits hours of specialized coursework in business, web, and customer analytics, as well as a deep dive into quantitative analysis; and 9 credit hours of global immersion experience coursework.
“We’re trying to give students a comprehensive understanding of the different types of analytics and how they can be used to help make smart business decisions,” says McIntire IT Professor Brent Kitchens, who teaches the track’s Introduction to Business Analytics and Digital Analytics courses. “We want them to understand what all the possibilities are, so that they’re able to speak the language of analytics—and add immediate value to their employers.”
To this end, Kitchens and track colleagues Jeff Boichuk, Jingjing Li, Rick Netemeyer, and Jason Williamson have incorporated a broad array of real-world analytics projects into their coursework. After introducing students to key analytical concepts, methods, and techniques, as well as to the technological tools (Rapid Miner, R, SAS, and SPSS) they’ll likely encounter on the job, the professors set them the task of unearthing valuable insights from real corporate data-sets, then communicating those insights, consultant-style, to students and faculty members.
“We’ve done so many interesting projects already, looking at real data from companies like Hilton, Chico’s, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch,” says Shuang Shuang Liang (A&S ’14, M.S. in Commerce ’16), an Economics and Psychology major who recently accepted a job as an Analyst with powerhouse professional services organization EY. “We were given these enormous sets of data, then asked to find correlations within them. The professors didn’t tell us what to do, whether we should run a factor analysis or a cluster analysis: It was up to us to look at the data, think about all that we’d learned, and figure out the best course of action—which is just what we’ll have to do in our jobs.”
Similarly, Liang and Derr say the real-world insights they gained from the outstanding corporate speakers who visited their class—including from such leading organizations as EY, CapTech, Red Ventures, and 84.51—helped bring alive the aims and enormous possibilities of business analytics. “When Shannon Hoyer (McIntire ’10) came to speak to our class, I found it so fascinating,” Derr says. “She talked about all these different ways 84.51 processes data to improve the customer experience—everything from the geography of a grocery store, to changing customer incentives.”
Likewise, says Liang, the one-on-one interaction she had with Yang Shim (McIntire ’96), Ernst & Young LLP Principal, Financial Services Organization, helped convince her that EY would be a good fit for her. “We had a fascinating conversation not only about the future of big data, but also about Yang’s experience and perspectives,” Liang recalls. “After talking with him, I really felt that EY would be a great place for me to put my skills to use.”
More Than Just Talk
Indeed, Liang and Derr report, the track’s emphasis on communication and presentation will help to ensure that they’re able to clearly and effectively convey their ideas—and the data-borne evidence behind those ideas—to their colleagues. “Every time we did a project, we also did a presentation,” Liang says. “It was great practice in organizing your ideas, recognizing different audiences, clearly communicating the hard data behind your conclusions and recommendations, and working with your team.”
Put it all together, Liang says, and the results are tremendous. “When I look back over the past year, I’m amazed by all that I’ve learned,” she says. “The M.S. in Commerce Program has not only given me an amazing new set of skills, but a new confidence in my abilities to solve problems and overcome challenges. Honestly, I feel like a new person.”