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Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - Diana Akanho

(Mathematics and Statistics BSc, 2009)

I am a Committee Member for Women in Data UK. The vision of the organisation is to create gender parity within STEM subjects through presentations and talks. We like to talk about how ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and to make women realise that there are women working in certain roles and careers that they may have thought were previously off limit to them. I will always act as an advocate for gender parity where possible so as to make a pathway for women in certain careers. 

Headshot of alumna Diana Akanho

What sparked your interest to study Mathematics and Statistics? I’ve loved mathematics from a very young age; it was always my favourite subject at school and something that I excelled at. I was such a teacher’s pet, I actually used to look forward to maths homework! I am an analytical person by nature, so I chose all analytical based subjects for my A levels, but maths was the one subject that I wanted to study further. As you grow you understand who you are as a person and what you like and maths has remained a constant love of mine, as has problem solving and critical thinking.

Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary in particular? My eldest sister was studying chemistry at Queen Mary and she raved about it so naturally I didn’t want to study here just because she was! However, when my friend and I attended an open day I really liked it; as soon as I stepped onto campus I could envision myself here. I really liked the vibe.

What aspects of your degree did you enjoy learning about the most and why? In my first year I was a bit disappointed because it felt very much like A levels but when I got to second year it really ramped up and I was introduced to a lot of new things. Statistical modelling was a module that I really liked because I got to see how statistical models were used to extract certain information from data. I was also introduced to concepts like regression, when you have your input and you’re trying to figure out your output, which I really liked. Second and third year really brought my studies and maths to life and I was able to see how I could relate my studies to the real world in terms of problem solving. Since entering the working world, I have realised that mathematics really does give you a basis to go into any industry.

Can you describe your career path since you graduated, the path that has led to your current role as Senior Insight Manager at Tech Nation? I have worked in so many different places; when I graduated I worked at a charity called Asthma UK because I initially thought that I was going to go into the medical side of statistics. I worked as an analyst in their events team, looking at events data and understanding the different types of donors that the charity had, whether their donors fitted a certain profile and how much money they were making etc. Then I did a contract at St Thomas’ Hospital, I was working in the intensive care unit, analysing whether asthma had an effect on the mortality rate of patients. I then started my masters part time in applied statistics whilst working at a tech start-up. This was really cool because I was able to build a model to solve problems in text data such as duplication or summarisation. Then I moved into the corporate world of home advertising, media agencies and insight teams; the latter category involved extracting insights from data and presenting my findings to an audience, for example, how useful were my findings for a business or client. I had to think about how to visualise the data in order to make it appealing for my audiences and to tell a story through my findings.

How did you find it working for a start-up as opposed to a really established company? It was quite challenging because when I first joined there was maybe three or four people and when there are just a few of you starting out, you find yourself taking on multiple roles. There would be times when I was selling, recruiting, researching, or even cleaning the office. There is a lot of uncertainty working for a start-up too; when I joined we hadn’t built our product, it was more about developing our concept and gathering research to bring our idea to life. However, uncertainty can be positive; it is good to see how a company must pivot and adapt to the constant change in technology and to people’s needs and wants. Start-ups must constantly demonstrate that they are relevant which can be quite exciting, but this isn’t necessarily the case for founders and co-founders who must hire and fire people in order to make their vision a reality.

What does your current role as Senior Insight Manager involve? I’ve been at Tech Nation for almost a year; I like this role because it has united all of the things that I liked to do in previous roles. When I joined I worked on a project called Bright Tech Future which was looking at the jobs and skills within the UK across different regions, specifically at tech jobs and then comparing them to other industries over a four-year period. The purpose was to understand employee demand for specific roles, whether specific roles have emerged in different regions over time, and to paint a positive picture of technology and how more people are embracing it. I was using different tools such as Python for this project and I had to write a report which I hadn’t done in a while. We launched our report during London Tech Week last year which was nice because I got to present our findings and to see the project all the way through from start to finish. Within my role I am also able to pitch, look for data partners and sell commissioned research; my role touches on all of the areas that I like and all of the areas that I’d like to grow in. However, this role naturally does come with challenges, for example, thinking about how to make sure the insights work we do has a USP and great competitive edge.

Playing to stereotypes, did you find that as a woman, you were a minority studying Mathematics and Statistics? Has this also been the same in the workplaces you have experienced? Definitely. When I joined the start-up there were two women interns and when they left I was the only woman in the company who had studied a STEM subject. This forced me to confront a lot of challenges and to learn lots about myself and the way that I express myself. If I think something is not right then I will call it out and that can be seen as aggressive to some people, especially if you’re a woman you might come across comments like ‘oh you were a bit much, you need to be a bit subtler’. There were things which I didn’t agree with at the time but when I look back I can see that I could have dealt with them differently. Generally, I have been the only black woman working within a data or insights team in previous workplaces. However, the team that I am now working with is composed of three men and two women from diverse backgrounds so it is more balanced.

Genuinely it can be quite difficult because sometimes as a woman you are overlooked and I’ve found that it is often the case that black women have to double prove themselves. But I’ve learnt that you need to focus only on what you’re doing, how it contributes to your team and personal development and pray for guidance. To be somewhat financially independent, where you grow into a place where you are no longer an employee, but where you can build something up for yourself, is important to me.

What kind of advice would you give to women who are aspiring to a career where they may be a minority? You really need to be yourself and not worry about what other people think of you. Even if you do think, or you are perceived to be a really great person and you tick all of the boxes, there will always be a naysayer. But who are you living for? Are you living for other people? You have to prioritise what you need to do or you’ll send yourself into mental and emotional turmoil, trying to please others. One piece of advice that I was given was to find your advocates in a job, people who genuinely support you, and avoid nonsense politics where possible. Work on carving out your own career and really think about how you want to grow and how your current role can get you to the place you want to be. One thing I would also say is don’t get emotionally attached to a workplace, work is work. I love my job and I’m very thankful for it, but I don’t think it’s healthy to get attached to one place and prevent your own growth. People don’t like to hear it but if an employer had to sack you the next day, they would.

Why would you encourage more women to study STEM subjects? To create more gender parity within roles. I think the stat at the moment is that about 26% of women graduates from a core STEM subject and this figure is actually decreasing. Also in terms of a team if you’re producing a report or you’re presenting, you want to have a more balanced perspective of what is being published. There have been stories of facial recognition where women and people of colour are not being recognised and labelled as animals because the team behind the data used for the systems is not diverse enough, nor is the data. If such teams were more diverse and aware, they would be able to see that the data is homogenous and make an effort to make it more representative of society as a whole. If there continues to be a lack of minority groups such as different ethnicities and women, then such systems will not give us a realistic picture of society. I would also encourage more women to study STEM subjects because they aren’t abstract or boring, you can have a fun career in government, music, fashion, media as a result… the pathways are open and diverse.

As a Committee Member for Women in Data UK, why do you think it is important to be a member of this organisation and what is the mission of the organisation? With one of the schools we were working with the students didn’t realise the type of opportunities that were available when studying maths or a STEM subject. So it is important that we create awareness of what women can do. The vision of the organisation is to create gender parity within STEM subjects through presentations and talks. We like to talk about how ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and to make women realise that there are women working in certain roles and careers that they may have thought were previously off limit to them.

My personal mission is to be an advocate as a woman who studied a STEM subject and to show what possibilities are available in terms of different roles and careers for women. But also as an employee of Tech Nation, where I work with entrepreneurs, to show that regardless of what you study, you may have an idea and that it is ultimately data and technology that lay at the heart of these ideas and which are integral to bringing these ideas to life.

How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? In your third year you have more choice in terms of what modules you want to do and overall my studies really confirmed that I liked working with data. My degree also gave me a really good foundation to build upon throughout each of the roles I have done since I graduated.

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Make the most of your lecturers because for some reason whenever I had a question, I would never ask it. Looking back, I can see that I wasted so many opportunities to get clarity. Utilise this help as much as possible and lean on your peers and work together. I didn’t involve myself in any extra curricular activities so I would definitely encourage students to try out as many new things as possible. Lastly, enjoy your university experience because when you start working you’ll realise how much harder the real working world is!

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? The friends that I made. It was such a friendly, welcoming environment where you would always bump into the same people around campus and in the library. I remember during my first and second years the mathematics students above me would give me advice and tips. I’ll never forget how everyone worked together.

Have you been back to the campus since you graduated? Last year I participated in a ‘Women in Mathematics’ panel event at Queen Mary. I spoke about the different types of roles I have done and what skills I learnt from my degree that I am still using now. It’s funny because in my first year I did economic modules and now that we are looking at ecosystems and microeconomics in my current work place, I have actually dug out my first year textbook to remind myself of some theory. Ultimately, the skills you learn through your maths degree allow you to bring to life certain scenarios in your working environment.

Do you have any career related plans for the future? I would love to start my own business one day. I am quite interested in venture capitalism, so in funding other people’s businesses and helping them to grow, as I do like to support others. At the moment, male tech founders versus female tech founders are around 85% versus 15% and once you go into minorities then the figures deplete even further. I will always act as an advocate for gender parity where possible so as to make a pathway for women in certain careers. 

Lastly, if I wasn’t a Senior Insight Manager, I would love to have a career in… Fashion. I do like fashion. I know most girls do but I just love finding outfits for people and what works/doesn’t work for them style wise. I am always trying to brainstorm ways that I can combine technology with fashion too! .. Watch this space!



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