Tech Leader Spotlight: Bijal Shah
This week, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Denver tech leader, Bijal Shah. After getting lost in the many elevators of the massive building Ibotta's office is located in, I finally found my way to the open and inviting offices of Ibotta. With a pink wall to welcome you, an open floor plan, and a large dining area for eating or working, it's no wonder the company's office space is always talked about.
Once I got the chance to sit down with Bijal, I became increasingly excited about data and analytics—something my professors can tell you isn't exactly my strong point. Hopefully, her interview will get you extra excited, too. Continue reading to get the VP of Analytics and Data Products perspective on Denver, being a woman in tech, the shift towards big data, and more.
What are you currently doing in Denver?
I'm the VP of Analytics and Data Products at Ibotta. I lead a team of 20 individuals that work on analytics related to business strategy, decision science, and data science. My team uses the power of data and analytics to help Ibotta make better decisions, either in a productized format or in one-off analysis.
What's the best part about running your team?
Working with hungry, smart, talented individuals—and watching them grow. We have some really cool stories of people who started in different functional roles, and now sit on the data science team! It's really gratifying for me to watch people develop, take on more responsibility, and become managers and leaders at Ibotta.
What is your involvement in the Denver Tech Community?
I am part of the CTA's Women's Leader Coalition, which is a monthly meeting of other women tech leaders in Colorado. We get together and talk about topics related to increasing women in tech.
What made you want to be a part of the Women's Leader Coalition?
Ibotta is a super innovative company, so this allows me to bring our best practices to others. We have so many passionate people who are finding technologies and methodologies to help screen for things like gender bias and it's really important to share those methodologies—especially with larger companies who might have a more traditional, or set-way of doing things. They might not even know these tools exist.
Another benefit is hearing from others at the coalition. Many of the women are quite tenured in their careers, so hearing about their struggles, how they navigated the tech space, and what their career path entailed is helpful to learn from.
Ibotta also runs a Women in Tech Task Force, with the goal of increasing the percentage of women in technical positions within the company. Anyone who works in a technical role at Ibotta sits on this task force, currently we have 12 technical women and 2 Human Resources employees. We meet once a month to discuss ways we can increase the number of women in technical roles and create an inclusive environment at Ibotta.
We're always looking for creative ways to get women into more technical roles. The pipeline is slim, so we are looking for things we can do in the workforce now to help make those who are interested more technical. We have seen some recent success inside of the company in terms of increasing the number of women in technical roles; one great example involves a woman who was formerly an account manager at Ibotta who moved over to the analytics team. She was very self-motivated and driven, so it was easy for the company to support. She said, straight up, "I want to do this. Tell me what I need to learn," and then she went and learned it.
As a woman in tech and analytics, two male-dominated fields, what are some of the biggest obstacles you've faced?
I've been really lucky throughout my career to have worked with people who haven't necessarily viewed me as different. There are a few times when I personally feel a difference because there's a conversation that I can't necessarily relate to or participate in. But, again, I've been really lucky. I've had a lot of male mentors and managers, who've been some of my best advocates.
What advice do you have for other women in technical roles?
It's important to have an advocate—not just a mentor. You need someone to prop you up and believe in you and your capabilities. A mentor is someone who helps you with your skill set and gives you guidance, but an advocate says, "she's capable. We need to give her more responsibility."
That said, it's a two way street. It's hard for someone be your advocate if you don't go the extra mile, or if you always complain, or if you're not doing a good job. It's not solely the advocate's responsibility, you have to put yourself in a position that makes it easy for your advocate to advocate for you.
Are there any advantages you've seen to being a woman in tech?
Yes, well, I get invited to sit on panels that I might not have been invited to sit on otherwise (laughs). But, yeah! I think people are really interested in diversity and the industry is embracing that even more, so I do get opportunities that maybe others don't, and I'm super grateful for that. I do my best to represent other women tech leaders in the best possible light, so hopefully they think I'm doing a good job.
Well, my now-husband graduated from Stanford GSB, and got a job in Colorado. When he said he was moving, I said, "Okay, cool...by the time I'm done with business school, we'll move back to the Bay Area," that was the plan. Then, once I graduated my husband encouraged me to come to Denver and look for opportunities here. I came to Denver practically kicking and screaming. I said to myself: I need to find an opportunity that I'm really excited about.
I found Ibotta before I officially moved, and subsequently fell in love with Denver and Colorado. The people are really welcoming, the landscape is incredible, my work is super fulfilling, I am surrounded by extremely smart people everyday. I really couldn't ask for anything to be different. It's been awesome.
What's your favorite thing about the Denver Tech Community?
That it's actually emerging. It's like a startup, which means you can influence and shape how people think about Denver and our tech community. You get to have a voice, more of a say, and contribute to how tech in Denver is viewed and how women in tech are viewed. I like to see the impact of what I'm doing, so it's fun to be a part of this journey.
What's one thing you would improve about the Denver Tech Community?
Diversity. Absolutely. Not just in gender but also ethnicity. The makeup is pretty different than other metropolitan cities and often I wish there was more diversity.
Outside of your everyday work, what projects do you like working on for fun?
I'm laughing because I really like arts and crafts. I would say that's probably where I spend a lot of free time: design related things, crafting—basically just doing creative projects. I'm currently doing an installation in our house of photos using Artifact Uprising products, so that's been fun to figure out. I've been laying out the grid for what this installation is going to look like, which takes some math and planning about what I want the final product to look like.
How do you like the open office floor plan here?
I like it, sometimes it can get loud, but it's manageable. I've found that it actually drives communication and allows the team to get over communication hurdles quicker than if everyone was in their own office. At most of my prior jobs I had an office, so it was a bit of a change to switch to the open floor plan, but I like it, and it makes me feel young because I get to hear all the cool things my colleagues are doing on the weekend.
What are some up-and-coming trends in the tech world or the startup world that you're particularly excited about?
It's been really interesting to watch the transition from analytics being viewed as a necessity or support function, but not really a strategic function, to now where companies view analytics as a competitive advantage. It's really fun to watch that shift because there's a lot of impact that data and analytics can have, so to be able to help fuel that mindset transitions in organizations is really exciting.
How has the shift in data impacted you and your team?
Suddenly it became cool to be a data scientist or to work in analytics, which is crazy to me. When I got out of undergrad people asked me what I did and when my answer was, "I mine large volumes of data to find really cool insights to predict what might happen next," the response would usually be a visual response that implied that it sounded really boring. It's nice to see people have a more excited reaction when I describe what my team does. Somehow it's become more glamorous, the tools have gotten way more advanced since it's become, "cool" but the underlying problems are similar.