Get to Know Data Science Panelist Elena Grewal, Airbnb Data Science Manager

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“I love asking a question about why people behave in a certain way, then answering that question with data,” says one of our panelists at our upcoming HowTo Conference.

By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)

Elena GrewalAt our it’s-almost-here-we-can’t-wait! HowTo conference on September 30 and October 1, we’re bringing leading women from top tech companies to share their insights and expertise with the Women 2.0 community.

Airbnb Data Science Manager Elena Grewal will join Sarah Allen, Anita Lillie and Clare Corthell to speak about the real-world application of data science in your business.

As the Data Science Manager at Airbnb, Elena Grewal leads a team of data scientists responsible for the online and offline travel experience. Her team collaborates with the product team, using experimentation and predictive modeling to design and optimize the site, in addition to validating future product plans and inspiring those plans with exploratory analysis.

The team is also responsible for data-driven products such as pricing suggestions and search ranking improvements. Prior to working at Airbnb, Elena completed a doctorate in education at Stanford where she studied peer effects and built models of friendships in schools, in order to understand when students became friends with other students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Women 2.0: How do you typically spend the first hour of your day?

Elena Grewal: When I first started at Airbnb after being in grad school for five years, I realized I needed to make a big changes to my schedule. I am now officially a morning person!

The very first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone/email and make sure nothing needs my immediate attention. I’ll also skim headlines from New York Times and Facebook/Twitter to see what’s going on in the world and with my friends and family.

Then I either work out, or I head to my favorite coffee shop in the city to have a cup of coffee and get organized for the day.  I usually spend an hour or so working remotely before actually heading into work.

Women 2.0: Who was an early role model who inspired your career in tech?

Elena Grewal: Both my parents inspired my career in technology. My mom is a scientist so I learned about experiments at an early age from her. My dad used Excel spreadsheets for pretty much everything growing up so when I was deciding where to go to college, he put in as much data as possible in a giant Excel spreadsheet and built a model to decide where I should go, based on my stated preferences.

Interestingly, the model generated the school closest to home. I guess it’s no surprise I ended up in data science!

Women 2.0: What do you love about your job?

Elena Grewal: I love asking a question about why people behave in a certain way and then answering that question with data. There is something so powerful about that process and so fun - the thrill of discovery. It also helps to work with the best team. Everyone at Airbnb is incredibly bright -- some of the smartest people I have ever worked with -- but more importantly they are deeply kind and supportive of one another.

Airbnb is a travel company, so I think it self-selects people with interesting life experiences and adventurous spirits. Not only are they brilliant and kind, they are also fun.

Women 2.0: What's one piece of advice you'd give your younger self?

Elena Grewal: Take a programming class! I was always good at math, but I went to a liberal arts college, and it never occurred to me to take a programming class until I went to Stanford for graduate school. It would have been awesome to start earlier.

Women 2.0: What do you think the tech world will look like five years from now?

Elena Grewal: Forecast models are notoriously difficult. If past trends are good predictors, then I would suspect that more and more data analysis will be needed.

Women 2.0: What are a few apps or tools you couldn't live or work without?

Elena Grewal: My sister worked at Facebook and got me hooked on Facebook messenger, which is now my primary means of communication. I also really like NPR’s This American Life app. It’s great to have easy access to ten years of episodes. And of course, the Airbnb app. In terms of tools, I could not work without hive/presto for querying data.

Women 2.0: What did you learn from your greatest failure? (And if you'd like to share what it was, we'd love to hear it!)

Elena Grewal: In the first semester of my freshman year of college, I took a multivariate calculus class, and I failed my first midterm. Previously, I had never had to “work hard” in a math class. But I soon realized that for this class, I would need to make a change, and not be afraid to ask for help.

Looking back, I have never regretted a situation where I worked as hard as I could to achieve something. But this experience specifically forced me to learn to ask questions. In the end, asking questions often helps others as much as it helps me understand something; if something isn’t clear to me, it may not be clear to the other person, either.

In the case of my multivariate calculus class, I soon began asking countless questions during office hours and independently working on extra problems. The end result? An A on my next midterm.

Catch Elena at our HowTo Conference on October 1. She’ll be speaking on our panel “How to Take Data Science in the Real World in Your Business.” Grab your ticket >


About the author: Betsy Mikel is the managing editor of Women 2.0 and runs the content consultancy Aveck. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a lifelong obsession with French language and culture. When she's not biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria, you can find Betsy on Twitter at @betsym.