Women in Business Q&A: Yan Qu, VP of Data Science, ShareThis

Yan Qu is VP of Data Science and Chief Scientist at ShareThis, where she leads the data science initiatives. She has designed Social Quality Index (SQI) - and unique metric for valuing the social activity that occurs around online content. SQI won the Adweek Project Isaac Award and has been adopted by major ad agencies for media planning purposes.

Previously, she heads the Advance Research team at AOL's Advertising.com unit, where she pioneered the "lookalike" and predictive modeling techniques for the company. She holds 15 patents in the areas of online advertising, predictive modeling, large scale data analytics, social network structures social quality and text mining.

Yan holds an M.S. in Computational Linguistics and a PhD in Information Language Technologies from Carnegie Mellon University, and an M.S. in Linguistics from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Coming to study in the U.S. had a great influence on me. I am the first person in my family to ever travel, study and live abroad, and it presented a lot of unknowns that I've had to overcome. In the process I learned how to cope with change and not be afraid of it. Change is constant and if you really work hard and embrace it, change can be good.

Because I came from another country, I've been exposed to different cultures, which is a valuable experience. Today's business environment and workforce is global. Experiencing the diversity and cultural differences firsthand as an immigrant has made me realize people have a lot in common. People, regardless of where they come from, education level, or profession, share many similar hopes, dreams, and struggles. Part of being a leader is understanding people's hopes and dreams, and helping them utilize their full potential to fulfill their goals.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at ShareThis?
I started my career as a researcher, working on different projects related to online text, including search, text categorization and natural language processing. These are all items that help you use search engines. I then transitioned into developing new innovations and products for online advertising. This allowed me to harness my research background and ideas to develop revenue generating products that consumers and businesses use. It's never just the idea, it's also the implementation, testing out the ideas, scaling it, and ultimately bringing value to the customers.

Because I work in the technology field where you are often building and innovating from very few resources, I've learned to work with limited resources - which is not always a bad thing. Limited resources force you to think about what is essential in order to test the ideas. This has served me well at ShareThis because at a startup, it's all about being creative with resources to get things done.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ShareThis?
The first highlight that instantly comes to mind: our teams. I've worked with several wonderful, smart and passionate teams over the past few years at ShareThis. Being in data science, I've had opportunities to work with different groups within the company: sales, marketing, publisher services, engineering and product. Each group has its own diverse range of opportunities and challenges from analytics, insights, data mining, campaign optimization, and more. I enjoy learning from the teams on these opportunities and challenges, and helping them come up with solutions along the way.

But as we all know, it's not just about the highlights - there are challenges too. One of the more recent challenges my team has been working on involves the ability to reach consumer across multiple digital devices. Good marketing should go where the consumers are. These days, consumers are on multiple devices to access the Internet every day. For example, a user may use a smartphone to check email in the morning, use a desktop during the day at work, and watch videos on a tablet in the evening while connecting with friends on the smartphone. For marketing to be effective, we need to understand users across the different devices so we can have a more accurate and comprehensive pictures of users. Users will also benefit from this because they will receive more relevant targeting.

How is ShareThis shaking up the social media industry?
ShareThis' goal is to make the world more connected, trusted and valuable through online sharing. We are using the data and insights collected to help people better understand social media trends and how consumers are using various social sites and for what purpose. For instance, one of our more recent quarterly Consumer Sharing Trends Report showed that Pinterest outpaced Facebook and Twitter in popularity so that, in turn, lets brands know that this is a platform that they should consider using as part of their campaigns.

ShareThis is really at the forefront of being able to learn what's trending in social media, what sites are becoming popular and how consumers are using social sites and sharing across desktops, tablets and phone. It's a very interesting, ever-changing industry with still a lot of unknowns for exploration.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in technology?
Technology is a fast-paced field with lots of opportunities for women to grow.

First, I would say, put your best foot forward with everything you do. Own your work and deliver value. People will notice quality work. Second, keep an open mind and be willing to try new things. This allows you to broaden your experience and prepare you for bigger roles. Third, don't fret the small stuff, and don't take things personally.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm a big fan of Ariana Huffington's Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. I believe a productive and successful working life needs to be built upon good health and good relationships. Think about it - if your body is in constant pain and your family is in chaos, it'll be hard to concentrate at work. I try to find balance on a weekly basis by reserving time to work out, meditate and read.

My family is very important to me. My daughter is entering her teenage years, and I'd like to be there for her going through this time. When my family is together having dinner, we go around the table and talk about our day. This allows me to know what is happening at school, who her friends are, what are her hopes and angst, etc. I also get to share so I talk about work, letting her know what I'm doing and what my opportunities and challenges are.

Being present during each of these moments helps to maintain the balance. While at work, really work hard. When you're with a person, concentrate on that person. When with family, be there with them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I've worked with many talented, hard-working women. But in general, we tend to be quieter than our male colleagues and we tend to wait for things to happen rather than take the initiative and make things happen. Women need to believe in themselves and need to speak up more.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have had several mentors in my life. Their advice and encouragement greatly shaped who I am today. I'm grateful to the people who have spent time listening to me and sharing their experiences and opinions. You can also have virtual mentors. I like to read books by people I admire. Reading about how they cope with things in different situations offers valuable perspectives in my own life.

Confucius had a saying: "Three people travel together; at least one of them can be my teacher." Applying this mentality to your daily life, you'll see you can learn from everyone around you, regardless of their background or culture. Mentors do not have to be in your field. I have gained incredibly valuable advice from people who had no background in technology.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Arianna Huffington, who I mentioned earlier. She is a very successful woman but she experienced the same fears that many women understand. She wrote a book about it (On Becoming Fearless) to show how women can become comfortable with themselves and take the courage to go get what we care about. On work/life balance, her latest book examines what is true success in life. She is a remarkable leader who women can relate to.

I also admire Katharine Graham. She was thrust into a leadership position at The Washington Post following her husband's death. In her memoir, she talks about her lack of self-confidence, and stress from the challenges of her personal life, and how that affected her at work. At the time (1960s), she had no women role models and wasn't taken seriously by her peers. She overcame her fear to build a great company, at the same time, found her own strengths while maintaining her humility.

What do you want ShareThis to accomplish in the next year?
Real-time marketing - reaching audiences in the moment - is a big deal right now that's only going to become more important for brands. At ShareThis, we want to be able to provide tools to brands so they can engage consumers with relevant messages when they are most interested. Real-time marketing brings true personalized experience to brand messaging.