Rehgan Avon's idea was simple: Create a platform for women data scientists. They came from around the world.

Back in 2016, Rehgan Avon was still a student at Ohio State University when she noticed that even though she had lots of women peers in her chosen career field of data analytics, there weren’t a lot of them in leading roles at the conferences she had been attending.

There weren’t women speakers. There weren’t women organizing the conferences or choosing the speakers. She found that odd, as she knew there were plenty of them working and making waves in the field. Not surprisingly, she decided to look into the data.

“It’s very interesting because there are studies that show women make up about 50 percent of statisticians,” Avon says. “They’re pretty predominant in the field. But if you look across conferences in the United States at how many had women speakers, you’re looking at worst at 2 percent and at best 26 percent representation from women.”

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Avon decided to change that data and got to work on her own conference, a four-hour evening event at OSU. Patty Morrison, former CIO of Cardinal Health, was the keynote speaker. “We weren’t sure if anyone would even show up, we had no budget. OSU donated the room, and 150 people came. That was the signal that there was a real need for this,” Avon says.

Inspired, she teamed with a few others motivated by the event, including Katie Sasso of the Columbus Collaboratory, and planned for a larger event the next year while also maintaining her full-time work at Open Data Group, headquartered in Chicago.

In 2018, the conference sold out with 400 attendees—25 percent of whom were men. In 2019, the conference expanded to a day and a half with 700 attendees. It was also named one of top eight data science conferences in the world by Data Science Dojo.

Mai Alowaish, an ecommerce specialist, says an article in the Harvard Business Review sparked her interest in attending the Women in Analytics conference. The 2018 article said women who attended a networking conference were twice as likely to be promoted and three times as likely to receive a pay raise than a similar control group. “Everyone wants to be promoted, right? I thought, ‘How does that even work?’ So I went ahead, attended, and after the conference, I was inspired to do a lot,” Alowaish says. Specifically, she realized her own decade and a half in ecommerce websites made her invaluable, too.

“Everyone in the analytics industry wants to be a data scientist; it’s a hot word, a big buzz. Digital analytics became my focus,” she says. “They started calling me the app guru at work.” She also changed firms, joining Infotrust, based in Cincinnati, and now has the title of lead analytics consultant. “I think that conference was really a game changer for me,” she says.

By 2019, Avon and her group saw that WIA was more than a conference— it was a community. 

Last year WIA incorporated as an LLC. It is planning a membership platform and now has a speakers’ bureau. 

Local industry has been supportive, Avon says. Nationwide, Ohio State and the Columbus Collaboratory all have provided resources and connections. That’s because WIA is creating significant educational opportunities, says Ben Blanquera, vice president of delivery and experience for the Collaboratory, the artificial intelligence and cybersecurity firm spawned by seven of the region’s leading businesses. “Analytics continues to be a significant part of what creates a competitive advantage for companies in Central Ohio,” he says.

The conference is attracting heavy hitters to the city. Last year, Avon says attendees flew in from countries including Singapore, Australia, India and Poland. The keynote speaker for 2020 will be Feryal Ozel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona and leader on the team that captured the first-ever black hole image. She is considered something of a superstar in the data science field.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.