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Elena Grewal: Airbnb data scientist shares her nonlinear career path

How Grewal developed a love for data analysis while pursuing a PhD in education.

Illustration of an arrow flowchart

Let’s talk about skills that are transferrable across disciplines. | Illustration by Kevin Craft

Career paths don’t always follow a straight line.

Just ask Elena Grewal, whose education culminated in a PhD in education, but who became the head data scientist at Airbnb.

In some ways, the leap wasn’t quite as daunting as it might sound. Grewal’s training at Stanford included courses in statistics and econometrics. She dabbled with data in a study where she was trying to predict attrition among teachers and fell in love with the way data helped her identify the root causes of problems.

At one point, she began to study machine learning and initially thought it was very different from the work she was doing. “Then I started looking at what people do in machine learning, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s logistic regression, it’s clustering analysis. I do that; we just call it something different,’” Grewal explains in this episode of the Women in Data Science podcast.

At Airbnb, Grewal started “data university,” a program that teaches employees at all levels the techniques of data science. “I don’t want people who have data to be the keepers of knowledge or power, but to share and enable every person to be able to think more critically about data,” she says.

You can listen to the Women in Data Science podcast on Apple Podcasts, via the Women in Data Science website or Stanford Engineering Magazine.