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By: Megan Nash

Richmond may be a small city compared to New York or San Francisco, but it’s bursting with big ideas.

The VCU School of Business recently took a key step in advancing its presence in the technology industry at the Richmond Technology Council (rvatech/) Data + AI Summit on March 28, where a range of VCU Business alumni-turned-tech-industry-insiders provided big-picture insights on panels, data research and in-depth presentations on innovations shaping the future of technology.

The scene inside the Dewey Gottwald Center at the Science Museum of Virginia felt like a reunion, as more than 500 people gathered for the summit, a day-long event that brought expert speakers and thought leaders together to exchange ideas, enhance skill sets and brush up on the latest trends in data and artificial intelligence (AI).

While the mood was light, the subjects were serious, with sessions designed to help attendees navigate the world of data science and the growing wave of AI in their work and personal lives.

Seven VCU Business alumni contributed their expertise, shedding light on various facets of data science and AI. From exploring AI in the workplace to data management, they demonstrated the depth of intellect that spins out of the VCU Business community.

In case you missed it, here are some of their standout moments:

You can always get where you want

Leading a breakout session in data management, “Data Management: Using What You Have to Get Where You Want,” Kelly Bell (B.A. ’08, MBA ’13), procurement data steward and senior systems analyst at Defense Logistics Agency, led an audience of honorary data scientists through the steps of implementing data quality and identifying gaps in metadata.

“As a data steward, your job is to make sure data is usable, understandable and protected,” said Bell.

Using a simulated assignment for the Department of Defense, Bell explained how managing data is akin to conducting an audit, emphasizing its significance despite challenges.

“If you want to have the best results, the cool things to happen, the slow, manual process has to happen first.”

Through common implementation themes of research, analysis, standardizing and centralizing, Bell and attendees fast-tracked their solution strategy by creating an Enterprise Data Dictionary, an Enterprise Business Glossary and developed a repository for DLA data dictionaries, improving the organization’s access to metadata for critical business systems.

All in a day’s work.

Introducing, LIME

On AI in the workplace, Matthew Leary (MBA ‘16, MDA ‘18), manager, Data & Analytics at Markel, introduced Local Interpretable Model-agnostic Explanations, or LIME for short, a new methodology that can explain why certain predictions are made in predictive analytics, improving trust and adoption of predictive analytics tools within a business in the breakout “It’s Lime to Talk About Observability in Customer Experience.”

Providing a business use case complete with fake data (because, you know, privacy), Leary’s “company,” LIME Insurance, offered personal car insurance and wants to remain a “Zest Above the Rest” – how can this be done?

Using Python, a readable programming language used in web development, data analysis and AI, Leary and co-presenter, Dustin Landers, senior data scientist at Markel, demonstrated how they can leverage LIME to explain what drives individual predictions that are shared, how to build trust amongst customers and how using LIME can support and promote collaboration with underwriters:

“Working on this presentation and using fake data really validated our methodology,” said Leary. “It helped speed up the process and ask ourselves, ‘How can we apply and optimize this for future projects?’”

When asked by an audience member if customers had seen this, Leary replied, “We have a pilot going and have received positive feedback. The intent is to share more insights for underwriters to make better predictions.”

Get your fundamentals down

At the “Data Careers Decoded: A Panel for New and Aspiring Practitioners,” panel led by alumnus Ace Callwood (B.A.Sc. ‘12), director at Envoy, attendees learned about career options in data and tech. Among the panelists, Subash Jaini (MDA ’16), managing director – Innovative Data Solutions at Keiter CPAs, discussed his early career, experiences post-graduation and tips for making it in the industry:

“At the end of the day, you need to get your fundamentals down. If the best way to do it is to use it, if it’s to study it, whatever it is – do that,” said Jaini. “I have found that numerous people find it easiest to learn by doing things they enjoy. You can work hard and get to a point that I call ‘cashing in.’ It’s a concept basically where you work your butt off and you chill at a big company where you’ve got the skill. Now, the check-in is every month or so. You go in to see what you’re doing, see what value you’re adding and then make sure you’re adding in three to four more times what your cost is and then chill, have a good time. Get your fundamentals down. Because at any given point you have to be able to bust out any technique, switch and be diverse.”

Nearly 40 current VCU Business Information Systems and Data Analytics students attended the summit. Among them, Aleena Milburn ‘25, majoring in Information Systems, shared her thoughts on the event:

“Attending the rvatech/ Data + AI Summit and seeing a large group of VCU peers, alumni and faculty members actively participating not only showcased the depth and breadth of our community’s expertise in the field of technology, but also emphasized the university’s commitment to connecting students with real-world applications and leaders in technology,” said Milburn.

“[It] not only made me proud to be part of VCU, but also opened my eyes to the broader opportunities that are available both now and in the future.”

Graduate student, James Wells (MDA ‘24), shared the same sentiment, “At the rvatech/ Data + AI Summit, VCU stood out with a notable presence of students, alumni, and faculty leading discussions. This involvement was inspiring, broadening my outlook on tech opportunities and reinforcing the value of our VCU network. The event was both engaging and a clear indication of VCU’s role in shaping the future of technology.”

“The Data and AI Summit has consistently been a top destination for data professionals in Central Virginia,” said Dr. Paul Brooks, department chair and professor of Information Systems and Analytics at VCU Business.

“This year, we focused on extending the opportunity to our current students. Attending presentations delivered by alumni provided students opportunities to see themselves in future data professional roles. With students, alumni and faculty involved in the conference, VCU demonstrated its pivotal role in the regional data ecosystem.”

To learn more about VCU Business’ graduate programs or to get involved in an alumni event, visit the graduate program website or contact gsib@vcu.edu.

VCU School of Business alumni and faculty contributions to the rvatech AI + Data Summit program included:

  • RAG: Chat with Your (Unstructured) Data Using LLMs
    Vishal Patel, founder & chief data scientist, Derive, LLC and adjunct professor (MDA Weekend Program)
  • Exploiting Uncertainty in the NFL Draft
    Jason Merrick, Ph.D., professor, Supply Chain Management and Analytics
  • Customizing Foundation Models with RAG and LangChain
    Ford Prior (MS ’15), software dev engineer III, Amazon Web Services
  • Data Management: Using What You Have to Get to Where You Want
    Kelly Bell, procurement data steward and senior systems analyst, Defense Logistics Agency
  • It’s Lime to Talk About Observability in Customer Experience
    Matthew Leary, manager, Data & Analytics, Markel
  • The State of AI Adoption
    (panelist)
    Steven MacLauchlan (B.S. ’05), head of data, Ippon Technologies USA
  • Fantasy Writing with the Assistance of LLMs
    Nick Agliano (B.S. ’20), senior software engineer, Simple Thread
  • Data Careers Decoded
    (moderator)
    Ace Callwood, director, Envoy
    (panelist) Subhash Jaini, managing director, Keiter CPAs
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