How Elena Became a Data Science Superstar at McDonald’s
September 11, 2020
Elena S. | Data Scientist | Chicago, Illinois, USA
Elena Smith is a data science superstar. And for hundreds of young girls in STEM, she’s a real-life role model.
As a member of McDonald’s new Global Data and Analytics Hub, Elena is leading four data science projects related to food safety, helping our food safety team make smart, data-driven decisions every day. She also regularly volunteers with coding organizations that introduce young girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
From One STEM Role Model to Another
Elena's current work at McDonald’s and her volunteer efforts are inspired, in part, by her upbringing. Elena’s mom grew up in East Los Angeles, a Latinx community with underfunded public schools. “My mom’s teachers didn’t even talk to their students about college,” Elena says.
Despite this, Elena’s mom secured an internship shadowing doctors and nurses in hospitals, which fueled her passion for science and health care. “She ultimately became the first person in her family to graduate college,” Elena says. "She fulfilled her dream.”
Elena grew up watching her mother succeed in STEM, but she also discovered the wonders of coding on her own. "I started making websites for my favorite band: the Backstreet Boys,” Elena laughs.
A Developing Passion for Data Science
Elena didn’t jump right into STEM after high school (she actually studied Art History and English in college). After graduation, she worked in the nonprofit sector for five years. Early in her career, she saw all the data her organization was collecting and knew there were smarter ways for them to use it. This renewed her interest in data analytics and inspired a massive career pivot.
By 2016, Elena had earned her Masters in Analytics from Northwestern University and moved to the San Francisco Bay area. There, she lived what very well might be every data scientist’s dream – she joined a start-up and then worked for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping lab executives make data-driven decisions.
What Brought Elena as a Woman in STEM to McDonalds
So, why did Elena ultimately join McDonald’s, a restaurant company based in the Midwest? For her, it boiled down to how we can use the massive scale of our data to improve our customers’ experiences around the world.
“For data scientists, the more information we have, the happier we are,” Elena laughs. “I appreciate the opportunities we have at McDonald’s because of our size,” she says.
That’s exactly what McDonald’s Global Data and Analytics Hub – formed last October to drive the data and analytics strategy for the company – provides.
“The Hub is a very exciting place to work as a data scientist,” Elena says. “You get the best of both worlds: The lean flexibility of a start-up mentality, and the muscle of a legacy company with a really strong track record.”
Elena’s mom, Elena, her aunt, and her dad (L-R) at an event at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Empowering Women in STEM
Elena’s work doesn’t stop when she shuts her McDonald’s laptop. In her free time, she volunteers with organizations that introduce young girls to STEM, and last month, she led a 3-hour-long webinar on Python programming for middle school girls interested in coding. Three of her McDonald’s Global Data and Analytics Hub colleagues joined her, serving as “Teacher’s Assistants” who answered questions and provided students one-on-one assistance.
It’s important to Elena that she and her McDonald’s colleagues give back and volunteer their time.
“Through these programs, I can empower girls in STEM,” Elena says. “I want to do my part.”