Q & A with Elizabeth Phillips
Chief Information Officer,
A NATIVE ARKANSAN who has worked in India, the Philippines, and Washington, D.C., Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Phillips returned home to Little Rock a couple of years ago and immediately became involved in the cutting-edge tech scene in Arkansas. While starting her own data visualization consulting company, she served on the UA Fayetteville Data Science Advisory Council aimed at creating a new BS degree in data science. Then in November 2019, she was named CIO of Stephens Insurance, an affiliate of Stephens Inc. We’ve been following Lizzie for months, and finally got her to sit down for coffee and a talk about her far-flung career, her return home, her new job, and what she sees on the horizon for Arkansas and the data sciences.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Were you always a techie?
I wanted to be a banker—much to the surprise of my family of lawyers and teachers. One of the highlights of my week was walking to my neighborhood bank, filling out a savings deposit form, and handing over my hard-earned babysitting money. The idea of compound interest completely captivated me. While I didn’t understand the math underlying this “eighth wonder of the world” (thanks, Einstein), I intuitively grasped the concept.
So did you ever work in banking?
I did in a roundabout way. As I got older, studying and working abroad became a priority for me, so after high school I found a home in the International Studies department at Rhodes College in Memphis. A degree in IS requires several economics and statistics courses, and the more courses I took, the more I realized I loved microeconomics instead of macroeconomics. Macro is just too…speculative? Whereas microeconomics is math based, and I’m all about the math.
In a required microeconomics class taught by the revered Professor Mark McMahon, my academic interests narrowed, and I became totally fascinated by the efficiency of market forces; the power of incentives in influencing behavior; and the reality of opportunity costs and externalities. Once I learned the mathematical proofs underlying concepts like supply and demand, my appreciation for the “dismal science” grew.
And this brings me to banking—well, at least to microbanking. During my junior year at Rhodes, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize for pioneering the concept of microfinance. His ideas helped me connect my concern for poverty alleviation with my understanding of markets. For my senior thesis, I compared frameworks for delivering microfinance, and this study sent me overseas—to India—to work for a microfinance accelerator. The company I worked for sought to understand the demand for different financial services across the “unbanked”—that is, people who don’t have access to formal financial institutions.
My first professional post was in Bangalore, India, where I worked with a team to assess the demand for, and the supply of, goat insurance products—particularly among herding communities. Goats are very economically important in that part of the world, and goat insurance seemed like a helpful product. I personally led workshops for mid-level managers on ways to market this new insurance offering.
But here’s where my interest in banking took a turn toward data analytics. Given my lack of proficiency in Kannada and Hindi, I was having trouble marketing the insurance to potential customers. I relied heavily on translators, and the work was a struggle—reading the facial expressions of the people I was calling on, I could tell that I wasn’t doing my job well.
My big turnaround came when I saw how visuals—figures, charts, intuitive graphics—could enhance comprehension.
We’re going to talk about data visualization in a minute—but was it this experience in India that made you a devotee of it?
I would say this was just the very early stage of it. After India, I continued doing fieldwork in the Philippines with a Fulbright grant, studying the economic and social impacts of microsavings solutions. Through that research, which involved lots of focus groups and conference presentations, I once again saw the power of effective visuals in communicating analytical content in a non-technical way.
Once I completed my Fulbright research, I went to D.C. to work for an economics and public policy consulting firm. And that’s where my tech focus really started forming, in a very organic way. I learned how to code, for example, mostly out of necessity. I kept running into barriers with clunky analytical software tools, which were unable to display metrics and trends in an intuitive way. Because of that, I made myself learn the backend of these software systems so I could construct more visually compelling reports. My mindset has always been to figure out a way to rework software tools to meet the objectives of the task at hand, rather than to adjust a particular task to the limits of a given technical platform.
After a few years in the working world, I went to grad school at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton to hone my training in economics with advanced coursework in statistics and policy analysis. Overall, the study of economics gave me an analytical skill set to think critically about the world around me—and to communicate mathematical relationships in a conceptually intuitive way. It’s this approach that enables me to be an effective bridge in helping companies get more out of their technology solutions.
Okay, you returned to Little Rock in 2018 and started a company called Rock Analytics, specializing in data visualization. What, exactly, is data visualization?
I’ve often said that my trade didn’t have a name for the longest time. Years before data geeks at The Economist coined the fancy term “data visualization,” my colleagues described my craft as “making things look pretty.” While that description works, I’ve come to see it as so much more than that. Visual analytics, as it’s commonly referred to today, is both a creative pursuit and a technical act. But however you look at it, the bottom line is that you must be committed to enhancing data comprehension.
Big Data presents huge opportunities for companies, but all that data can be paralyzing without the right tools and approach. Merely having access to millions of data points doesn’t drive better decision-making; the data must be harnessed. The core objective of visual analytics is to unlock data comprehension by revealing the story within the data and connecting those insights to action.
And, by the way, when I speak about data visualization or visual analytics, I’m basically referring to two components—one, analytical software such as Tableau and Microsoft Power BI, which are used to interpret and communicate data; and two, the technologies such as machine learning and AI that improve our ability to manage large datasets and perform predictive analytics. Together, these tools can ensure that hard-won analytical insights are understood by decision-makers who need to understand the data in order to act on it.
When you left D.C. to come back home, you’d been away for a long time. What concerns did you have about Arkansas as a place to do your kind of work?
First of all, I came back to Arkansas for family reasons, which I’m pleased to say have been happily resolved. But why did I stay here? I decided to stay in Arkansas because of the business opportunities I saw here. Over the course of many conversations with a variety of organizations, from tech start-ups to foundations, I noticed that most of them were sitting on massive amounts of untapped data. A lot of them knew how to organize the data and conduct basic queries. A few others made use of standard reports showing key performance indicators. But hardly any of these companies or organizations were creating custom reports designed to enhance comprehension of data in order to expedite decision-making. Based on this need that I saw in the marketplace, I started the business you mentioned earlier—Rock Analytics—to work with companies to extract more value from their data by developing custom reporting systems.
And then Stephens Insurance comes along and hires you away!
Well, it was an evolutionary thing. I’ve been working with Stephens Insurance since June 2018, and we’ve made great strides in how we use visual analytics—a beachhead that we plan to build on with me as CIO. I’ll be responsible for managing both our technology and information management strategy and the technical platform needed to implement that strategy.
At Stephens Insurance, we collect and analyze large amounts of data — from policy-related information to claims — and we rely on technical tools to effectively manage and protect this data. We also use analytical tools to interpret trends in claims data, identify risk drivers, and manage the risk of future claims.
You’ve come a long way from goat insurance.
Yes and no—all insurance is important to the people who need it!
In closing, I’d like your “big picture” thoughts regarding Arkansas and the data sciences. As someone who’s worked all over the world, what good things do you see happening in our state? And what do we need more work on?
Over the last two years, I’ve witnessed significant momentum for ensuring that UA system graduates have the data science skills needed to meet a growing demand for technical jobs in our state. For example, at UA Fayetteville, there is a new BS Degree in Data Science that integrates coursework from the College of Engineering, Walton School of Business, and Fulbright College. This program will ensure that students graduate with the skills to manage the technical, analytical, and ethical complexity of Big Data and data privacy, and to effectively communicate data analysis in a comprehensible way.
Another thing that energizes me about Arkansas is the ability to make things happen – and to do so quickly. As simple as that sounds, it’s a critical factor that drives innovation. After living in big cities where bureaucracy abounds, it’s refreshing to be able to take an idea from concept to playing field in a little under six months. I really don’t think I could have launched a business focused on data visualization in any other spot. It took clients, like Stephens, who were forward looking and willing to invest in these innovative analytical capabilities.
Overall, there’s an energy around the data sciences here in our state that both excites me as a professional in this field and also makes me proud to be a native Arkansan.