The Untapped Vein
Have you ever walked into a local business and thought, “Gee, this place sure could use a data scientist?”
Most people don’t – unless they’re students at the Chambers College.
In 2017, Matt Spencer, Kate Governale and Scott Branham were graduate students in the Business Data Analytics (BUDA) program. All three were West Virginia natives. All three had an eye for business development.
And, like the coal miners of old, all three saw an untapped vein in West Virginia’s economic landscape.
“It’s easy to think of data as only belonging to places that generate tons of it,” said Spencer, who led the charge. “With West Virginia’s size, it’s at a sweet spot where we can make a huge difference at an individual or community level.”
With West Virginia’s size, it’s at a sweet spot where we can make a huge difference at an individual or community level.- Matt Spencer
Every business, every day, processes an extraordinary amount of data. The number of products sold. The number of returning customers. The number of clicks on a single web link.
There are too many numbers to easily examine. Within them, however, are trends and patterns that businesses can use to form conclusions. In those conclusions lie the key to their growth.
Thus, data analytics: a field dedicated solely to processing and synthesizing all those numbers.
But businesses come in all sizes, and many don’t have a data analyst on staff. What’s more, they probably can't afford to hire one.
Spencer, Governale and Branham decided to do something about it.
“The idea came from the culture we’d created in BUDA,” said Management Information Systems Professor Brad Price. “We’d work with companies and try to make a difference for them. The first step was showing students and organizations that this model could work.”
With Price’s help, the students molded their idea into Data Driven WV, one of the Chambers College’s research and outreach centers.
Data Driven WV fulfills the project’s original goal of providing West Virginia businesses with skilled data analysts, while also providing students with real-world experience to help them land jobs.
After its pilot year in 2019, Data Driven WV assisted with the state’s Covid response, creating forecasting models and digital inventory systems for PPE and vaccine distribution. Thanks to Price, they have also been able to work with large corporate partners like WesBanco, Leidos and Noblis.
“Our corporate partners have been just phenomenal,” said Price. “Their willingness to expand, and to keep growing with us, has increased student buy-in. We have proof that what we do matters.”
That student buy-in is essential to the program’s success. Joshua Meadows, the director of Data Driven WV, believes a symbiotic relationship between the clients and the consultants is at the heart of its mission.
“I don’t want a student to ever have the academic knowledge, to have the skill set, and not be able to land a job,” Meadows said. “I want them to have experiences they can talk about when they get to an interview.”
However, data isn't generated by corporations alone. Businesses of any size can reap the rewards of data analytics – and when a small business comes knocking, Data Driven WV answers.
On June 20, 2022, an email landed in Meadows’s inbox. It was about a store in Tucker County — one Meadows had never heard of — a small business that wanted Data Driven WV's help.
The name of that store was Bloom.
Opened in 2014, Bloom sells prints, shirts, stickers, graphic novels and more, all featuring designs from artists across the country. The products are arranged by artist, giving every nook and cranny of the store a unique aesthetic.
“We’re doing something very novel,” said Morgan Smith, Bloom’s owner. “We have over a thousand prints from fifty contributors. I know of only one other print shop in the United States that’s doing this at the level we are.”
Walk through Bloom’s front door, and the first thing you’ll notice is the canopy of plants hanging from the ceiling. Then, if you look down, you’ll notice Smith’s dog, Ash, padding across the floor to greet you.
It’s the kind of warm, welcoming atmosphere you can only find in a small business in a small town – like Thomas, WV, pop. 623.
Thomas, however, is a more challenging market than most. You only find it if you’re looking for it, and even then, getting there involves several hours of travel down narrow mountain roads.
Running a successful business in a town like Thomas means working hard to take care
of the essentials, like placing orders and balancing budgets. Smith, however, wanted
the store to reach its fullest potential. Even with a strong foundation, there
was room to grow, and if Bloom was going to blossom, he would need help.
So Smith went looking for it. He reached out to Woodlands Development & Lending, an organization dedicated to helping West Virginia’s small businesses grow, and was eventually connected with Data Driven WV.
“The Bloom project gives us the chance to show that we are here to provide data-driven solutions to the community, no matter how big or small the problem may seem,” said Meadows.
“In fact, it’s important that we work on projects of varying size and scope because our students all have different interests and will work in different industries.”
Caleb Funderburk, a senior at Chambers, is one of those students. “It’s been really cool working with small business owners in West Virginia,” he said, “and getting to learn why they started the business and how we can help them grow.”
Funderburk is one member of the four-student team working with Bloom to redevelop
their approach to doing business. That means starting small — but small things
can amount to much more.
“What’s been really impressive so far is just the quick wins we get,” said Meadows. “The students have been able to share quick little tips and tricks with them, and it’s already saving them a quantifiable amount of time.”
It’s all about automation: instead of manually filling out spreadsheets and analyzing e-commerce reports, Data Driven WV is teaching Bloom how to make their computer systems work for them, synthesizing and sorting the otherwise-unmanageable numbers coming through Bloom’s systems every day.
“The outcome is to make their business processes more efficient,” said Funderburk,
“so they can spend more time on a day-to-day basis growing the business, and dedicate
more time to what they love doing.”
Professional Swiss Army Knives
Data Driven WV isn’t just transforming the businesses it works with – it’s transforming students like Caleb Funderburk too.
Many students graduate from college with “hard skills,” which are technical, difficult to learn and applicable in specific circumstances. These are skills like data analysis, search engine optimization, HTML coding and finance management. They’re necessary to perform specific jobs in specific fields, but aren't always transferable to others.
Data Driven WV, however, allows students to also pick up “soft skills” like team leadership, conflict resolution and client management, which can be applied in many different ways in many different roles and industries.
If hard skills are specific tools for specific tasks, then soft skills are Swiss Army knives for the professional world — and they’re only growing more valuable for employers.
After Funderburk had worked for Data Driven WV for a full year, its staffers recommended he take the lead on the Bloom project.
“It allowed me to gain experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else,” said Funderburk, “and led to me getting other internships that I work at now.”
As project manager, Funderburk is learning how to organize his team to tackle problems. In his role, he’s the primary point of contact for Bloom, and develops the methodology they use for improving Bloom’s systems.
“This is my first client engagement where I’m having this project management experience,” said Funderburk. “This provided me with the first real-world opportunity to utilize the skills I’ve been developing.”
When Funderburk’s team visited Bloom for an in-person meeting in September, they approached it as though they were professional consultants. They walked through the experience of a typical customer, then dove into the store’s digital presence, all the while suggesting improvements for everything from the store’s point-of-sale to its social media and e-commerce presence.
“The all-around experience has been really positive,” Smith said, “and surprising, as someone who isn’t around college students very often. I wasn’t expecting the level of maturity I’ve seen from them. My manager, Alexa, and I are endlessly impressed and excited.”
Mountains Moving Forward
Bloom is just one business. There are many like it throughout West Virginia — many that are bigger, and no less in need of data analytics assistance.
But Data Driven WV’s biggest client isn’t a single business. It’s the entire state.
“When we talk to companies about what West Virginia has to offer, Data Driven always comes up,” said Brad Price, who continues to bring in corporate partners for Data Driven WV.
“It’s multinationals, startups, companies that have been here for twenty years, companies that want to get started here, everything in between.
That’s exactly what Scott Branham, one of the three students who founded Data Driven WV, was hoping to achieve when the center was created.
“We wanted to build a pipeline for the students,” Branham said, “whether they were undergraduates or graduates, to marry capable, qualified, passionate students from Chambers with companies that needed that work done, and to create those partnerships authentically.”
For students to be able to brainstorm and work on a project in their home county... and potentially work on it as an employee one day... that, to me, is the ultimate success story.- Scott Branham
Branham is now a program manager at Honeywell, but remains heavily involved with Data Driven WV, working with Meadows and Price to chart the program’s course. He hopes the students currently working with Data Driven WV will follow the example he sets in giving back.
“There are needs statewide,” Branham said. “One day, I want to walk into Data Driven WV and see a map of our state with at least fifty-five pins in it — one for every county.
“We have students in our college who want to do good things in the places they’re from. For them to be able to brainstorm and work on a project in their home county and manage and execute it for college credit — and potentially work on it as an employee one day — that, to me, is the ultimate success story.”
For Branham, it’s all about giving back, whether that means mentoring current students or helping a local cupcake shop grow its profit margins.
That’s the spirit that led to Data Driven WV’s creation: looking boldly to the future, but reaching back to help others along.
That's the spirit of the Chambers College.