Alumna Biz Stolz makes Disney an even happier place
We were pleased to welcome Biz Stolz, this year's Alumna in Residence, to campus for a few days this past fall. During her visit, students and faculty had a chance to learn more about the work she does as an Experience Insights Analyst at Disney Parks and Resorts, in Orlando, a position in which she takes large amounts of data and uses it to find ways to improve and explain the guest experience at Disney.
We enjoyed her visit so much that we wanted to share some of her insights with readers of the Gazette. Biz was kind enough to answer more of our questions about her work and the route she took from Grand Valley to Disney.
Q. How does mathematics play a role in your work?
Math is at the core of everything that I do. I try to quantify the Guest experience -- something that's very tricky given human nature, but really valuable if done right. I play with models from both the math and statistics realms, from using linear algebra and singular value decomposition, to more traditional statistics and logistic regression. One big project that I worked on was a behavioral segmentation model for our Guests. There are many ways to categorize consumers in industry: age, income, and geographic location are just a few examples. But at Disney, it's hard to distinguish who might like one of our activities from another. An adult who loves Mickey might be just as excited to meet him as a 5-year-old. By creating a behavioral segmentation framework, we are able to categorize Guests by what they do, instead of who they are. And we can use this information to make the Guest's experience even more magical. In this project, I exhausted my tool box of both mathematical and statistical models to try to find the best way to model Guest behavior.
Q. What are some things that you especially enjoy or find satisfying about your work?
I've always found math pretty magical, but it's so satisfying to see that magic come alive in Disney's parks. I love that what I've done at Disney has contributed to improving the Guest experience or enabling other teams to better understand our Guests.
Q. Are there many opportunities for people interested in this kind of work?
There are more opportunities for people interested in data analytics, data science, and machine learning than industry can provide! A report released by LinkedIn in December of 2018 revealed that five of the top 15 fastest growing jobs are data science related.
Q. What led you to choose Grand Valley for your undergraduate degree?
The undergraduate-student focus, the liberal arts designation, and the Honors College were what drew me to Grand Valley. When I was looking at schools, I remember hearing that it was unlikely that I'd ever have a class that was taught by a graduate student, that small class sizes were the norm, and during my visit I was able to meet with some professors to speak about why I should choose Grand Valley. I had been accepted to some other great schools, but that kind of assurance wasn't given anywhere else. I also loved that I was able to take a majority of my general education classes through integrated "sequences" as a part of the Honors College's cross-disciplinary curriculum.
Q. How did Grand Valley prepare you for your career? Are there things about Grand Valley that you have especially appreciated after leaving?
My math and statistics courses gave me such a great grounding for what I would need to know for going into the workforce. These programs had such a great balance--I had the deep conceptual understanding of the math that I was doing, and also the knowledge of how to apply it from my statistics courses. After I left Grand Valley, it really hit me how lucky I was to have built such great relationships with faculty members while I was there. At Grand Valley, we have the opportunity not only for our professors to learn our names (which I didn't realize was a luxury until I left, but it absolutely is), but also to actually have their assistance on homework and assignments and the job search and ...well ... just about anything they can help with. I took advantage of this and made a point to email when I had quick questions, and to go to office hours, and to ask questions in class, and I feel like I got so much more out of my education (and the aftermath) because of it.
Q. Can you describe the path that led you from Grand Valley to Disney?
When I graduated from Grand Valley, I had a math and statistics double major and I had spent three years working as a Writing Consultant at Grand Valley's Writing Center. I obtained my Masters in Analytics from North Carolina State University, and was hired by Disney upon graduation. I think what most appealed to Disney on my resume was that my strong technical expertise was complemented with a concrete background in communication and writing as well.
Q. Are there other skills besides purely mathematical ones that you find yourself using regularly?
At its core, Disney is a company of storytellers. Many of the partners I have worked with since I started here aren't numbers people, so it's really important that I'm able to help bridge the gap between the data and what the results mean for them. This not only involves communication skills; of course I have to be able to effectively translate what it is that I've done from math-y terms to ones that might be more convincing to the more business-minded, but also an understanding of why the results should be important to them. It's about crafting a story out of these numbers that can speak to those that I work with. I could build the most accurate model in the world, but it would be useless if I can't convince my partners to use it. So it is about communication, but it's also about critical thinking skills as well.
Q. Do you have any advice for students who are just starting a math major but may be interested in doing your kind of work?
GVSU's math curriculum does a really great job with developing its student's mathematical abilities, critical thinking skills, and math-y communication skills. If you're looking to become a data analyst, I'd recommend focusing on a way to apply those learning opportunities in a way that is used in industry--an introductory Python course or doing an analytics internship would show your future employers that you have experience translating your quant intelligence into concrete results.
Q. Can you describe some other interests that you have?
I love reading -- I read about 100 books a year, mostly of the fantasy or historical fiction variety. I also really enjoy discovering new restaurants and fun things to do in Orlando; it's such a diverse city, so there's always something new to do.
We thank Biz for sharing so much about her experiences with our students during her visit and for providing them with valuable career advice. It's always great to connect with our alumni, and Biz's visit helped our faculty see more clearly how our students are using their mathematical training in their careers.
You can read even more about Biz and her work here.