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Alisha Thompson: From NASA to Domtar Personal Care

Categories: Ideas and Innovation
business intelligence

Alisha Thompson, who leads Domtar Personal Care’s business intelligence and analytics team, has been passionate about technology since she was a child. At 8 years old, she wrote her first program, a game for the Commodore 64 computer. That project started her on a path that led to a career in business intelligence and analytics.

Thompson’s team helps our Personal Care organization convert data into knowledge, bringing business insights that enable the company to anticipate trends and adapt to changing market conditions.

From NASA to Personal Care

Thompson wasn’t always the outgoing visionary she is today. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in computer science at Western Kentucky University, she was a shy, self-described nerd with the linear mindset of a stereotypical programmer. She was also one of only three women in a program with close to 300 male students.

She attributes her personal and professional growth to the influence of the many mentors she’s had throughout her career, starting with her time at NASA. Fresh out of school, Thompson worked alongside engineers who had been around since the Apollo missions. She learned that problem-solving is best done through collaboration and by allowing things to work out naturally, rather than trying to force an answer. When faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, her mentors helped her understand that it was OK to relax and that, together, they would figure it out.

Alisha Thompson in 2002 with one of her mentors at NASA, astronaut John Young, the first person to fly six times into space.

One of Alisha Thompson’s mentors at NASA was astronaut John Young, seen in this 2002 photo. He was the first person to fly six space missions, and the ninth person to walk on the moon.[/caption]

Alisha Thompson’s time at NASA helped shape her career today.[/caption]

Today, Thompson shares this mindset with our business intelligence and analytics team, ensuring that members don’t lose sight of the big picture while focusing on a small problem. That’s important in a business as complex as Domtar Personal Care, which makes hundreds of absorbent hygiene products for diverse markets and customers in dozens of countries.

Turning Data into Insights

Domtar Personal Care’s BI team strikes a pose, from left: Tiffany Delano (Global BI Manager), Daniel Egbe (Data Warehousing Programmer), Alisha Thompson (Global BI Director), Jon Greene (Business Analyst II) and Yash Shah (Data Scientist).

Domtar Personal Care’s business intelligence and analytics team (left to right): Tiffany Delano (Global Business Intelligence Manager), Daniel Egbe (Data Warehousing Programmer), Alisha Thompson (Global Director of Business Intelligence), Jon Greene (Business Analyst II) and Yash Shah (Data Scientist).[/caption]

The business intelligence and analytics team is a nimble group of five colleagues who call themselves the “Singing Data Ninjas.” It’s an apt description for a group whose work draws on several disciplines: arts, science, engineering and management. It’s also a reflection of Thompson’s penchant for team-building activities, such as running a 5K and singing karaoke.

The team works closely with internal stakeholders to understand their business needs. Using MicroStrategy, a business intelligence tool, to consolidate and analyze enterprise information from around the globe, the team can propose customized dashboards and reporting solutions that translate the data into targeted actions.

Lee West, Domtar’s vice president of IT and procurement, and general manager of EAM, highly values the team’s work. “It’s one of my priorities this year to see greater usage of the business intelligence platform across the organization. It brings us quantifiable business results,” he says.

For example, the finance team can use analytics to quickly identify areas for cost savings, and colleagues in Europe can optimize opportunities related to foreign exchange rates. In addition, the reporting tools save time by automating manual processes.

Christopher Wachter, group senior manager of finance and planning at Domtar, says, “We needed consolidated financials from all businesses. By automating how we pull together data, we save at least a day on our month-end process.”

These results are possible thanks to a business intelligence and analytics team that is thriving under Thompson’s guidance and the calm, insightful leadership of West. Team members share many common traits, such as grit, optimism and an extreme talent for working with data. But the group also celebrates individual strengths and achievements.

“The motto for Personal Care is ‘It’s Personal.’ It stems from the fact that we make consumer products — absorbent hygiene solutions — that improve quality of life for people,” Thompson says. “We internalize this, keeping our focus on the difference that each of us can make.”

Thompson appreciates this culture of inclusion, particularly when she thinks back to her university days when she was one of few women in her field. Since then, the gender gap has narrowed dramatically. After completing a master’s degree in computer science in 2006, she helped distribute scholarships for the Western Kentucky University’s math and science programs, and the majority of recipients were women.

A lot has changed since Thompson was 8, but she hasn’t lost her passion for computer science or for conquering new challenges, and those passions are helping to move our business forward today.