Kim Nilsson – Astrophysics PhD and Co-Founder at Pivigo

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We need to acknowledge that the problem is systemic and at all levels. We need to start already with young children, encouraging girls to study sciences and giving them scientific toys and access to female role models.

Kim Nilsson is an Astrophysics PhD, MBA and Entrepreneur. She is the Chair and Co-Founder of Pivigo; supporting organisations to innovate with data by connecting them with a global community of the best and brightest freelancing data scientists. She is passionate about people, data and connecting the two.

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

Almost 8 years ago, I co-founded a company called Pivigo, based in London and Berlin. Up until very recently, I was the CEO, and thus responsible for the strategy, implementation, and ultimately success of the company. This meant juggling many tasks around fundraising and investors, owning the sales targets and commercial relationships, thinking about the team composition, performance, and recruitment needs, and of course working with our tech team to deliver our projects and build our technology.

Pivigo is a data science company. Technology is critical to our work; both in the project outcomes we deliver to our customers, as well as in supporting our own work. Externally, we delivered over 250 data science and AI projects to 150 clients, including all sorts of use cases you can imagine. Internally, we built our own marketplace platform where aspiring data scientists can sign up, access resources and learning materials, and build their profiles as data scientists.

Since a few months ago, I am now the Chair of the Board for the company, which means that I support with my network and my advice, but am no longer involved in the day-to-day work in the company.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

My career has been a winding road! I was 13 years old when I decided I was going to be an astronomer. Following a straight path through the education system, I had my PhD in Astrophysics before the age of 25 and kept going into two post-doctoral, scientific positions in Astronomy. However, I had a growing realisation that I was actually not enjoying academic life. I sensed that my strengths were not in coding and modelling, but rather in working with people to realise projects.

Once I had made up my mind to leave academia, I had a huge challenge to understand what transferrable skills I had, which companies could be interested in hiring me, and how to pitch myself. Long story short, I ended up applying for an MBA (Masters of Business Administration) programme. I figured I would learn about business, decide what I wanted to do, and I guess there was an element of “if I have a PhD AND an MBA, surely someone will hire me!”.

My career then took another turn as I both understood from the professional development programme during the MBA that I was very interested in entrepreneurship, and as I met my co-founder Jason. Jason and I shared the passion to bridge the gap between academia and business, specifically around data and analytics. We developed the business plan for Pivigo during the MBA, and at the end of the programme we agreed we had to give it a go. The rest is (Pivigo) history.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

I would have to say the emergence of cloud technology. Even though cloud computing is in many ways well established now, I think we are still just scratching the surface on what is possible using cloud technology. The ability to store huge amounts of data, and to process them rapidly and in big batches, has been hugely transformational for my industry, and ultimately it will be for all of society. It enables data science and AI, which will revolutionise how we live, work, and stay healthy.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

My first reaction is a feeling of sadness. That diversity is still lacking in our industry, and that there is still so much prejudice. Diversity is critical in any innovative environment, and innovation projects have been proven to be more successful when the teams working on them are as diverse as possible. Yet so many tech teams in start-ups and corporates are uniform. I am sad that in 2020, we still need to constantly raise this issue and fight to improve gender balance in tech.

My second reaction is hope. There is a huge movement in support of diversity, and there are so many fantastic support networks available for women or other minorities interested in making a career in tech. There is an open debate, and a sense of urgency to fix this problem that is growing every year. Through events, community networks, information sharing, and showcasing role models, we can make a difference on this topic now.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

The first step really is to talk about, and shine a light on, the issue and this is definitely happening today. Beyond that, there are structural problems throughout the talent pipeline. Stereotype and prejudice hold young girls back from developing an interest in STEM subjects and applications for places on STEM programmes from women are dropping. We lack role models, and the world of work for technology talent is not necessarily inviting for women with its lack of diversity, long and stressful hours, and a perceived lack of work-life balance.

What should we do? We need to acknowledge that the problem is systemic and at all levels. We need to start already with young children, encouraging girls to study sciences and giving them scientific toys and access to female role models. We also need to be mindful of the perception of our industry to adults. As a start-up, we had to be relentless in our attempts to display how much we valued diversity. As a small example, in our monthly newsletter we would always include a custom made cartoon. I had to consciously guide our cartoon artist to ensure that the characters in the cartoon were representative of people of both different gender and race. It may sound like an insignificant detail, but for me, any important message needs to be clearly and consistently communicated, and so every detail of our work had to be reviewed for this purpose.

Which was the best decision in your career?

There have been so many critical decisions and it is hard to pin one specific down. But I suppose I need to pick the decision I made to leave academia, ten years ago. It is incredibly hard to leave a path you have chosen and been on for so long, and it is especially scary as I had no idea at all where I would land, or even if I would land safely in a job at all. It was a leap of faith, and I had to trust that I would find my way.

I am certainly very grateful that I made my career jump and now work with something I am truly passionate about.

I have huge respect and admiration for people who make career transitions as a result, and I have actually often hired them into my business. When you make a very conscious and difficult decision like that, you do it because you are passionate and motivated about your new career and you are likely to be successful in the new job. I am certainly very grateful that I made my career jump and now work with something I am truly passionate about, and feel that I have a big impact with my work.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Haha, so you might think that I would say “don’t pursue science, you won’t like it!” but actually I would not. I do not regret my science career, and I use skills today that I developed in my academic career. I think I would probably try to boost my own confidence instead, to tell myself that you have great strengths and abilities that will be greatly appreciated by employers, and by your network and friends. Don’t worry about perceptions, just stay true to who you are and your dream and it will all work out for the best!

Kim Nilsson is an Astrophysics PhD, MBA and Entrepreneur. She is the Chair and Co-Founder of Pivigo; supporting organisations to innovate with data by connecting them with a global community of the best and brightest freelancing data scientists. She is passionate about people, data and connecting the two.

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