Despite the challenges she faced as a single mother of two sons while simultaneously pursuing her professional goals, Carla Gentry, Owner and Chief Data Scientist at Analytical-Solution, worked hard to excel in all areas of her life. “No one has ever accused me of backing down from a challenge,” Carla remarks.
Her drive and passion for problem-solving began at a young age. “I always feel that I’m a natural-born problem solver. Even as a child I was curious: I started taking things apart when I was about 5 years old but didn’t learn how to put them back together again until I was about 6, so it was a rough year for the family,” Carla jokes. “Being a natural problem solver, it gives me great pleasure to tackle a problem — great if I succeed; but even when I fail, I want to learn what went wrong and constantly improve.”
It is likely for this reason and more that Carla is so motivated by the nature of her industry. “It’s a fast-paced environment where things change and it’s never boring, and there’s always something interesting going on,” she says.
Initially, Carla attended the University of Tennessee with the intention of teaching mathematics after completing her degree. However, an economics professor asked her, “Do you really want to teach, or do you want to change the world?” She was then introduced to the field of econometrics, and she decided to shift her major from Math and Education to Math and Economics — the rest is history.
While Carla admits that she focused more on “climbing the corporate ladder” at the start of her career, once she started her own business in 2011, she began to concentrate on how she could help others. “I always felt if I was to leave this earth with all of this information inside my head and I didn’t share it with anyone, shame on me,” says Carla.
However, prior to owning and working at Analytical-Solution, Carla provided several companies with her expertise in data science and analytics, including Rebo Software, PBA Health, Disney Media, Computer Systems Institute, Data Science Central, Deloitte, Sam Tech, Shoe Sensation, Talent Analytics, Design Interactive and more. “It’s been an interesting career. I mean 24 years and I would say that each and every job prepared me for the next one,” she says. “It was kind of a natural progression of learning and curiosity.”
One of Carla’s biggest inspirations, her father, always encouraged her to try her best when approaching every task. “My Dad used to say, ‘The only time that you fail, is if you didn’t try hard enough,’” says Carla.
Among Carla’s many other mentors is Lee Schilling, who was the President of Marketing at the University of Tennessee at the time. “He taught me that there [is] no thought or ideal [that] is a waste.” One of her greatest inspirations was her mom. “She was the glue of the family. The glue that held it all together… it was the Moms of the world that showed me that not only could I accomplish great things, but I could raise a family,” Carla says. “I have two grown children, three grandchildren as well as being a businessperson and a family member.”
Not everyone in her life is in the tech world, so when she describes her work to others, she breaks it down as if she were explaining it to her 13-year-old grandson. “He wanted to know, ‘What does Grandmother do for a living?’ Telling him that I’m a data scientist wasn’t enough, nor was working with [AI] and machine learning. So I said, when you’re on TikTok and you see the overall trending on the right side, that’s a form of frequency analysis,” Carla explains. “I read everything that I can in order to be able to break that technical talk down into a more manageable kind of thing that people would understand.”
This is especially crucial when addressing others’ misguided fears about AI. Carla highlights the importance of explaining that AI and computers don’t “learn and think” on their own. Instead, they “follow instructions or code and [need] data, data, data, data.”
Even as someone who is deeply involved in the field of AI and who understands how the technology works, Carla still finds herself in awe of many real-world use cases for AI. She was wowed by an experience she had on her first day at Design Interactive, where she witnessed the possibilities of the “VR world.” Reflecting upon this experience, Carla highlights the profound impact technology such as virtual reality can have on real-world scenarios, from recording tacit knowledge from the retiring workforce to helping wounded soldiers in the middle of combat.
In the future, Carla hopes to see AI leveraged more in MED tech. “My Dad died of brain cancer a few years ago, and he donated his brain to science,” she explains. “What they could learn from him is important, and it was most certainly very important to him. I think of the progress medicine has made in the past and how much more progress can be made with the help of technology.”
Empowering Women in STEM
Carla believes people should not place limits on children’s interests, regardless of their gender. “I was raised to think that there was no difference between girls and boys. My Dad told me I could do anything. He never put any limitations on me at all, and I think that’s what kind of pushed me,” Carla says, when speaking about what inspired her to pursue a career in tech. “My Dad had me out there at a very young age, teaching me about tools and cars, so I wouldn’t need to be dependent on anyone.”
Although Carla understands the value of self-reliance, she also recognizes the importance of sharing what you have learned with the women around you. “What you learn, you can also teach and pass on so keep it going ladies when you learn: Share, and we will all learn,” Carla says.
In the spirit of passing along key learnings to other women, Carla encourages women pursuing STEM careers to push past the stereotype that women must be perfect, and instead implores women to never give up, even if at first they fail. Additionally, Carla says, “don’t let the boys scare you — remind them what you’re capable of.” She also encourages women to demand respect and “let your confidence show.”
Finally, she wants women to stay curious: “Curiosity may have killed the cat but in AI [and] machine learning it’s priceless.”