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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 139: Elpida Ormanidou on Resilience Through Adversity and Succeeding in Analytics

September 08, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Elpida Ormanidou, VP of Data Science at Starbucks and Sam M. Walton College of Business alumna, to discuss her professional and personal journey, as well as how she overcame hardship to succeed in her analytics career. Listen to Ormanidou describe how her responsibilities at Starbucks have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Episode Transcript


0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today, Elpida Ormanidou. And I've known her for many years because she actually got a Master's degree at the Walton College back in mid 2000s. And since then, she's had a number of interesting roles, but even prior to that, she had been working at Walmart at Sam's Club in data analytics types of roles, and she eventually was vice president of Global People Analytics for Walmart, and she went to Chico's FAS where she was senior vice president of analytics and insights, and now she is vice president of data science at Starbucks. And you've been there a couple of years now.

0:01:20.6 Elpida Ormanidou: Almost two years, yeah.

0:01:22.4 Matt Waller: But it's really neat, Elpida, how you've been with some really amazing companies. I mean, you were at Walmart and looking at people analytics, and Walmart's the largest private employer of any company, at least in the United States, if not the world. So you were looking at analytics for a really important component of Walmart, but now you're a data scientist at one of the most revered brands in the world, Starbucks. So first of all, congratulations on your tremendous achievements.

0:02:00.3 Elpida Ormanidou: Thank you. I really appreciate it. And the way this came about, I wasn't necessarily chasing it, the title is not the most important thing to me, doing what I love is important, learning new things and building new capabilities, I love that. So when I started in Sam's Club, we were just starting to develop some of the... Now we call it data science, back then we were calling it data analytics, but we were going into segmentation, we were really modernizing the way we were looking at the data to help drive business decisions. When the opportunity came up for me to move into the People group, it was not an easy decision, I had actually a lot of options, I could have gone into merchandising and do merchandising analytics. It was the time that we were looking at our fuel stations, or how much should we invest in fuel stations, so I had a project that I was involved with that I was doing that for. And so everybody was like, "Why would you wanna go into HR? These people don't care about data." And for me, it was almost like, "Challenge accepted, maybe they should care about data." If you are the largest employer in the world, you should probably manage your people assets just as rigorously as any other asset.

0:03:27.3 Elpida Ormanidou: And what I found is, when I moved into that space, the hunger for that rigor in the data was always there, they just... Nobody ever really went deep into it, and most of the time you work with external business partners that came in and out, and there was no continuity. So one of the things that we'd done by building this internal capability and this internal muscle, it really created a very robust foundation that many other programs were building, like our Diversity and Inclusion programs, and how important it was to understand all different sub-segments within our talent pool, our investment with veterans or with under-employed populations. So it really helped generate very interesting programs, our Supplier Diversity and Women Supplier program. Those were all programs that were based on this data foundation. So it was kind of interesting. And then when I wanted to go very deep into personalization, that's where it was better to switch into a smaller, very neat brand. And in Chico's more than 90%, almost 98% of the sales, in some cases, are identifiable at the customer level.

0:04:44.3 Elpida Ormanidou: So if you need to personalize, that's the place to be because you know all your customers. So I start experimenting and building this kind of philosophies around personalization, but then when I really wanted to apply that skill and see how those really play out, come on, Starbucks. I mean, they're the leader of the pack when it comes to that. So here I am in Starbucks in this data science role, and what we do... We actually do things that other people wouldn't even dream of in terms of modeling, and we are on target to deliver 20 billion personalized recommendations this year through our app and emails, and I'm like a kid in a candy store. But the way I got here, it was not because I said, "That's where I wanna be when I grow up." I said, "What do I wanna learn? And what capability I wanna develop and where is the right place and the right role for me to do that?" And that's how I made my selection.

0:05:49.2 Matt Waller: Yeah, and I think that mindset is probably why you've done so well. I mean, to think that seven years after graduating from master's program, you became a vice president at Walmart, that's fast, in my experience. And you were vice president of Global People Analytics. That sounds daunting because I would think... Especially from a global perspective, I would think people analytics varies a lot from region to region. I'm not sure that's true.

0:06:21.4 Elpida Ormanidou: It is.

0:06:22.1 Matt Waller: It is?

0:06:23.1 Elpida Ormanidou: Yeah. And that was the challenge, that's why... The People Analytics position. The Global People Analytics vice president position did not exist, it got created and I was the first one in the position. And again, the challenge was, we did have, and still have a lot of other vice presidents that cover specific areas, but to look at the data as a foundation and to be able to build its domain strategy, compensation, recruiting, diversity, talent development, to build all those strategies from the same set of data and facts, it's really, really important. But then when you move to Global, at the time there were 27 countries, at the different level of maturity, some small businesses we acquired, they literally were working on spreadsheets. The reason why Walmart was an appealing acquisition for them was because now they could use all the Walmart technology to better themselves, to grow their business. So this is... Again, it was a challenge, it wasn't easy, but it was an interesting problem to solve. And then you had unique situations from country to country. The Asia market is very different than the European market. So that's why... I mean, it's an optimization problem, really, with a lot of constraints, and it's fun.

0:07:46.9 Matt Waller: But what a great way to learn too, you wound up having to learn about all these other countries and how they operate and so forth, which I'm sure really prepared you well for your new position as vice president of data science at Starbucks. I would think having experience at Walmart and Chico's and Starbucks, but particularly Walmart and Starbucks, these are massive companies that have a huge global footprint. But would you mind just sharing a little bit more about your current role and what you're doing at Starbucks?

0:08:28.2 Elpida Ormanidou: Yeah, so basically, I am responsible for the modeling work that goes behind pretty much every aspect of the business. So Starbucks is very invested in leveraging retail science to help drive their business. You've heard this several times in the quarterly reviews and announcements, and Kevin talks about it all the time. We have a team... We built the platform actually, this predated it by my boss, John Francis, actually, is the mastermind behind this, and Greg, who now works for me, is the person that did it. But think about, it's like an optimization engine, a recommendation engine that they've built. We now hone in and really optimize it to say, when you look in our app, based on behavior, how do we engage each customer differently? And what is the recommendation that we should give the customer to participate in the game?

0:09:31.4 Elpida Ormanidou: And we've been doing this for a while, and now we're saying, now that we have the platform, and this is really where my history with Walmart comes in, can we not work on this in other areas? Would this actually work in the people space? And see, how do we engage partners with targeted recommendations based on what they need at that point in time versus in one-size-fits-all approach? But the more important thing that... I joined the company, and almost immediately I hadn't even had time to move to Seattle, COVID hit. So if you ask me what is my experience with Starbucks and what do I do? I'd tell you, I helped close down all the stores in the country, which was super easy because we just said, "We're gonna do the right thing and close all our stores right now until we figure this thing out." And then we learned from our China experience, because we lived it there first, and we learned the pattern of the virus and how the re-opening is happening.

0:10:32.4 Elpida Ormanidou: And so we brought that into the US, and I supported the operations team in a strategy, in analytics way of assessing the risk by community, by trade area and deciding if they should open a store back up or not. We wrote algorithms that crawled every site because in the US, we had a very decentralized approach to COVID, so it wasn't like one place that you can go and get data, every municipality had different rules, so we crawled the sites and we collected all the information, we analyze and standardize, and put it in a dashboard for operators to make decisions like this, so they can focus their time on people. And so I helped re-open the stores. And now, actually because I also support supply chain, now we have a great problem because every time the economy is doing great, the confidence is high and... Economies run on caffeine or I so want to believe. So everybody wants their Starbucks, and how do we make sure we ramp up supply enough to get the high demand? So that's what I do right now.

0:11:43.0 Matt Waller: That's terrific. Elpida, one thing I've seen through COVID, I've seen a lot of students struggling emotionally, because isolation is hard for most people, and they almost feel like they've lost their identity to some degree, 'cause they're not the typical college student, they're not going to classes like they used to. But we all have challenges in life, everyone does, and I think when you're young, sometimes it seems like the world's falling apart and there's no way out, but we make it through these things. But life is difficult, it's just very difficult. It's good to even know that, 'cause a lot of times, people could look at... Students could hear this podcast and look at your resume online or your job description at Starbucks and think, "Wow, she's had the perfect life." I mean, if you look at your LinkedIn profile, you think she did everything right.

0:12:52.6 Matt Waller: And yet, you and I have both had our other struggles, I went through a year-long battle with cancer, and wasn't sure I was gonna make it, I made it, but I remember, you were really impressive to me. I noticed that you were very smart student, very good at dealing with people, and yet you had a crisis, a challenge. Would you mind speaking to that just a bit?

0:13:20.2 Elpida Ormanidou: Yeah, and you know, I wanna start with something. It's a saying, and if you ask me now, I can't remember the name of the person, which is a shame, but I'll think about it and maybe email it to you, but there's this saying that says, "We are not thinking machines who feel, we are feeling machines who think." And this is now how I kind of made sense with it in my head, and back when I was a student, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to come and study in the United States. I left home when I was 15, I went to... Away from my family, went to an American college in Greece, was able to transfer here, like my whole life revolved around this dream, and it became like my single focus. And then when I came here in the US, I ended up getting married, I had a child, and then almost overnight, everything fell apart, I find out my daughter has a congenital condition and she's vision impaired. She would never be able to drive, she was a baby at the time, but I knew and at some point maybe she would go completely blind, and then my marriage fell apart, and here I am in school, a single mom, a newly single mom, with no family around, with no support, it's Christmas, everything is closed, and I'm alone and I'm lost.

0:14:46.2 Elpida Ormanidou: And this is one advice, this is something that I believe that I did right in all the things that I did wrong, or in all the areas where I made a mistake, mistakes happen, like we learn from it, and we grow up and we grow better. So I made a lot of mistakes, but the one thing that I did right is reach out to people with more experience. Like if we understand that we are feeling machines first and we open up and allow this to happen, and put our vulnerability out in a controlled the environment, I think it helps. And I'm gonna speak to this for a minute, because I remember vividly being in your office and you were the closest... You were my professional, I didn't know you, I didn't know... You were not my family. But you were my familiar, and I remember falling apart in your office, and now I would say, "Oh my god," we keep saying women shouldn't cry and all this other stuff, and I completely fell apart, because I needed help. And you probably don't remember this, but you gave me that help, you talked to me, not as a teacher, but as a human. And you helped me.

0:15:57.5 Elpida Ormanidou: And at the end of the conversation, you said, "Elpida, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. And you're good and you can do this." And it wasn't easy, but it's good to hear encouraging words. And I think seeking out advice whenever you feel you're all alone and you're the only one who goes through this, no you're not, there's billions of people in this planet, of course, other people... You're not that unique. Other people are going through it. That's what I tell myself now. That's what I told my daughter now, but sometimes we feel this way, so it's good to reach out to other people, take partners, seek advice, get mentorship, and no problem is unsolvable. I mean, look, we're in the data science space, if I felt that there is unsolvable problems, we'd be doomed. Right. I mean, I do believe that every problem is solvable, you just need the right ingredients and the right mentality and just work at it, be relentless, and then it's gonna get through.

0:17:02.1 Matt Waller: Well, Elpida, I'm so proud of you, and you're such a great person, a great leader, and it's been so fun for me to watch you continue to advance in life and in your career, but thank you for those encouraging words to our students. I really appreciate that. Certainly a time when people need encouragement, so... That was great, I appreciate it.

0:17:29.6 Elpida Ormanidou: No problem. And you know what, I loved what the school did for me, and this is an invitation to all our students that currently are in the program, if you need any help, you can find me on LinkedIn, you can have my contact information, I'm always here. Anything I can do to help, just ask questions because I feel so blessed that I got so much help to be where I am today, that I feel it's right to help the next generation of people that will lead this industry, change our economy.

0:18:07.9 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching beepic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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