Profile: Ana Peleteiro Ramallo, Head of Applied Science, Outfits & Style Advice at Zalando

Women in Tech: “Lifelong learning is crucial in this fast-evolving sector”

Dominik Mohilo

Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Ana Peleteiro Ramallo, Head of Applied Science, Outfits & Style Advice at Zalando.

research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Ana Peleteiro Ramallo, Head of Applied Science, Outfits & Style Advice at Zalando.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Ana Peleteiro Ramallo, Head of Applied Science, Outfits & Style Advice at Zalando

Ana Peleteiro Ramallo holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI), with more than 30+ international peer reviewed publications, and 10+ years of experience in the field.

She currently lead the data science and machine learning efforts in the Outfit Program and Zalon within Zalando, where she helps customers in their inspiration journey and shopping experience, establishing Zalando as their starting point of fashion.

When did you become interested in technology?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in maths and science. As a child, I spent hours figuring out how to solve mathematical and scientific problems and wouldn’t stop until I had the solution. The challenge was what attracted me together with the potential for innovation, which has a huge role to play in advancing us as individuals, as businesses, and as a society. This enthusiasm and curiosity are what drove me to become a scientist.

How did you end up in your career path?

I started my academic career with a degree in telecommunications engineering and telematics engineering, where I could combine subjects related to maths, statistics, physics, computer science and electronics. During my Master’s thesis, I fell in love with research and artificial intelligence (AI), a fast-evolving field that has great potential for innovation, and this drove me to pursue a PhD focused on AI.

After my PhD, I spent three years working in Dublin’s “Silicon Docks” as a Senior Data Scientist at Zalando’s Fashion Insight Centre, building data-driven products using machine learning and deep learning. This was my big step from academia into the industry and it was really exciting for me, giving me a terrific opportunity to work with multidisciplinary teams on visionary goals that impact the entire fashion ecosystem. It was also a chance to solve interesting AI challenges for real people while working in a thriving and growing technology community. After that, I spent two years as the Director of Data Science in Tendam, one of the biggest Spanish fashion retailers. I was responsible for all the AI initiatives and created the data science department from the ground up, making data and machine learning (ML) become drivers. A year and a half ago, I returned to Zalando in Berlin to take up my current role as Head of Applied Science, Outfits & Style Advice, which has me happily dealing with data and algorithms daily to create great experiences for our customers.

There have certainly been challenges along the way, but these have helped me learn and grow. For instance, despite a successful PhD, I had some papers rejected as a student. Adapting and improving based on the feedback was a critical part of my growth, reinforcing the value of persistence and perspective. You have to work your way over or around these obstacles and evaluate: what could I have done differently? How can I make this work better? I looked at my papers from different angles and rebuilt them to ensure they were ready for publication at the next time of asking. It taught me a lesson that you hear more and more today, but which bears repeating: that failure is a part of success.

You have to work your way over or around these obstacles and evaluate: what could I have done differently? How can I make this work better?

Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?

I am lucky in that both my family and friends have been very supportive and always helped me to achieve my best. In fact, my parents are probably my role models. They taught me some of my most important lessons in life and made me the person I am today, exposing me to all kinds of different environments and activities as I grew up, including sports, music, foreign languages. This meant I could find out what I liked and develop in these areas. In particular, they taught me that there are no things “for girls” or “for boys”; there are only things that you like. For example, as a child I played football – I liked it, so I just did it.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

There are always people who are not happy to see others progress faster than themselves and will try to slow you down or put obstacles in your way. Personally, I’m very focused on my goals and I always find a way to achieve what I want, so I don’t let these people stop me.

A day in Ana’s life

I lead the data science and machine learning efforts around outfit inspiration and styling advice at Zalando. We help our more than 42 million customers find products they like and support them on their inspiration journey. We provide a personalised shopping experience for our customers, helping them find what they need right when they need it. For example, if they find a top that they like, our algorithms will suggest other items to go with it. This is a subtle art because it’s not just about suggesting items that match well together, but about suggesting pieces that the customer personally will like. As a result, you need sophisticated algorithms. Building and refining this is a really interesting challenge.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m probably most proud of the overall progress I’ve made in my career while keeping a balanced life. I always worked hard but never stopped pursuing my hobbies, like reading, playing piano or sports. I’d also highlight my efforts to support and inspire women. I co-founded the Women in Machine Learning & Data Science (WiMLDS) Madrid chapter, where we organised networking events, talks and workshops for women and gender minorities who are practising, studying or interested in the industry. Moreover, I am also very active at giving talks and mentoring.

If we were to look for particular moments that I am proud of, I’d have to highlight completing my PhD as a big milestone and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be recognised with several awards. For instance, during my time in Dublin I won the Data Scientist of the Year award for my work at Zalando and in the wider data science community. Exchanging ideas, challenges and knowledge is key in science and fostering innovation – the tech landscape in Ireland, with its fantastic community, was perfect for this. I learned a lot working with so many ambitious and talented people – and we accomplished a lot too, so it meant a lot to win this award.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

It has a lot to do with education, upbringing, perception and how society is set. It starts with the toys and the activities we impose on girls and boys in their childhood. There still seems to be a preconception that STEM is not for women and fewer women study it as a result. I think there are also too few female role models in the sector. Role models are important to show what is possible and inspire others to take a similar path. That’s why, if you are in a leadership position, you should be aware of your responsibility and help others on their way.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

In the tech industry, it’s very common to be the only woman in the room. I don’t notice it so much anymore because I’ve got used to it since I was a student, but it can be intimidating if you are not very confident, and it can prevent women from expressing their opinions freely. There are also still preconceptions that seem difficult to shake. For instance, people often assume that the woman in the room is not the technical specialist!

Beyond preconceptions, gender stereotypes also affect the way people perceive what is in front of them. For example, if I’m being very direct, I might be perceived as bossy – but a man might be perceived as a leader for the same behaviour. I don’t think this is unique to the tech industry, but we need to get past the stage where the same qualities are interpreted differently depending on whether they are exhibited by a man or a woman. With that said, I have to say that I’ve been very lucky in the companies I have worked for. My current company, Zalando, for instance, puts a lot of thought into creating an inclusive and diverse environment where everyone has the same opportunities regardless of gender and background.

Progress won’t come overnight. We have to fight for it.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

Of course our world would be different – and better. Women make up about 50% of the population, yet we are not well represented in many fields, which has led to harmful developments in the past. Having parity is not only right – everyone should have the same opportunities – it is also good for society, economy, culture, and individuals, because it encourages diverse perspectives, approaches, and innovation.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

There are more and more opportunities for women, more women in leadership positions, more freedom in general, but complete equality no matter what gender we are or where we come from, is still a long way off. This is not only reflected in the statistics, but also in the perception of women in society and people’s expectations of them in life. This is changing – slowly. We have seen good progress in some societies (though these remain a way short of parity) and there are still others where women don’t yet have equal legal rights or access to education. Progress won’t come overnight. We have to fight for it. Every generation will contribute, but it may take a few more until we are where we should be.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

There are lots of opportunities and lots of challenges in the tech industry – whether it’s medtech, retail, aerospace – so it’s great for people who love to solve problems. Lifelong learning is crucial in this fast-evolving sector. Generally, the key is to be confident and to believe in yourself. Stay focused on your goals and work hard for them. Surround yourself with people who are smart, curious and help you get ahead. I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible people and to have faced some fascinating challenges that have provided me with opportunities to learn and grow. Looking into the future, I would like to see us get to a point where we don’t have to talk about women in tech, just about people in tech – and we all have a part to play in getting to that point. By helping others to develop, by showing them the ladder we are climbing today, we will reach this point someday.

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Dominik Mohilo
Dominik Mohilo studied German and sociology at the Frankfurt University, and works at S&S Media since 2015.

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