AArete Finds Hope in Numbers

Katie O’Connell is guiding management consulting firm AArete as it creates a Center of Data Excellence to solve client problems big and small

Katie O’Connell, AArete, Managing Director | Photo by Caleb Fox

“I started in public accounting and quickly realized I’m more suited for a dynamic environment. The good thing was that I was able to take my analytical problem-solving skills and put them to use building a career in consulting.

To some extent, analytics are part of every project we do at AArete, but it wasn’t until last year that we made a formal investment in a project that would meet the needs of our clients who, increasingly, rely on data and analytics to be successful. It’s often the case that they have a lot of data, but not a lot of information. What I mean by that is, companies are getting millions of lines of data every week, and meaningful insights aren’t going to be produced unless the proper analysis is done. In that way, yes, we analyze data, but the service we’re really providing is to offer these meaningful insights.

Bridging Cultural Gaps in Tech Education

Katie O’Connell sits on the board of directors of Amandla Charter School in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood, consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous in the city. It’s a place O’Connell characterizes as “an epicenter of violence” and an area lacking in opportunities for the many children who call it home.

O’Connell volunteers her time and energy to the school as a way of giving back and giving thanks to her parents.

“I’m grateful to my parents for providing exceptional educational opportunities,” O’Connell says. “Because of their support, I was able to obtain my MBA from Notre Dame. After graduation, I really wanted to work to level the playing field, doing my best to help those who weren’t given the same opportunities as I was.”

AArete does its part as well, providing volunteers, offering mentorship to students, and assisting with fundraising. Admittedly, the obstacles the children face are overwhelming. O’Connell cites a lack of access to—and funding for—technology as a main hindrance.

“The problem goes beyond not having access—there are bigger implications,” O’Connell says. “The things that access to technology enables are what enables students to compete and consider higher education. You can teach kids the basics of math and science, but not having this access is a big hurdle to being successful.”

O’Connell asserts this exposure has become a critical part of the educational experience, and in its own way, AArete is helping to close the gap.

“The students we work with are invited to our office where they can sit next to us as we do our work and have their own hands-on experience,” she says. “Initially, it may seem like what we do is out of reach, but once the kids become more comfortable, I believe they start to broaden their ideas of what is possible. In today’s world, so many of your educational opportunities are based on your zip code. That’s not fair, and we may not be able to fix that, but we can try to help.”

So much of what we do at AArete is taking large data sets, analyzing them using specific algorithms, and determining patterns in behavior that can lead to cost-saving for our clients. Previously, this process would take months and months for companies. AArete can provide the service in weeks, and it makes clients aware of issues and opportunities they may not have noticed otherwise.

In health care, this process becomes all the more important. Because of the nature of the data, we can offer clients highly customizable plans that will benefit their patients and reduce their costs. The financial services sector has also taken a very deep dive into data. Analyzing data from the industry allows us to detect anomalies for our clients, which shows them how data is being underutilized, bringing to light new ideas for addressing their issues.

CODE, or our new Center of Data Excellence, addresses how size and complexity of our clients’ data is growing. We’ve hired a team of data analysts with deep skill sets who can support client teams effectively and efficiently.

The root of CODE is that it allows us to serve our clients better, and the proof is in the pudding. We help our clients become more knowledgeable and make the most of the data they have. It’s also a nice opportunity to highlight our skills, and it provides an opportunity for us to continue learning how best to serve our clients. We have to be on the forefront of data analytics; it’s the cornerstone of what we do. The more we invest in it, the better off we are—and, by default, the better off our clients are.

There have been no real challenges when it comes to bringing CODE to life. We have an amazing team, and we’ve developed partnerships with experts in India that enable us to bounce around ideas about global best practices. Being this proactive is really the only way to keep up with growth while also trying to get ahead.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to emerge from this is that we’re helping clients learn to ask the right questions. For example, a bank might give us the numbers for how much they’re spending on transportation each month, and they want to know what other banks in the area are spending on the same expense. It’s an irrelevant question because all of that is completely dependent on how the other banks are run. It all comes back to the data. Using the data to illustrate where costs could be cut is a way of leveling the playing field and helping clients understand the questions they should be focusing on with the help of the insights we provide.

My ability to work on a project like this is due to a combination of things: I’ve had great mentors, and I’d also like to think I have some inherent leadership ability that was only developed because of my work with strong mentors.

I think our experience with clients often gets overlooked when we talk about our own growth and how we’ve developed over the course of our careers. The great thing about consulting is the depth and breadth of the experiences you have, and it’s not unusual for clients to teach you as much as you think you’re teaching them.”