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Research and Innovation

Wilson College of Textiles Faculty and Lenovo Partner for Data Trade Gateway Program

Lori Rothenberg (left) sits a white office chair with a black cushion behind a desk with a laptop in front of her. Delisia Matthews (right) stands with her hand resting on the armrest of Lori's office chair.

By Sarah Stone 

Interactive data visualization is providing businesses with a competitive advantage in today’s world. Businesses can quickly see patterns and trends through live interaction with graphs, maps and other visualizations. It is a powerful technique that everyone should be able to access. Enter a group of Wilson College of Textiles researchers to apply these data tools in the real world.     

Zahra Saki, a Wilson College alumna, developed a data visualization tool as a part of her dissertation. Associate Professors Delisia Matthews and Lori Rothenberg saw how valuable the tool could be to businesses and created the Data Trade Gateway program in the summer of 2021. 

They designed a data visualization training program centered around Saki’s tool, which could be easily adapted towards measuring business performance. Among other features, the tool contained an interactive map where businesses can visualize the geographic location of their customers along with their buying behavior. 

Given all these factors, the next step was to find an industry partner that Matthews, Rothenberg and Saki could collaborate with who also saw the value in the tool.

Putting the new tool to work 

Aiming to bring this out of the college and into practice, Matthews connected with Shantell Thomas, who was at the time working for Lenovo as the tech giant’s North America diversity and inclusion partner. Thomas was helping Lenovo advance an existing marketing program aimed at helping small businesses succeed, with a specific focus on minority-owned businesses. 

“Lori and I had already been talking about this data visualization and how a lot of minority-owned businesses don’t get those sorts of resources to really dig into the data and figure out how to really use the data to make their business operations that much better,” Matthews says. “And so we just started brainstorming.”

map of the east coast with North Carolina as the southernmost state shown. Dots in different colors represent different businesses in this data visualization

They quickly realized there was no reason to limit their impact to business owners; students and educators could benefit as well. 

“Being the professors that we are, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if students could get that hands-on sort of training by applying what they’ve learned with the tool to work one-on-one and consult with small businesses,’” Matthews says. 

Continuing their focus on equity in North Carolina, the pair of faculty and Lenovo partnered up with four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): Shaw University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), and St. Augustine’s University. 

“I know that there’s a lot of talent at HBCUs from professors and students,” Matthews, who herself earned degrees from two HBCUs, says, “But a lot of times you don’t get a chance to see that because those institutions don’t get those resources that you might find at predominantly white institutions.”

To kick off the program, a pair of training sessions were held about data visualization: one for faculty and one for students and business owners. Then, professors paired groups of students with local minority-owned businesses. The students met frequently with these business owners over the course of the fall 2021 semester to determine what data could best help them achieve their business goals, how to collect that data and how to analyze it using Saki’s visualization tool. 

In their own words:

See how HBCU students and professors, as well as business owners, say the Data Trade Gateway has impacted them.

Saki and Rothenberg found the business owners were very engaged. 

“They were very excited about the tool and immediately had great questions about it that went beyond what we taught them in the workshop,” Rothenberg says. “Instead of just sales, they were also curious about inventory and other types of data.”

Ultimately, students gave a presentation about the data they had analyzed and the implications for improving operations at the business they had worked with. 

“They had to learn how to ask questions of the business owner,” Rothenberg says. “Students were ready to analyze data and they learned that you also have to take the next step and put it in the context of the business.”

Lenovo’s valuable support 

Both Matthews and Rothenberg say Lenovo’s funding and support proved vital to the initiative’s impact.

“There was a lot of funding that was needed in order to make sure that we could connect with each of the students, each of their professors and business owners,” Matthews says.  

Lenovo made it possible to provide the data visualization tool to the businesses as a long-term resource, not just a one-time gimmick.

“Normally when you have a data tool that is this in depth it costs quite a bit,” Matthews explains. “Because of Lenovo funding, we were able to give it to the students, the professors and the business owners for free. So they can continue to use that particular tool free of cost.” 

And what does Lenovo think about this recent partnership with these Wilson College researchers? 

“Lenovo is proud to sponsor the Data Trade Gateway Program because it elevates small businesses, bolsters educational opportunities and promotes diversity, equity and inclusion – which are all priorities for our company,” says Libby Richards, Community Engagement Manager for Lenovo North America. “Through this program, HBCU students learn critical data skills that they can apply in the workplace, while minority-owned small businesses receive valuable tools and assistance to enhance their operations. Lenovo is thrilled with the results of the program and looks forward to continuing to support this and other initiatives that support small businesses and diversify the workforce.” 

In fact, Lenovo has decided to renew their support of the Data Trade Gateway for a second year, as well as expand its funding.