As vice president of Thomson Reuters Labs, Mona M. Vernon heads up a growing global network of data scientists who can mine vast amounts of information, helping business clients identify unexpected ways to make money or find hidden details that can make or break major deals. In a world increasingly obsessed with the power of “Big Data,” that sounds like an alpha geek’s dream job. But Vernon jokes that she actually used to be much cooler. After emigrating from France to the United States to attend Tufts University, Vernon worked in a machine shop, crunched numbers on Wall Street, managed and performed in bands, spun records as a DJ, exhibited paintings, and overhauled lasers. And then she figured it was time to get a graduate degree. The Globe spent a few minutes diving into that winding path with Vernon, 41, at the Boston headquarters of Thomson Reuters Labs, a startup-inspired space at the data and news company’s Seaport offices.
1. Earlier this year, Vernon’s team employed its skills at a “hackathon” aimed at generating ideas for helping local governments track sex-trafficking crimes, a philanthropic project that illustrates the kind of corporate background checks it’s asked to do for clients.
“For us, it was a way to do some volunteer work. But it also was aligned with the kind of thing we want to help our customers with because our customers don’t want to be in a situation where they’re caught with a vendor or a supplier that is involved in human trafficking.
“That’s a good example of the kind of projects we do. The team pulled together a lot of data from within Thomson Reuters. We have a lot of really high-quality data sets that can help you understand a richer view of a company. And then we can help our clients, like corporations, assess the risk of them doing this kind of business.”
2. Vernon started off in investment banking, but that didn’t last long. When a college adviser asked her to join Axsun Technologies, a Boston-area startup working on scanning lasers for the telecom industry, Vernon quickly agreed.
“I was there for six years, and it was a really great experience. I was maybe employee number 15, and then we got to 150. And there were a lot of things that you get to learn when you’re in this fast-paced environment. Three years in, I ended up managing what we called our core technologies, which was all the technologies from software to robotics to optics that really were powering our next-generation product. That was, really early on, a great way to learn how to manage a team much smarter than me, and I loved that.”
3. Her life has been punctuated by war and terrorism, an experience that has at times fed her artistic side. Vernon’s family fled wartime Iran when she was a young girl, and, as a teenager, she decided to attend college in the United States partly to escape the terrorist attacks that had roiled France through the 1980s. A few years after she graduated college, 9/11 happened.
“The way I responded was, I’m an artist a little bit, and I DJ’d all through college and DJ’d in bars. I kind of hid through my art. So there were a couple of years where I was doing a startup, and I was DJing, and in a couple of bands, and just keeping myself really busy. And in hindsight, I think Sept. 11 had a lot to do with it because it really changed the safe haven the US was from a lot of the political turmoil that I had experienced in France.”
4. When she decided to get a business degree, Vernon didn’t want to leave engineering behind. MIT’s Sloan management school was a perfect fit.
“Most people I knew who wanted to go to business school wanted to get out of engineering, but I loved being an engineer. I found this program at MIT called SDM, which was the combination of engineering systems — so, lots of cool, hard problems to solve — and the business school. And when I got there, because I was a startup girl, I figured I would just pitch an idea about my thesis and try to get a company to sponsor me and pay for my tuition. So British Telecom sponsored my research to look at how they could enter the cloud computing business, and that’s how I pivoted into IT.”
5. Although Vernon has often found herself the only woman in a room, she relishes the idea of changing perceptions of gender roles — something that’s happened everywhere from packed nightclubs to the machine shop at Tufts.
“Back then, when I would go to the Phoenix Landing and do a gig, you know, I was the only girl. And I kind of liked that. Why not? If you do it, then the next person doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal.
“For a while, they had a picture of me in the machine shop with my welding hat on. I was not a good welder. But any kid who would walk in would be like, ‘Oh, girls weld.’ Normal, right?”