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From Afghanistan to Amsterdam: our Project Lead Samantha

So, where did you work before starting at Dashmote? Few people in our Amsterdam office will answer Kabul, Afghanistan. But one of our team members would. Before graduating from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Samantha worked in the international development sector. As a Financial Analyst, she planned, coordinated, and executed the budget process for about a $2.9 billion annual portfolio in US civilian assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, she’s one of Dashmote’s Project Leads.

Social Scientist at Heart

Samantha graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a BSc degree in a social science, International Affairs & Modern Languages. Earning a degree from Georgia Tech involved learning to code and studying lab sciences on top of her regular degree coursework. Asked about it, she recalls: ‘I have always had a preference for social sciences with emphasis on the ‘science’ part of it.’ With her degree in her pocket, she moved to Washington D.C. to start a job in international development. Making her way up the ranks in the capital of the United States, she became a Financial Analyst in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Samantha explains: ‘A lot of people go into the field of development thinking they’re going to change the world. Of course I wanted to help people, but I also really wanted to know what the effect was of implementing such development programs on the people living there. Do they work and if so, how? The first and foremost lesson it taught me is that large groups of people are extremely complex, regardless of whether this relates to international development or marketing. Especially when you add money into the mix. I was really persistent about wanting to understand the underlying processes.’

Riding Helicopters in Kabul

Understanding these processes did not happen overnight for Samantha. It eventually brought her into one of the most challenging developing areas of the world: Afghanistan. While most of us have likely only seen Kabul as the backdrop of a suspenseful tv-series like Homeland, Samantha got to experience the Afghan capital firsthand. She confirmed that working in Kabul was indeed dramatic at times – she had to be vigilant against explosive attacks as well as kidnappings, and the only travel was via armored convoys and helicopters – though most days were as normal as working in a government office anywhere else in the US. ‘Looking back on my time in Kabul,’ she says, ‘it was the rewarding experience of working together with my Afghan colleagues that has stuck. They are some of the warmest and most resilient people I’ve ever met.’ However, at the office, we still like to joke that taking a Dutch train to get to work is a bit more boring than riding a helicopter to the office.

Switching industries, why?

Having always had the ambition to pursue a Master’s degree, Samantha eventually decided to make the leap from working in development back to university. She moved to London to start a Master’s program in ‘Economy, Risk and Society’ at the London School of Economics and Political Science. ‘This program had a foot in a lot of different things I liked. One could see it as a broad-ranging study in economic sociology,’ she says about her motivations for choosing this particular program. ‘It also allowed me to get a more technical understanding of social science, especially by approaching it from a quantitative perspective.’

Samantha graduated with a Master’s Thesis on e-commerce vendors operating on the so-called dark web. The dark web is known for hosting intermediaries focused on all kinds of illegal activities and under-the-counter e-commerce, the now-defunct Silk Road remaining the most notorious example of such an online black market. In studying this subject, Samantha wanted to know how these markets function with the extreme uncertainty following from the likelihood of being taken down by the authorities or by getting scammed. She applied unsupervised machine learning to construct vendor profiles, and aimed to answer such questions as: who are the top vendors, who controls the market, and can these markets help to explain uncertainty in legal market behavior.

Project Lead at Dashmote

Although Samantha has shifted her attention to legal markets, the skills and internet street-smarts she gained relate to what she is doing at Dashmote in her current role. Samantha has been with us since the summer of 2017 and is one of our Project Leads in the Amsterdam office. From solving budgetary conundrums in a bunker in Kabul to studying black marketeers on the dark web, she has moved on to quantifying and qualifying insights using Dashmote’s machine learning tools. The foremost part of her job includes leading projects focused on segmenting local food and beverage markets in countries around the world, including Japan, China, around the EU, and the United States.

‘What I like most about my current position is that I’m able to think and act like a social scientist. I get to design research based upon social science methodologies, and with unique ways of quantifying behaviour which I haven’t been able to do in my work before this. Perhaps my favorite problem to solve so far has been to find better ways to segment markets that reflects social behaviour offline – in other words, how we can show what markets really look like by only looking in digital spaces. Comparing this to my previous work and studies, it still involves large groups of people as well as the markets they participate in. On a day-to-day basis, I’m still learning about how people behave and think.