5 lessons from a decade growing CE brands
What it takes to manage a cross-channel business, stand out from the crowd and build buyer relationships, with firsthand stories from a Sales pro.View
Hear from Adrienne Alterman, who joins us from a successful Sales career at consumer electronics brands. She shares lessons learned on her path to becoming a National Sales Manager and the little things that made a big difference in achieving her goals.
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Yes, first I’d like to say “Hi, mom and dad!” I want to start off with where I grew up because it’s actually really the genesis of my career. I grew up in New Orleans, LA, where music was always around and part of my life, and also part of the daily chat because my dad owned an audio store in Louisiana throughout his career there. It’s still there – Alterman Audio. So that has always been the foundation of where my career started, and then I ended up working for other retailers like Listen Up in Denver, CO.
From there, I went to the manufacturing side, where I worked for a distributor named Sumiko. We had about 11 premium brands that we distributed throughout the United States, anything from a $200 cable to a turntable to the really expensive Audio Research brand, which is cream-of-the-crop as far as hifi electronics go. Spent a lot of time with Sonus Faber speakers and a variety of others, like SME Turntable. My foundation with premium audio started with that distributor.
Then I moved into Westone Laboratories, which is an in-ear headphone manufacturer. You ever see those guys on stage with those custom-looking pieces? Westone actually invented those in Colorado and manufactures those products there. And I went to work for Bowers & Wilkins, running their headphone sales in North America. And also YG Acoustics, so quite a few different brands under my belt in the last ten years.
But all following a common theme as you mentioned, a love for music, and being involved in the technology that really makes that possible, which is really neat.
All of them have their different brand stories, that technology behind them, and really focusing on getting an excellent sounding product for consumers’ ears. Also distributed amongst a variety of places. I’ve worked with Amazon channels, Best Buy, larger national retailers, but also the smaller independent guys like my dad.
It’s so nice that your background really starts with your family, and that’s something that was passed on to you from your father – a love for music, and then being able to spend so many years involved in that side of things.
I would say one of the biggest lessons that I learned pretty early on, but it took a couple years, was focus. Just that 80/20 rule that you hear people reference.
When I first started out in the distributor role, I was a Regional Sales Manager, and I was running all over. I had 10 United States that I was covering, one of them Texas, so I believe that counted for, like five. I was trying to cover everything equally. What I found is that a) I was exhausted flying all over the place, but b) my business was not growing.
Somewhere in the middle of that I started changing up strategies. I was having success with a few different companies. I started spending more time with those companies, and then I realized those companies that I was paying attention to were growing, the ones that were having success. So somewhere along the line I flipped the script – instead of trying to distribute my time evenly, I really focused on the companies that I knew could grow. All of a sudden, my business was taking off.
It was a really hard lesson to learn and many miles spent on the road figuring that out, but it really affected the growth of my business. I think that is something you can apply to almost any industry, any set of customers that you have. You don’t want to ignore the guys that aren’t working, but you can also at some point realize there’s a limit to what those clients can do and focus on what is going to take your business to the next level. That’s one of the first big things I learned.
The next thing I’d say I’ve learned is a learning, but not necessarily a lesson – it was more an expectation that I had to set for myself. One of the things that has happened with the consumer electronics industry is this total change every few years. It might be who your competitors are, the landscape of what the dynamics of the channel are; there’s just been massive changes in the marketplace. Anything from Amazon coming into play and making a massive price competitor for every other dotcom out there, but also competing directly with brick-and-mortar stores daily, to just ownership of consumer electronics companies.
I think I wasn’t expecting that – venture capital firms coming in and bringing in these numbers guys that aren’t passionate about audio. I wasn’t expecting that I’d have the most passion about what I was selling compared to my leadership. I think I saw that time and again. There’s a lot of conglomerates of distribution companies or brands that have gotten together, so if you look at the Harman Group, they own six or seven brands under them. Mcintosh, when I was with them, that company changed owners three times in my four years of tenure there. And that brought new management, new initiatives, how you go-to-market, what programs you’re going to provide for dealers, where we’re going to be distributed. There was just a lot to keep up with over the last ten years.
It’s interesting as you mention that with the first lesson around staying focused. Then if your owners are constantly changing, that can often make it very hard for a business to stay focused because there’s continually new “band-aids” that are coming about.
Exactly, when you have new leadership coming in telling you how to run your business or how to report up on your business differently, it took a lot to create a bubble around myself to stay positive and to basically keep all the rest of the noise out, and focus on really driving my business and making sure that my customers were being taken care of, whatever that meant. That meant a lot of different things for a lot of different brands, but it was a lot of juggling going on, and a wall that I had to put up order to stay focused.
Reporting is something that came into play as my career moved along. I got better at tracking pipeline or sales or where my inventory was. Really focusing and using numbers in a way that I wasn’t before in the beginning part of my career.
Understanding what those numbers meant, really trying to get them was one challenge on its own. Different companies that I worked for had good reporting systems or maybe they didn’t, but that didn’t mean it didn’t matter. You still had to figure out how to get those numbers.
The saying “state of sales is state of the warehouse,” it’s a real thing. If you don’t have something to sell, you can’t actually sell it. Say with Bowers & Wilkins, I was trying to have consumers buy headphones in Best Buy – managing where that inventory was, or understanding how much was selling-through so I could get the correct amount sold-in, or just how an ad would have an effect on the sell-through on a product and watching those numbers and really being able to use them.
Really when you’re focused, you’ve got to be able to integrate those. That was a progression along my career path, beginning with no numbers, then throughout those terms, trying to figure out how to really apply them.
I think the consumer electronics industry is really kind of an old school industry. I was always the youngest person in the room and embracing new technology was really difficult, I think, for most of my peers and managers. Simple things like using Facebook to interact and create a group. Like let’s say, I’m managing a Magnolia store in Texas in Dallas. I would create a Facebook group to have discussions about what happened with a sale or just even congratulating guys on being successful for selling a Sonus Faber speaker.
Those types of things I didn’t see anywhere else going on, and so when we talk about numbers and just understanding where product is throughout the industry, that’s even hard right now. So, in general, I think as a trend, even though consumer electronics, you think about it, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s always the newest best thing,” as an industry, we have a really hard time managing the technology that’s out there. I think a lot of our companies just don’t embrace it like they should.
I think also when you look at the marketplace, you can look at new brands and really see their trajectory, it’s completely different than a traditional consumer electronics company. So, Denon is a tried and true brand that’s been around for decades. When you compare it with somebody like Ring or eero, these brands have been around for less than five years, some of them a couple of years, and their trajectory is like this. Their brand names are recognized throughout the industry, even more so than Denon, which has been around for almost 40 years, or McIntosh, which is another 55 year old company or Westone.
These are all really age-old companies that have laid the foundation for consumer electronics and created fans and music lovers and really enabled people to enjoy their music. But at the end of the day, if they don’t stop and pay attention to what these new brands are doing, and how they’re connecting to the consumers, it’s not that they’re gonna be left behind. I hate it when people say that the industry is dying, because they’re not going anywhere. Don’t let anyone ever say that HiFi is not going to survive. It’s just that they’re not going to be able to take advantage of where we’re at today and in our society. And you can see that directly in these cases and these brands like eero or Ring or a number of other ones, Sonus being one of them, too.
It is amazing how fast you’re seeing – this is certainly not unique to consumer electronics, or even consumer products – but just the speed at which companies rise and fall across all industries. I think it’s a lesson to everyone around just being extremely responsive, probably being a little bit paranoid, knowing that your business can always change at a moment’s notice, and making sure that you’re always figuring out what’s going to be that next competitive advantage, because what may have worked in the past isn’t necessarily going to work in the future. We all need to be responsive to that.
So let’s talk a little bit about technology. You’ve already alluded a bit to becoming more data-driven over the course of your career, maybe using that to focus on where the biggest opportunities are.
I want to start big with this one because I think people forget how far and how much we’ve advanced in 10 years. I love when I started working because it was the year the iPhone came out. And so when I tell people that they’re like, “oh, remember when there was no iPhone?” And it completely changed the way a lot of us do business. I mean, the BlackBerry was getting there, but even the first year I was working, I remember some of the office people had BlackBerrys and some had iPhones.
That had a massive impact – being able to check your inventory levels, being able to read email on the go. When I’m thinking about how to really drive my business with technology, getting the numbers right before you walk into a meeting or staying up-to-date. These are all really major impacts.
Also taking it to that next level of, socially interacting with your customers in a way that you didn’t do before when you didn’t have an iPhone. And when you didn’t have social media.
I wrote this down earlier: the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram all came out within the last 10 years. And I’m pretty sure YouTube is pretty close, at least as far as getting to having a large audience behind it. So one of the first things that we did at Listen Up when YouTube came out was actually have a series of YouTube videos interviewing manufacturers, similar to what we’re doing right here, but actually having a manufacturer representing on the other end and teaching people about a brand and just sharing knowledge that normally would be held within a certain sales representative. That you have to go to a store, you have to talk to a sales representative, they are the expert. And that is that is how you buy.
These days, that’s not how you buy anymore. You go to a store to look at something, touch and feel something, but then you go back to the Internet to validate what you’re going to buy. I don’t think that consumer electronics brands have really understood that, and they’ve lamented about it, for the most part. So again, just understanding where the consumer is at these days and how that has changed how they buy, where they buy.
As a millennial, I don’t want to be told where I’m going to buy. I want to buy wherever I want to get my points, honestly. So if I’m planning a trip and I want points on you my United card, that’s the credit card I’m going to use. Nordstrom, I’m a big fan of because I get my points there, and I love shopping there. But a lot of companies don’t realize that Amazon has brought a revolution to how you buy and that’s because they’re meeting the consumer where they are.
So I kind of got sidetracked, I’ll get back to the technology part. So the iPhone, Facebook, those are all really large technology impacts that affected the way that I actually did business. Then later on in my career, as I started doing business with larger companies, like Best Buy or Tech on the Go, these are larger national retailers that cross many states, so interacting with what was going on with sales at that store level was really important, but I also found it really hard. It’s part of why I really loved what I saw when I first saw Alloy because there’s a user interface with Alloy that allowed me to understand and change the data or a graph or whatever I wanted. I felt more like I was interacting with Facebook than I was with an old computer program.
There have been limits to what I’ve seen interacting with technology and and things haven’t advanced in the CPG world as much as we would have liked to have seen in the last 40 years. But we have to remember where it all came from. Walmart only started sharing data in the 90s. So we do have a long way to go, but I think that we’ve also seen the world change dramatically. I always try to use whatever technology I can, to the extent I can, to affect the business. There’s a lot of different big brands that have come out you, YouTube and a lot of that social media stuff, but also some other ones that consumers might not even understand or know about, but business-to-business make a big difference.
It’s interesting, as you describe some of the tools, obviously a lot of them are social media focused, which isn’t necessarily what I would have expected. But it sounds as though those are ways of going directly to the customer, or maybe in some cases even interacting with the salesperson at the stores that you’re trying to train. So a lot of education that can go on for those.
As a National Sales Manager, part of your job is to get the staff at the stores excited about the product. And that’s going back to that 80/20 rule. Where am I going to spend my time on the road affecting the business? I’m going to look at the stores that maybe don’t have staff trained, or they have new people that have started. I need to get there to get them excited about it.
But if I can’t get there, because I can’t be in all 50 states all the time, how am I going to reach them without being there? And that’s where these social media technologies come into play, and managing your business from abroad or even affecting a buyer. I have literally Snapchatted a buyer before and been like “Hey, this is my planogram, this is the change that you asked for. What do you think?”
What would lead to you using Snapchat?
I texted him, I called him. He’s a 24 year old, but didn’t respond to my call, didn’t respond to my text. Finally, I had seen his Snapchat about him running a race that weekend, and I was like, “I’m just going to snap him a video of this.” That seems way easier than taking a video, downloading it on my phone, downloading it on my computer, sending an email, and then having him go through the reverse process to open it up. I just Snapchatted it to him, and within 20 seconds, he had responded to me and gave me a couple of corrections and we got the business done.
It’s just kind of funny, you don’t think about doing that kind of thing, but that’s how I embrace technology.
I love that. I think oftentimes, probably wouldn’t have been the thing I would have guessed either, but it’s the tool for the job. I think so much of the things that we’re seeing change on the software side is people are using the Snapchats, the Facebooks. Obviously the iPhone changed the whole game around the level of usability that consumers expect from technology.
Then you look at most technology that’s used in business, and it’s so far lagging behind that. People are like, “Why do I have to come to work and use terrible software? When I’m on my own personal devices, it’s great.” I think there’s a big gap there. But I love those examples of using things that weren’t necessarily designed for that, but probably served the purpose really well.
They’re effective. You know, you want to be where your consumer is. In my case, the consumer was usually a salesperson or a buyer for a company. So a salesperson on the floor, which you treat differently than your buyer, and you have to have different conversations with, but you still need to get in front of them and get time with them. So how are you going to do that? I’m going to do that however I can, through whatever tools I have.
I think it changed when I started selling into more national retailers, into larger channels. I actually found that it reversed, so I was dealing with more people that looked like me – women or younger people that hadn’t been doing sales for 20 or 30 years in the same role. People that were new, and therefore, I had to educate them on what was going on with my brand at the time because it’s kind of a hit or miss as far as a brand and understanding what’s behind it and the technology behind it, and why a consumer would buy them versus something else. These are all things that as I moved along in my career, I had different challenges because I was dealing with more people that were kind of more similar to myself, but on the other end, they didn’t know anything about the brands that I was trying to sell at that point.
I also dealt with, I had one buyer who actually lied about how old he was. He was embarrassed to tell people how young he was, even though he was in charge of millions of dollars in purchasing power for a brand. I thought that was funny. He told me that one day after we connected on Snapchat, actually with a second fire that I used it for. I was like, “Oh, okay, so you know what Snapchat is? How old are you?”
Yes, you must be probably not over 30 or something to that effect.
Once again, tying it back to what you said earlier around focus – it sounds as though there was a lot of education that was required. I remember when we first met you were talking about the places you’d worked, and I’d heard of Bowers & Wilkins, but there were a number that I hadn’t, some certainly not the perfect market for these things.
I relied on the tools, on the numbers, really. So I think as more VC companies started coming into the consumer electronics companies and buying them, they became more numbers-driven. Whereas traditionally, a lot of historical brands like Audio Research might have been owned by Mr. Wilson, who owned it for, like 40 years. But then eventually he said it was time to move on, and that was something you saw as a whole with a lot of these premium brands.
So then the numbers became important. Sometimes there was good reporting there, but sometimes, actually almost always, I was still working in Excel sheets. An Excel sheet was where I lived to manipulate the numbers to try to understand where I should spend more time.
That could look very different depending on the brand. Like with Bowers & Wilkins, trying to figure out what an out-of-stock percentage was, what my on time delivery date for Amazon would be, those were all numbers that became really important. At the end of the day, you got dinged with Amazon, and you had chargebacks with Best Buy. For Bowers & Wilkins, you’d be losing sales if you didn’t have the stock there correctly. These are all figures that at the end of the day came down to a number.
Then also I had to use those numbers to report up what was going on in the business. Where were we, how much growth were we going to have, what was our trajectory, what was our forecast looking like. Those are all things that I had to use to drive the business.
This is a story we hear over and over again, but Excel being probably one of the primary tools that at the end of the day, you’re using. Very versatile, not necessarily always the easiest thing to use, error-prone, but you can do just about anything you want in it.
You can. I have a friend who was joking the other day he said he would like to create a VC company, an investment firm, that just invested in companies that replaced what Excel was being used for. Because people are using Excel for so many things that it was never intended to be used for these days.
But also, I’m a salesperson. I don’t live on the left side of my brain. I live on the right creative side, and the communication and the feelings and the connection part of my brain. So numbers was always really hard for me. That was something I had to really focus on to get it right. When you walk into a meeting with a buyer and you have your numbers wrong, it’s really embarrassing, and it’s really bad for your business, and your boss gets really mad at you.
Initially, also referring back to our earlier conversation about social media, I’ve used that a number of times. Going on from that, really building that trust with your buyer, and doing that by adding value in the conversations you’re having with them. What I mean by adding value is really coming up with the business questions that are going to make a difference in how you’re directing your business. There’s so many sales people that are just like “sell, sell, sell,” just as much as they can throw into a retailer. They’ll do it if the PO comes in.
Surprising them sometimes and saying, “Stop, wait, we didn’t do the sell through that we thought we were going to do last month. I think we need to lower our order this month.” Because at the end of the day, I actually like to look at my retailers as partners. It’s a partnership between the two of you. If they have too many products in their store at the end of the quarter, at the end of the holiday season, you’re going to have to do markdowns, and you’re going to end up paying them money. Really having your business hat on for yourself, but also for your retailer that you’re talking to.
Coming to them with the information presented in a way that matters to them. There’s so many people that even will create sales numbers and look at a year over year history for their own personal brands’ fiscal calendar. Coming to your retailer in the terms that matter to them, I think, is really important. Really digging in and building that relationship to understand what those terms are, whether it’s out-of-stock, ROI, what are the numbers that they get dinged on with their higher ups.
Then really being able to build business cases and numbers that they can trust. Coming to them with a proposal on doing a Black Friday sale? Yes, it’s great, if they say they’re going to buy 2,000 units extra for some Black Friday sale. But if they don’t sell through it, and if you didn’t do the advertising behind it, you don’t have a fully focused plan around what you’re going to do to support that – those are all, at the end of the day, going to not build that trust.
I think it’s really important to be really honest with where your business is with your buyer and make sure that you can build that trust, and use information to drive that business. If they see you coming to them, time and again, with information, with the data that’s correct and that’s telling a story, that means something. Whether it’s growing the business or whether the business is shrinking, it doesn’t matter – creating that plan with the data behind it, they’re going to trust you. That’s really important, I think, to get your buyer’s attention.
I would say, don’t trust what you see sometimes. I mean, sometimes you can see sales spike in a weird way, or you might throw a demo out there and you just trust that the demo is going to work properly. I launched the PX headphone for Bowers & Wilkins into 444 Best Buy locations, and we had this great plan. We came up with a demo that was solid, we worked with Best Buy and their team to make this demo on the floor, something you can literally walk up to, put on, and listen to.
At the end of the day, what we found out was that the execution was really poor and it didn’t work! So we had 444 of these units out there, and half of the stores, you couldn’t actually listen to the headphones in. That’s going to affect your sales significantly, if somebody can’t try it. Especially for a product that was retailing for $399.99. Talking about premium brands, we provide an amazing value because you’re getting amazing performance – it is a performance brand. We’re asking for you to spend more on it, and you’ve got to be ready to make that happen.
Controlling your brand, and really the devil’s in the details, and really making sure that you create this plan, but then following through and testing that with field staff or whatever it might be. I would say, be careful about just thinking that things are just swimming along.
That makes a lot of sense. Obviously, we deal in the physical world where things break and don’t work according to plan all the time. So it makes a lot of sense that even if you’ve outlined, you have the perfect plan, whatever that plan may be about – a new rollout, or this is how much we think we need to produce – being able to make sure that you’re following through operationally to make sure that it’s actually happening according to plan.
Taking that to the next level, sales on Amazon can be very volatile for any company. It’s just a hard platform to predict because if you own the Buy Box, all of a sudden your sales go through the roof. You might think you have enough inventory in that channel, and then all of a sudden, 24 hours later, your inventory is completely gone. You lost the Buy Box because of that, so you’ve lost the rest of the week of sales on that. And now you don’t have any sales for another two weeks because you can’t get product there fast enough. These are things that you trusted yourself, you just trusted that you had inventory there; it had been working well for the last couple months, but things can change so rapidly. Staying on top of your business, and in all those different ways, I think is really important.
I think the pain point in several of my positions was dealing with data. I mentioned earlier, I’m a right side brain, I’m not left side – I had to take an Excel course just to manipulate Excel and learn how to use pivot tables. In my mind, the world should more operate like your Facebook feed or your Pinterest page, rather than your Excel sheet that was created in 1985.
So when I saw what Alloy was doing – how you’re really eliminating a lot of that, doing a lot of the backend work and automating it and then providing this beautiful interface to be able to get down to the business questions in a very fast and easy way, and really enable a salesperson like myself to go out and drive the business and not be stressing about whether the number’s correct – that’s what got me so excited about Alloy. I know that I can help so many people “see the light,” as you say. What the technology is doing is really enabling people that were in my position, or myself if I was still in that position – other National Sales Managers or Directors or VPs – to drive their business in a whole different way. I think it’s really enabling and taking consumer electronics to that next place, and really, CPG companies as well.
I think people will get faster, more efficient, and be managing millions and millions of dollars more, because we’re going to enable people to do their jobs more efficiently. The information will be there to be able to quickly move. You’ll be using technology to train people. You’ll be using technology to get the information from your retailer. You’ll be using technology to then manipulate what’s happening on your own inventory levels. Basically, you’re the center of it all, and you’ll be using software to drive business in all areas. That’s what I think is going to happen in the next 10 years.
Cool, thank you. I think it’s going to be exciting. I certainly agree with you. I think one aspect of that that’s exciting for me is, I think it really empowers people to be able to have even more influence, to be able to focus on the things that are, to your point, more interesting for the roles that you have. Saying, “hey, I can focus on the creative side,” rather than having to worry about is my number right when I show up to my meeting. It’s hopefully an exciting future; there’s work to get there, but will be exciting to see how things come.
Adrienne, thank you. I appreciate you answering some of those questions. I believe we have a couple of questions that came in from the audience.
I think it’s a really good question. I’ve worked with companies that don’t even have… a lot of consumer electronics aren’t using Slack, which is an internal app that a company will use to have a group chat about, let’s say, a marketing initiative, but you also have direct communication. You can kind of think of it like Facebook Messenger a little bit, but for a company. That was something that I had a really hard time getting others to use in different consumer electronics companies that I’ve worked for.
You’ve got to find key adopters – key people that are within the organization that will then affect the other people. Usually a Sales Operations Manager or your sales support person, he or she is usually supporting an entire sales group, and if you can get them to adopt a technology, then you’ll get the rest of the group to do it. That would be my advice: assign an evangelist that you can team up with, convince them that you’re going to make the team more efficient, and then get them to adopt and teach them how to use it.
I think my early adoption of technology. I’ve always been an adopter of it, so I’ve been able to use that. I think I gave a bunch of examples of that today.
Also positivity. Just staying focused and having that mental barrier between all the noise that’s going on around you. Making sure that your goal and your personal number and hitting that is really important, and doing the follow-through steps to go along with it. Mental energy, I’d say.
The learning that I’ve had from brands that have really strong brand recognition is that they know what their brand story is. They’ve told it over and over and over again, and that brand story has never changed. And it’s really simple. The message behind what your brand does, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
What I tried to do is simplify what those messages were for different brands that didn’t have the recognition that they needed to, or that we would want them to. Obviously, you’re always trying to grow your brand recognition so you can grow your sales. The successes that I’ve seen with certain brands, say McIntosh is an example, when I was working with that group that owned them – one of the things they did, they had four bullet points, they had a causal and effect statement. They taught that to every salesperson at a Magnolia Best Buy throughout all 97 of them that represent McIntosh now.
It was a simple message. It wasn’t complicated. It was only four points. And it was genius. One of them was just color and meters, and that’s still something if you look at McIntosh, that’s something that they made a clock out of it, it was so popular. So simplicity is really important. Don’t overthink it and tell it over and over again and don’t change it. Those are all really key brand points and things that various companies I’ve seen have great success with it, and others I have seen not have great success with it.
About Adrienne Alterman
Adrienne has over 10 years’ experience in HiFi retail, wholesale and channel marketing, with a successful track record helping consumer electronics companies achieve targets and create new business. Before Alloy, Adrienne led North American national sales at YG Acoustics, where she coordinated everything from demand planning to marketing budgets, product setup, and overall process development to create business.
At Bowers & Wilkins, Adrienne managed business with 12 National Accounts across North America. She established the brand’s Best Buy Core business, expanded new business with partners like Guitar Center, T-Mobile, and Tech On The Go, and became a trusted advisor to Amazon buyers. For the launch of their newest headphones, she increased retail sell-through 75% from the previous model by effectively partnering with retailers on marketing launch plans, and moved over 9,000 units in the first two months.
Adrienne’s earlier experiences include creating Westone Laboratories’ 3PL business unit on Amazon to sell direct to consumers, and growing sales by 76% in three years at Sumiko Audio. She has dual degrees in Sociology and European History from the University of Denver, and hails from New Orleans, LA.
About Joel Beal
Joel is a co-founder and CEO of Alloy. Prior to Alloy, Joel was VP of Product at Addepar, a financial analytics company, and has also worked at Applied Predictive Technologies, which specializes in business analytics software for large, consumer-facing businesses. He holds an M.A. in economics from Stanford University, and a B.A. in economics and mathematics from Columbia University.
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