Petco Gains New Insights, Quick Results Through AI & Analytics Accelerator

This spring, the Wharton AI & Analytics Initiative hosted its 12th AI & Analytics Accelerator, an experiential learning opportunity which pairs teams of students from across the University of Pennsylvania with participating companies. The student teams spend eight weeks leveraging artificial intelligence and data analytics to solve a real business question presented by their company.

This semester, teams spent eight weeks working with FOX Entertainment, Hearst, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and Petco to provide a wide range of business solutions. Petco, specifically, sought innovative ways to supplement their existing email marketing strategy with machine learning in order to better meet the needs and interests of their customers. Peggy Pranschke, Vice President of Marketing Analytics & Data Science at Petco, served as the data lead for two teams of students and helped guide the focus of their work.

Pranschke says she had weekly, hour-long calls with her teams, during which they would update her on the project and also seek her feedback on business or technical questions to make sure they were headed on the right track.

“It’s one of my favorite calls of the week,” said Pranschke. “You’re able to get out of your normal company role and just have a dialogue about a particular project. Listening to the new ideas and the energy the students bring to the problems, that energy is really pervasive across the conversation.”

“It’s one of my favorite calls of the week…listening to the new ideas and the energy the students bring to the problems, that energy is really pervasive across the conversation.”

– Peggy Pranschke, Vice President of Marketing Analytics & Data Science, Petco

From the onset, the Petco teams – composed of MBA candidates, Wharton undergrads, and Penn Engineering students – presented a bold and ambitious approach to the project, one that would require professional-grade skillsets and coordination to pull off. If successful, they’d be able to provide Petco with a deliverable that they could implement right away to help streamline their email marketing process. “They had rolled out a plan that I thought was something that was going to be really hard to achieve in [one] semester,” said Pranschke.

Pranschke and representatives from the other AI & Analytics Accelerator partner companies got the chance to see their team’s final presentations in-person as they attended the Accelerator Summit, a final culmination of the semester’s hard work, on campus at Wharton. It turns out the Petco teams’ ambitions were well-placed. During the Summit, Petco teams presented novel solutions for their email marketing – including a live, on-the-fly demo – that could be implemented into a real content production pipeline at a moment’s notice.

“The students were able to not only achieve [their goal], but then go beyond that, which was even more impressive,” said Pranschke. “Petco is able to now quickly use the work and analytics here and incorporate it in tomorrow’s email creative development. It’s not something that we have to wait to integrate into a data pipeline.”

After private presentations with their teams, representatives and students from FOX Entertainment, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Hearst, and Petco gathered together to share with each other what they had spent the semester working on. Afterwards, Mary Purk, Executive Director of Corporate & Donor Engagement, Wharton AI & Analytics Initiative and AI at Wharton, hosted an industry panel with Pranschke and the other company representatives to talk about their career journeys in data science and share advice.

Pranschke with one of her two student teams

“Being able to hear their ideas on what they are thinking that they want to do with their career journey, and having an exchange of saying, ‘here are some things that I’ve tried and here are some things that were successful’ – it’s something that I think is important for us to impart across all of the people that are coming through the Wharton School or through the education system,” said Pranschke.

For those students, the AI & Analytics Accelerator is an opportunity to engage with messy, real-world data that hasn’t been manicured with the intention of teaching a lesson in the classroom; it’s a potential preview of the things to come after graduation. But their current skills, perspective, and enthusiasm are what keep companies like Petco involved with the Wharton AI & Analytics Initiative in such a meaningful way.

“Working with the students is really important because we’re able to get fresh ideas and also stay on top of some of the latest industry trends,” said Pranschke. “It provides us an ability to also have a group of individuals that will be part of our pipeline in the future.”