ORIE M.Eng. alum asks "What can I learn next?"

ORIE M.Eng. alum and Procter and Gamble senior director Irene Poh

ORIE M.Eng. alum Irene Poh ’01 M.Eng. ’02 believes that one key to a successful and satisfying career is to avoid defining your job as simply what you do. “It’s so much better to always ask yourself ‘What can I learn next?’ and ‘How can I be of use?’ That way you’ll always be learning new things and your path may not be exactly linear, but you’ll be happier and probably very valuable to your employer.”

In the 26 years since Poh arrived at Cornell as a first-year student, she has lived out this belief.

Poh grew up in Marlboro, NJ and followed her older brother to Cornell. Her original plan was to go to medical school after earning her undergraduate degree, but that plan changed fairly quickly and she found herself gravitating to classes that focused on the analytical thought process. Poh graduated with a B.S. in policy analysis and management from the College of Human Ecology and took many electives in operations research and computer science.

With that strong background in coursework in ORIE, it just made sense to Poh that she stay one more year and earn an M.Eng., which is exactly what she did.

In keeping with her mantra of ‘what can I learn next?’ Poh had many internships during her five years at Cornell. She spent a summer as an actuarial intern with an insurance company; she interned at a banking firm; and she worked at a Procter and Gamble (P&G) facility near Scranton.

“That P&G experience was different,” Poh said. “All of the other internships I had were corporate office jobs. This one was in industry in a manufacturing facility and I got to work on logistics.” Procter and Gamble liked Poh’s work and once she had her M.Eng. they offered her a job at that same facility. At the time, Poh was engaged, and the P&G offer fit well with the job offer her chemical engineer husband-to-be had received from a company in the same region.

“I can say now that I didn’t really expect to love that first job,” Poh said. “But I liked it a lot right away. I got to see OR come to life in a manufacturing plant—and I still got to optimize on the side for fun.” Just as importantly, Poh learned other vital lessons in her first position with Procter and Gamble. “I had about 200 people reporting to me by the time I left that plant. I learned a lot about communication and motivation and other interpersonal skills that have taken me far as a leader.”

Those skills, and others, have indeed taken Poh far. She has shown herself willing and able to learn new skills as technology has evolved and she made herself invaluable to P&G, where she is currently Senior Director of Global Business Analytics and Data Science. Within just a few years of starting at that plant near Scranton, Poh got a call from a member of Procter and Gamble’s modelling group in Cincinnati. “He said ‘Okay—you’ve done the manufacturing thing. Now it’s time to really put your OR skills to use and help design supply chains.’” 

Poh and her husband were both offered positions with P&G in the Cincinnati region and together they decided to accept.

Poh’s first assignment in the new position was pure optimization. One of P&G’s brands is Folgers coffee, and it may sound pretty basic, but when a consumer has a cup of Folgers it needs to taste the same every time. Yet behind the scenes, the market for green coffee beans is global and prices rise and fall along with regional availability, climate conditions, shipping costs and a million other factors. Each jar of Folgers Crystals may have an entirely different blend of beans, but every brewed cup needs to taste exactly the same.

Poh took a deep dive into coffee and helped design the supply chain and create the formula card that dictated the process for creating a perfect cup of Folgers, no matter which beans were available.

Poh worked on many other projects for P&G that were traditional modelling problems and then decided she would like to learn more about marketing, finance and business strategies. “P&G is all about supply chains,” Poh said, “but it is also all about brands and I felt I needed to learn more about that aspect of the work.” So she earned an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and that opened doors to the next part of her career.

Her work at P&G shifted into more analysis and business intelligence and is now morphing again as the era of big data and data science dawns. “P&G has points of contact with huge numbers of consumers worldwide and this creates so much data for us,” Poh said. She has retooled her skillset and learned SQL and Python and is now working on scaling up P&G’s machine learning and AI platforms to help answer some of the business questions that will shape the future of the company.

Throughout her career, Poh has taken her own advice and been open to learning new things. This willingness to grow has kept work interesting while ensuring her continuing value to the company. In reflecting on her time at Cornell, she sees one of the real strengths of the University is the broad base of excellence across the campus--no matter what a student decides to focus on they can get an amazing education. Poh experienced this firsthand as she took classes in several fields and earned degrees from two different colleges. And she sees this same excellence these days when she comes back to campus to recruit for P&G.

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