Mathematics and customer service cooperate as a balancing act.
Julia Read-LaBelle, in her role as global supply and inventory analyst at Nike, uses her background in mathematics to make sure the products that customers want are available to them when they need them.
“Optimization means to have the right product in the right marketplace to satisfy our consumer,” Read-LaBelle said. “It’s a balance of not growing inventory too much — excess that would need to be liquidated — but ensuring the consumer is happy — can get the product in their size timely.”
During her 22 years at Nike, Read-LaBelle has woven together experiences working in areas from the database and warehouse lead to director of sustainable audit, seeing and analyzing the company’s business practices from different vantage points. Now, she decides how to best coordinate inventory supply with Nike’s worldwide supply chain partners, considering environmental sustainability and balancing consumer demand with cost reduction measures.
After earning a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1983, Read-LaBelle first worked for Texas Instruments with signal processing algorithms for seven years. She enjoyed being able to use both her math and computer science skills in programming and testing algorithms. She also returned to school during this time, as a part-time graduate student, taking two evening courses per semester. She completed her Master of Science in applied mathematics from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1988. Texas Instruments both helped pay for tuition, and her supervisor gave her the flexibility to schedule work travel around classes, or her supervisor would travel in her place.
Read-LaBelle recalls that she was inspired to continue her education by co-workers who had obtained their master’s and doctoral degrees. She even utilized the help of a co-worker’s spouse as a tutor for her real analysis course.
“That first job after college taught me to have confidence in your skills, such as presenting your research and being ready for questions, and to build relationships with your colleagues on a personal level. It makes work much more fun,” she said. “It’s also important to know when to move onto something new if you are not growing or learning.”
Read-LaBelle’s time at UNL also helped to prepare her for a future career using mathematics. Looking back, she cites Honors Calculus and Differential Equations as two of her favorite courses.
“Everyone told me differential equations was terribly hard, but I found it so logical and loved it,” she said, adding that during calculus she also met two of her closest friends.
A highlight of her undergraduate years was when she was given a teaching assistant position. While intimidating, the experience built her confidence.
“On my first day, some students asked me to work a problem not on the syllabus, testing me,” Read-LaBelle said. “I worked it out in front of them, and they never questioned me again.”
Before joining Nike, Read-LaBelle spent three years at Nationwide Insurance, where she analyzed the customer base to better predict loss. At the time, she said, there was unreliable information about what factors led to a higher risk customer, so Read-LaBelle used scientific data to look at the problem.
“My job as a data analyst was to use analytics to provide a fact-based risk analysis. Some of the complexity was pulling together data from varying systems. I had to learn new tools like SQL and SAS. But, the problem-solving skills from mathematics and the programming fundamentals that I received from UNL helped me learn new skills quickly and find a successful approach in how to combine different data to answer business questions,” Read-LaBelle said.
Process improvement, automation, and analytics are the guiding forces for Read-LaBelle and her team today at Nike.
In her recent work, supply chain challenges associated with COVID-19 have initiated new questions to answer. These challenges have sped up innovations and approaches to “ways of doing,” she said. As part of its commitment to the community, Nike engineers at the airbag manufacturing site in Oregon were able to produce face masks for local medical teams in just two months’ time, using raw materials and machinery that were available.
“Sustainability continues to gain momentum, from powering our distribution centers with clean energy, using less toxic chemicals in creating products, to finding ways to reuse waste materials and creating products with sustainability in mind,” Read-LaBelle added.
The travel that work requires also affords her exposure to try new activities, gain new experiences, and broaden her knowledge. The benefits of working at Nike extended to her family and friends over the past two decades, as well.
“Nike offered my family their own unique experiences: training with the USA women’s soccer coach, testing out equipment, inspirational events with talented athletes, swimming lessons, tennis lessons,” Read-LaBelle said. “One of my friends even ended up playing pool with Michael Jordan — right place, right time. I happened to be in the locker room after a run when the whole USA women’s soccer team came in from practicing on our fields. It’s a unique place to work!”
Originally from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, Read-LaBelle and her husband, Pete, an electrical engineer, live in Beaverton, Oregon, and have two children, Alex, who is a mechanical engineer, and Kelsey, a marketing director.
“I enjoy traveling. My favorite spot is the one I have not been to yet. I love experiencing the language, culture, art, and outdoor beauty across the world,” Read-LaBelle said. “We love the outdoors through camping, snow shoeing, hiking, biking, paddle boarding, or even a nice outdoor concert. Oregon is the perfect location since you have so much variety.”
Growing up in Minnesota, then Iowa, Illinois, Florida, and Nebraska, Read-LaBelle said there was not a time she can remember when she did not love math and problem solving. She credits the help of teachers who fostered her love of math and encouraged her to compete in math competitions — in which she excelled — to affirm her skills in math. Seeing the examples of her mother and father — who obtained their college degrees in teaching and agriculture, respectively, and went on to work in different sectors of business — and having their encouragement in STEM propelled Read-LaBelle on her path.
For students looking at careers with Nike, Read-LaBelle has a few inside tips: The summer internship program is an excellent way to showcase your skills and develop relationships, and make sure at an interview you have your favorite Nike footwear or apparel on — “and not a competitor’s! It is noticed, and a great way to start a conversation.”
– Stephanie Vendetti, UNL CSMCE