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RIT Rallies: Finding a financial heartbeat during COVID-19


As businesses look to reopen and jumpstart the COVID-19 stalled economy, RIT alumnus Jim Swift finds himself a much sought-after adviser.

Swift ’88 (mechanical engineering) is president and chief executive officer of Cortera, a national business intelligence company with clients across the U.S. and Canada. He and his company are providing analytics on an estimated $1.5 trillion annual business-to-business transactions — data that businesses need to determine their future.

Although some people find data difficult to manage or intimidating, Swift sees its power to streamline processes, improve sales performance and in mitigating risks.

“Early on I got excited about finding an area where there was a huge challenge and a need to come up with some innovative way to help companies and people. You need information to make any kind of decision,” said Swift. Before founding Cortera in 2006, he created consumer and business risk management solutions at LexisNexis. At American Express, he analyzed consumer credit and marketing information. “There hasn’t been that kind of powerful information about businesses.”

Swift would make that a priority at Cortera.

Businesses succeed or fail based on their ability to leverage information. In many industries everything from logistics, supply chain optimization, credit decisions to sales and marketing all rely heavily on information.  When a business is having problems, it spends less—cutting employees and other resources along the supply chain.

“When we think of data, think of how much innovation goes into building faster computers to give us more data. We have this appetite for more information through faster processing to make better decisions,” said Swift. “Our data is helpful in understanding the health of individual businesses and broader markets and economies.”

Data can be as broad as understanding hiring rates of specific industries to supplier payments and revenues; it can be differentiated by regions, by industry or by varied combinations important to business decision-makers.

In May, Swift went on CNBC to share insights about COVID-19 recovery efforts. He and Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, published a white paper that detailed the strained business impact of CV-19. He continues to be a sought-after leader to help people understand the current state of the economy because he can make sense of numbers—and helps his clients do the same in an environment where sales from hospitality companies were down 64%, information technology services were up 200% and overall B2B spending decreased by 11% just in April 2020 in the U.S., according to the Moody’s report.

His vision for managing data, however, goes well beyond today’s pandemic crisis.

“The bigger picture where RIT and the world can come in is making it easier for people to be able to interrogate large amounts of data, because the average person doesn’t have the skills, tools or time today. They don’t know how to build a database or how to write database queries. Data, it seems, has been for the privileged technologists—and that’s the bigger cause we’re pursuing,” said Swift, a 2015 Distinguished Alumni and member of the RIT President’s Roundtable.

Young people today have better computer skills than previous generations, and Swift believes this is an asset for today’s knowledge economy. The convergence of user experience design, data processing technologies and game-influenced programming advancements can enable leaps in analytics-related innovations.

“The more we can turn database queries into videogame interfaces, the faster we are going to be able to get more out of data. That’s my goal. It’s to use data visualization and intuitive design to enable humans to interact with the database in crazy innovative ways so you don’t have to be a hardcore techie. That is why we did a project with MAGIC Spell Studios this past semester—to advance the cause,” said Swift, who collaborated with students in Miguel Cardonas’ class to help with one of Cortera’s new product launch initiatives.

“I wanted to fundamentally change the way people approach sales intelligence. We’ve been building sales products the same way forever. I said here’s the vision—let’s build a user experience that would make this work. So, we’ve combined Cortera’s machine learning capabilities with fantastic user-experience design ideas from the RIT team—it has turned out to be a great success.”

The new product, Zembles, is launching in mid-June.

“Bridging science and art to transform the way people interact with data can unlock amazing new capabilities. It’s cool to see RIT right at that intersection.”