Sharmadean Reid

Inspirational Woman: Sharmadean Reid MBE | Founder, WAH Nails & Beautystack

Sharmadean Reid

Sharmadean Reid is the founder of globally renowned brand WAH Nails and breakthrough beauty booking startup Beautystack.

Entrepreneurial from the start, Reid first launched WAH (We Ain’t Hoes) as a fanzine about girls in hip-hop while she was still at university. Reid later worked as a stylist and opened the WAH Nails salon in London as a place for the WAH community to gather.

Over the next decade, Reid expanded WAH Nails into a product line, with nail polishes and nail art tools stocked in Topshop and Boots. They created pop up nail bars for brands such as Marc Jacobs and Nike and celebrity fans including tennis champion Serena Williams and film star Margot Robbie.

Keen to empower other women through knowledge, Reid also is an advisor to charity Art Against Knives (to train women from disadvantaged backgrounds to be professional nail artists) and published her own nail tutorial books (with some 70,000 copies sold). In 2016 the entrepreneur cofounded Future Girl Corp, an online platform with advice, events, and information for future female CEOs and published an online course.

Today, Reid is bringing beauty booking software into the social media age with Beautystack, an image-led network for beauty professionals. Founded in 2017, this has raised $6.1 million to date and closed its latest £4 million round from Index Ventures this spring.

A recipient of numerous awards, Reid was presented with an MBE in 2015.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role.

I come from Wolverhampton but moved to London in 2003 when I was 19 to do a degree in Fashion Communication at Central Saint Martins.

The best way to learn is through real projects, so I started making a  fanzine to learn how to use software like Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator.

WAH helped me communicate what I was feeling at the time: that hip-hop music was becoming a big deal and that the women within it were being marginalised. I didn't really know what feminism was at the time, I just knew that it felt weird and I wanted to change that.

After I graduated, I was travelling around for styling and decided to open a nail salon because getting your nails done was very much part of hip hop culture and I thought it would be an amazing physical space for all the girls who read the magazine.

It was through this I realised the services in the beauty industry were so old school. I felt compelled to solve those problems with Beautystack. Before we raised earlier this year, we had a very basic MVP. Our goal this year is to finish our development.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I never had a grand master plan. Although, before Beautystack, I did a lot of thinking.

Putting the plan together requires you to step away from your day-to-day stuff, and I don't think I would have had that clarity if I hadn’t spent 18 months back in Wolverhampton.

As a founder, it’s critical to work through what you're passionate about—to ask yourself what do you know, what you can win in, and where you can build a business model.

I knew I loved beauty services, being in that environment where you're with (usually) another woman, for at least an hour, that’s a rare 1:1 customer interaction. I knew I loved building technology—I’d already built a VR app for nails and a chatbot for our booking systems. So I decided to do services and technology and a business model that allows women to be economically empowered.

Going back home gave me the freedom to go deep. I did a lot of writing about my thesis for the future of work and the future of beauty services. That cemented my thoughts and meant the business has a theoretical unpinning to it, it wasn't just an idea that sounded cool.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Definitely the biggest challenge I’ve had has been finding and hiring the right team.

If I  don’t understand how to build a strong team, I can't build a business. It's really easy to be a CEO who doesn’t delegate, but the reality is you can’t build a long-lasting business alone.

Today I read a lot of books and ask people for their advice. I surround myself with people who've done it before and get their perspective. If I'm not good at something I try and find all the experts who are good at it and learn how they did it, and what will work for me.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The thing that's made me proudest has been working with Art Against Knives to help bring women from disadvantaged backgrounds together to run a nail bar. The charity has trained over 500 young women with my books and my nail products.

People shouldn't think of charity as a tag-on to their business activities, they should think about how their business could do good for everybody. It’s good business sense.

What Art Against Knives are doing means everybody wins: the girls get training, they’re working towards economic empowerment, from a community point of view they're not in crime and I have a future pipeline of supply for the Beautystack app.

Where does Future Girl Corp fit in?

If I'm learning, I always feel compelled to share it. With Future Girl Corp, I was inspired by the Harvard i-lab and wanted to build something like that for me and my friends.

The whole point is to essentially help women 10x their businesses: if you have a passion for flowers, rather than just have one flower shop on the corner, could you run a flower marketplace?

There’s a need for places like us that are non-BS. I won't ever get someone on a panel and say, ‘Tell me your inspirational story’. You can Google that.

I will say, ‘You’re a food business and you had a partnership with Waitrose, how did you do that?’ It’s about providing step-by-step actionable advice on how people actually achieve things.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

I’ve learned that I am incredibly resilient. If something’s hard, I’ll wake up the next day, and think today is a new day. If there are bumps in the road , it doesn't stop me, I'm just like, 'Oh well, I’ll figure this out.'

I don't know where it comes from, I don't even know if you can train it. Sometimes on the rare occasion I feel things are never going to get better, I almost feel it's a chemical imbalance, like it’s not natural to me

I’ve just got this strong instinct to survive. No matter what, I'm always going to figure out how to survive.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

People assume that to be in technology, you have to have a tech background when actually that’s the biggest problem. Technology is for everybody, we're all consuming it, so why shouldn't we all be building it?

More people who study humanities, who study philosophy, and art and design should be involved in tech because it has the same type of feedback loop and criticism process.

We need different voices, especially female voices.

So be curious. I went to every single workshop that was related to what I was interested in.
If you want to work in tech and you're interested in it, you should find faults in things that satisfy your interests.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are so many different barriers to success, not just for women.

If you're introverted, you're less likely to like climb to the top of the ladder than someone who's brash and wants to be powerful, but introverts are just as important to your business environment as anyone else.

We have to think about creating work environments that welcome people who don't fit the stereotype mould of an ambitious, young man.

At Beautystack we do lots of personality testing to make sure that no one personality type is dominant, otherwise you become an echo chamber. But unless you're going to start your own business, it’s up to leadership teams to make this change. All parties have to come together to acknowledge the old way hasn't been working and create a new future.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

I would like to see companies having better transparency on how you can progress in your career.

At Beautystack we do continuous feedback loops, not just an annual performance review or a six-month performance review. We talk a lot, but we also listen. When we do our Org Chart, we also write under someone’s role their future scope.

You have to make sure you’re building a good working environment for all types of people and what they need, whether that’s better parental leave, flexible working or anything else.

There is currently on 15% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

Make government subsidised childcare available full-time from age one.

Right now, you get a couple of days a week from age three. That means that until children go to school age five, the caregiving of the child is always an issue that sadly often falls  on the woman to take care of.

How can women possibly go and work in a startup environment, which is typically long hours with a frantic pace, knowing that? Instead, they’re forced to have this five-year gap where they get out of the loop.

I’m a parent who’s coparented 50-50 since my son was one. But even then I never really stopped having anxiety about childcare until our son started full-time school. That means for five years, my head wasn't able to fully focus because I was always thinking about childcare.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc? 

You should look at Future Girl Corp obviously. I would also recommend that anyone building a business in tech read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Even if you're not in tech, it will help you understand how to iterate, how to build things with speed and how to test.

I actually have a whole list of book recommendations on my website so you can see everything there!


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.


Professor Sue Black featuered

Inspirational Woman: Professor Sue Black OBE | Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist, UK Government Strategic Advisor

Professor Sue Black

Sue Black is a leading academic, campaigner, and advisor to the UK Government.

Black is a Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University with more than 40 publications behind her as well as a PhD in software engineering.

Her academic career has seen her hold leadership posts at London South Bank University, University of Westminster and University College London.

A champion for women in computing, Black founded BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in tech, and #techmums, a social enterprise which empowers mums and their families through technology. The activist is also widely known for her successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, the wartime campus where more than 5,000 women served as codebreakers.

A figurehead on numerous boards, Black is a Comic Relief Trustee and a mentor at Google Campus for Mums. She has previously been a L'Oréal UNESCO prize judge, an expert evaluator for the European Commission and a Nesta Crucible fellow.

Black was awarded an OBE for “services to technology” in 2016.

She today sits as a Women’s Equality Party candidate for London Mayor 2020.

Black is a self-confessed social media-holic. She is a mum of four and a grandmother of four.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I didn’t have a traditional start. I left home at 16 with five O-levels, married at 20 and had three children by the time I was 23.

I was a single parent living with my kids in a Brixton council estate when I decided to study maths at night school (I chose a fast track course because it only required six hours a week on campus).

After this, I went on to study computing at London South Bank University where I also managed to complete my PhD. This is where I founded BCSWomen. I’d been at a computer conference (where around 90% of the guests were guys) and was freaked out by a man who wouldn’t stop staring at me. I couldn’t help but compare the negative experience to the great time I had at a female-only science conference and decided to create a network just for tech women.

Alongside my academic career, I’ve always tried to get people excited about the opportunities around technology. That’s why I set up initiatives like #techmums (mums are the biggest positive influencing factors on young kids so it's a win-win).

Now I’m at Durham University working with The Institute of Coding on a new programme called TechUP. It's an online course with residential weekends that specifically aims to retrain BAME and underrepresented women into technology careers. Any woman from the midlands or north of England with a degree can apply and over six months, we train them to become business analysts, software developers, agile project managers and data scientists.

TechUP is a pilot right now, but we’re working with three universities and 15 industry partners. I'm hoping it will be really successful and will roll out on a wider scale next year.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really. I've always been ambitious, and I'm always looking ahead, but I’ve never done any real career planning.

My first job was at Essex County Council in the education department, but filing wasn’t very exciting. Then, when I moved to London, I worked with refugees from Vietnam (and learned some Vietnamese) but I didn’t think this would lead to a career. After that, I enrolled as a student nurse working at University College Hospital, but I found it difficult because I was so shy. Eventually, because I liked maths, I got an accountancy job at RCA Records.

One of the subjects I studied at college was programming in BASIC  I’ve always found technology really fascinating.

When it came to choosing a degree I did what I enjoyed and what I thought would help me get a good job, to enable me to support my family.

Obviously, if you know a specific job role that you want, you should go for it. But if you don't, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just work out what you enjoy the most.

Stevyn-Colgan-Sue-Black-pose-with-Saving-Bletchley-Park

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Saving Bletchley Park was a huge achievement because it wasn’t just about my career, it was about preserving history for everyone.

I first went to visit the site in Bletchley for a BCS meeting. That’s when I learned that more than half of the 10,000 people working there during the war were women—I’d assumed it was a team of 50 men and was shocked I’d never even heard of the contribution these 5,000 women had made. I got funding for an oral history project to help capture their memories and we interviewed some 15 female veterans.

When I heard the site might close in 2008, I rallied all the heads and professors of computing in the UK to sign a petition to 10 Downing Street. We had an open letter printed in the Times and I went on the BBC News to raise awareness.

Being an early adopter of tech massively helped the campaign. If we didn't have Twitter, I don't think we would have saved it. I realized that just by typing the words Bletchley Park on Twitter, I could find everyone in the world who was already talking about it and I could have a conversation with them.

When Bletchley Park secured £4.6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011, the director told me that Bletchley Park was saved. I just sat there, I couldn't believe it. After three years of day-to-day campaigning, it definitely took a few days to start thinking properly again!

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When I was a Department Head at the University of Westminster, there was a redundancy round and my team was being cut by 50 per cent — I could either apply for my job or take redundancy. I had to ask myself ‘Do I really want to be a head of department with half the staff but the same amount of students? Is that going to be a great situation?’

My decision to step out of full-time academia was incredibly difficult. But what I didn’t expect was that the break would give me time to write my book, to set up #techmums and start doing all the other things I really wanted to do.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my work with nonprofits is funding.

I think if I'd known exactly how #techmums was going to pan out, I would have set up some sort of for profit digital skills training business. I would have gone for financial stability first and used that to help the people after.

Sue Black teaching how to code at WeAreTechWomen conference

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Going through difficult times when I was younger has definitely shaped who I am.

After my mum died, I was emotionally bullied and physically neglected by my father and stepmother. We were always hungry. The 40p a week I earned from my paper round had to cover everything I needed, including new clothes, but I usually bought cake and sweets for my siblings because we were hungry.

I basically forced myself to set out on my own as a teenager. It built a kind of resilience, a courage in myself that I could go out and achieve what I wanted. As time has gone on, when I’ve made difficult decisions and life has turned out okay, I’ve gained the confidence to do other challenging things.

I also think that because I know what it's like to fear being homeless, what it's like to live in a refuge, what it's like to be on benefits—to know people are looking at you like you're a piece of shit—all that gives me the emotional drive to actually set projects up and get things done that can make change for the better.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Focus on the things you like doing the most, and try to do those more. I've worked hard to not do the things I don't like.

Even if you don't love coding or computers, remember that technology is just a massive suite of tools that you can use to do any specific thing you want.

Think about something that you're really passionate about already, that you really love, and then think about how technology is related or how it could enable you to do things differently.

If you couple this mindset with always looking for opportunities, networking, and finding new like-minded friends doors will open.

I have always looked for mentors in people I admired and have found amazing support in people like Dame Professor Wendy Hall, my first mentor. It has meant that when I get into situations I just ask ‘Can I talk to you about it and get your advice?’

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

When I worked for Essex County Council, I thought it was hilarious that all the men wore suits and shoes and all the women wore heels and dresses—I went to a jumble sale and bought a men's suit and a tie and wore that to work in a kind of protest about stereotyping.

But the truth is, there are still lots of barriers for women working today, and not just in tech.

It's also not just women we have to think about: we need to address the barriers for people from underrepresented minority backgrounds too.

For anyone facing discrimination, one of the hardest things is feeling isolated.

It is so important to have a group of people you trust to help you work out the best thing to do: people in the same organization who understand the culture who could advocate for you or advise you and people outside who will have a more objective perspective on what's actually happening.

If you've ever come up against discrimination, you may know it can be hard to work out if it is discrimination—that’s part of the way discrimination works.

Getting time and respect from my peers has definitely got a lot easier since I've got older.

Being over 40 seems to make people listen—in my 20s they didn't necessarily—although I know women in their 60s and 70s who say they now get disregarded as ‘old ladies’ too.

Perhaps I'm in my prime at the moment where I've got credibility. I think the only way to get through is to have a great network of people for support.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Change has to come from the top, and so much is about company culture.

It needs to be very clear that an organization is keen on promoting diversity and inclusion seriously.

Leaders need to be openly discussing diversity and making sure that there are initiatives which support diversity and inclusion within the organization.

It needs to be fine for people to talk about issues and not be penalized for speaking out.

I realise saying this, that implementing real change is both simple and complicated at the same time.

There is currently on 17 per cent of women working in tech if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would have a massive retraining program for women in tech so that any woman could retrain into a technology career, and so that women already in tech careers could progress even more rapidly. Knowledge is power.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It's all about data and how biased data has been used in decision making. Did you know the first car airbags killed women because they were only ever on tested on male crash test dummies? It’s a brilliant book.

Also, the Women's Equality Party manifesto. I'm standing for London Mayor next year and in the past, whether our candidates are successful or not, many of our policies have been adopted and implemented. We’re a whole group of thousands of women and men who really want to make life better for everyone by focusing on making life better for women.


Inspirational Woman: Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE | Founder, Stemettes

Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE was a child prodigy and one of the youngest students to achieve a Maths and Computer Science Masters from Oxford University (aged 20).

Today she’s better known as the CEO and cofounder of Stemettes, an organization which has helped 40,000 girls realize their STEM potential since its launch in 2013.

As ‘Head Stemette’ Imafidon pioneered the groundbreaking Outbox Incubator (the world's first business accelerator for teenage girls). She’s also behind the Stemillions app (used by 3,000 girls) and a new social media platform called the Stemettes Society (currently in beta).

Imafidon previously launched a web design consultancy for SMEs and worked at Deutsche Bank advising on technology.

The STEM advocate runs the Women Tech Charge podcast with the Evening Standard, advises the Government on closing the digital skills gap and is an avid campaigner for better representation of women and girls in technology in the media.

In 2017 she received an MBE for services to young women and STEM sectors.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in East London, where I was the eldest of five. I was a child prodigy and always really loved maths and technology.

After studying at Oxford, I went to work in The City and was invited to speak at the largest women in tech conference in the world, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

There were thousands of women there, and I reliased my experience of maths and technology hadn’t just been strange because I’d had it so early, it was strange because I’d been a girl. I set about trying to change that with Stemettes.

Our latest project, the Stemettes Society, is a closed social network for girls, young women and non-binary people under the age of 25 who are interested in STEM.

We want to help them become role models and changemakers who can support eachother.
That could be with advice on making decisions about their GCSE or A-levels, or just having girls at University saying, ‘Hey, ask me anything’.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

For me, it goes in cycles. I’m constantly changing where I think I'm going to end up. I think it has to be like that because technology is constantly changing.

At first I wanted to be a management consultant, then I wanted to work in a bank. Now I honestly don’t know (I've got aspirations around broadcasting).

I’m constantly trying to evaluate what I’m best placed to do and what fits my idea of success, which has always been to wake up in the morning and do what I want.

I’d advise having a ‘Plan A’, so you know what direction you're heading, but also to be open to new information so you can update it and build a new ‘Plan B’.

Anne-Marie ImafidonHave you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My biggest challenge remains the same: having to work with people.

Anything that involves human beings has always been a challenge for me—I’m used to maths algorithms that just work, even when they are difficult.

I'm constantly learning how to manage, how to hire, how to deal with partners. At Stemettes we’re now adding a charity side, so figuring out how to work with donors will be another massively different kind of relationship.

People are messy. You have to understand that you can’t see everything, what’s happening internally. You have to learn how to be okay with uncertainty. But you can always learn from talking to people.

I’ve learned to never assume who a person is or how they will be. You have to expect the unexpected without any kind of prejudgement.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I usually say Outbox, our tech incubator for teenage girls, but really it has to be all the programs we run at Stemettes because of the impact they have in changing perceptions.

We’re giving girls an opportunity to grow up with a different social norm and giving them a shared experience of what a majority female industry looks like.

That will stay with them forever. It's a shared bond.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

Ultimately, I'm a problem solver.

I can focus and see a problem as something clearly defined. That means that other people can support and help without too much work or convincing.

When I was a child prodigy I was solving maths problems rather than societal problems but it’s possible it’s the same thing, just more complex.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

Always find your tribe. You don’t have to do it alone.

In the press and media, it’s always Mark Zuckerberg or some other figurehead they bang on about. You don’t see that they have a team, advisors and mentors behind them.

Alexander Bell didn’t invent the telephone on his own.

Your people could be alongside you or ahead of you, and you should work hard to help those behind you because it's an investment. It pays back multiple times over.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, Founder of STEMettesHow important is it to see female tech role models in the media?

It’s incredibly important. If you see someone like Yewande Biala (a smart biochemist who went to university early) on Love Island, that helps to normalise women in STEM.

It's crazy that scientists still just exist just on The Big Bang Theory or The IT Crowd as some kind of sectioned-off programme, never just eating or cooking or kissing someone.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes there are barriers, but if something is worth doing, you will always face barriers.

There's a sense of purpose for any woman in the industry at the moment, whether you like it or not. Technology is going in a certain direction—and like colonies of ants or bees—we all have a part to play in pulling it back to where it needs to.

That means taking on counterproductive work policies, and the people hiding biases within your workplace who will get in your way.

We have to face those things and change them with our own power and influence through communication and collaboration. It's a hard fight, but it's the good fight. And if you hit a wall, you need to make a door.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Be willing to listen. There’s a distinct lack of listening right now.

If a company genuinely wants to change, there will be people facing bias in that organization who are crying out for change. Those people are leaving exit interviews, they are raising issues with affinity networks, they are speaking out loud.

Organisations have to make sure they are listening otherwise they can’t know what action to take.

There is currently on 15% of women working in tech if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

Compulsory shared parental leave.

If someone is part of the making of a baby and they have to stay away from work, there's a lot of intangible things they will learn. When they come back to the organization, they're a fresh set of eyes and are able to see the holes they couldn’t before.

If you don’t have an understanding of what it’s like to be at home, you end up making backwards policies that say certain things must happen in the office at certain times. So if you don’t understand about external responsibilities you can’t bring about long-lasting change.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc? 

The second season of my podcast Women Tech Charge is actually coming up in October, so you should tune in to that.

In terms of books, I’d recommend Inferior by Angela Saini  (it's all about how science has got women wrong). And there’s my kid's book called How to be a Math Whiz which is due out later in the year.

In September I’ll be at the Women in Tech Festival in London and at the me Convention (from Mercedes-Benz and SXSW) in Frankfurt, Germany. I’ll obviously also be at the We Are Tech City conference so I’ll see you there!

You can hear from Anne-Marie at our WeAreTechWomen conference on 22nd November - Book your place here


Jacqueline de Rojas featured

Inspirational Woman: Jacqueline de Rojas CBE | President, techUK

Jacqueline de Rojas
Image Credit: Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images

Jacqueline is the President of techUK and the President of the Digital Leaders board.

She sits as a Non-Executive Director on the board of UK technology business Rightmove plc; on the board of Costain plc, which is committed to solving the nation’s Infrastructure problems; and is also on the board of the online retailer AO World plc. An advisor to fast moving tech businesses and a business mentor at Merryck offering board and executive level coaching. She is the co-chair at the Institute of Coding, advises the board of Accelerate-Her and is especially delighted to lend her support to the Girlguiding Association for technology transformation. Passionate about diversity and inclusion which informs where she places her support.

In 2016 she entered the @Computerweekly Hall of Fame after being voted Computer Weekly's Most Influential Woman in IT 2015; she was listed on Debretts 2016 500 People of Influence – Digital & Social and named in Europe’s Inspiring Fifty most inspiring female role models for 2017. She was presented with the 2017 Catherine Variety award for Science and Technology and the 2018 Women in Tech Award for Advocate of the Year acknowledging her contribution to diversity. 2018 brought a nugget of acknowledgements including @womenoffuture Fifty #KindLeaders; 2018 @Inclusiveboards 100 BAME Leaders; 2018 Faces of Vibrant Digital Economy; 2018 @Computerweekly Most Influential People in UK IT.

Jacqueline was awarded CBE for Services to International Trade in Technology in the Queen's New Year Honours list 2018.

Happily married to Roger Andrews, they have three children and a new baby grandson.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My background is as a trouble shooter to blue chip enterprise software companies.  I have had a thirty-year career as an executive in the software industry but these days I have a portfolio career wearing many different hats. Current plc roles include non-executive director positions at Rightmove, Costain and ao.com.

I am also fortunate enough to be able to donate my time to industry bodies such as techUK as its president, Digital Leaders also as its president and to the Institute of Coding as co-chair alongside Professor Bernie Morley.

I believe in mentoring as a way to unlock potential and am a mentor at the Merryck Group, which focuses on mentoring the leadership teams of global organisations.

To my mind, there is no doubt that diversity can help to safeguard the future of our technology industry by creating a world that works for everyone, I also believe that diversity and inclusion creates more profitable outcomes and am passionate about the importance of boardroom equality and empowering young women to enter, remain and lead from the front in the digital sector.

On a personal note I was born in Folkestone in 1962 to a Chinese father and British mother. Their relationship was not one of equals and we moved away to Swindon where my mother raised my brother and I alone until she remarried some years later. We didn’t have much of anything, family life was not picture perfect by any means but if it taught me anything, it taught me resilience, to become self-sufficient and extremely resourceful. I personally found great solace in the structure and rewards of school life; To this day education and opportunity remain important to me as I have raised and guided our own children.

My husband is incredibly talented and creative. He came from the tech industry but retrained as a yoga teacher and encourages me to be consistent with my practice of yoga and meditation - that is where I get my balance and strength. We have three kids, a grandson, two dogs and a very happy balance of family life and love.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My career aspiration was originally to be a newscaster for the BBC. However, as I returned from a degree in European Business from Germany in 1986, I needed to earn money reasonably quickly, so when I was offered a job by my brother-in-law to join his company as a recruitment consultant in a very young but burgeoning technology sector, I grasped it with both hands and very much enjoyed it. I stayed there for a couple of years and was invited to join my largest client, a technology company called Synon (AS/400 application development). They had an international operation that needed a German-speaking leader, so having graduated with a degree in European Business and lived in Germany for some time, the combination of my language and business skills made me invaluable to manage their partner channel internationally! Did I choose technology? I rather feel it chose me…

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I do recall a tricky moment when being introduced to one of my clients as the new managing director by one of my team. He had his back to me, and as he turned around with great excitement and anticipation only to be entirely disappointed when he saw me. He couldn’t stop himself exclaiming: “Oh my God, you’re a woman!” to which I replied with a smile on my face: “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realise I needed a penis to make a decision! But let’s discuss that over lunch…” I have always found that humour has helped me to diffuse awkward scenarios and often use it to counter what could escalate into unnecessarily difficult outcomes.

I would say that the biggest challenge has been promoting the case for women to be viewed as equals in the workplace and being promoted based on performance. There is a toxic combination of unequal opportunity and unequal pay, which creates a downward spiral. Add to that the lack of affordable child care and inflexible working hours and the playing field is definitely stacked against women

Female representation on FTSE 100 boards has increased from 12.5% in 2011 to 23.5% in 2015 and is growing as a result of the data and recommendations emanating from the Hampton-Alexander Report. At the time of writing there are still companies in the FTSE 100 which do not yet have any women on their boards. So, whilst things are changing, you could argue that sexism is still holding back over 50% of the population from reaching the very top and that is not to mention all other minority groups that are severely under-represented in tech.

Given the slow increase in the diversity of the talent pool and the increasing use of algorithms that dictate whether you get that university place, that mortgage or even that job interview, we must strive to have minority voices in the design, testing and implementation teams when building our digital world. I believe we must ALWAYS take the opportunity to ask, “Where are the others?”

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There have been so many things to celebrate throughout my career. I have so many people in my life that I am grateful for and so much support to be thankful for. I rather think that being nominated for a Queen’s honour in 2018 was my major highlight.

I recall an official letter arriving on the doormat and as I sat with my husband going through the post (Yes, we still receive post!), he showed me a very serious-looking envelope, which I waved away and told him to open. I honestly wasn’t paying much attention as he opened the letter because I was busy focusing on the rest of the mail. And then as he paused and gasped, he said that I should read the letter….

At this point I went to my default position of ‘something terrible must have happened’. Roger had tears in his eyes, and I couldn’t bring myself to read it, so he did it for me. It was such a mind-blowing and unexpected moment as well as an enormous honour to be recognised for my work in the technology industry in promoting international trade. To be honest it only became real when we went to Buckingham Palace to receive my CBE in March 2018.

We had great fun getting ready for the occasion; new outfits, practising my curtsey and wondering who would bestow the honour that day. All the children were there – it was incredibly formal but also beautifully executed by the team at the palace and needless to say Prince William was charming, as you would expect a prince to be…

Jacqueline de Rojas

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

One of my life lessons came when crossing the chasm from manager to leader – I wish I had known earlier in my career that I didn’t need to be an alphazilla to make it. There are probably people out there who wished they hadn’t worked for me back then and I take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who found my leadership style aggressive! I guess I was trying to ‘fit in’ with the very male dominated culture that existed then and convinced myself that I had to behave like a man to make it.

Only when I realised that authentic leadership comes from knowing my values, sharing my vulnerabilities and creating space for others to be realise their potential could I transition into a leadership position where I felt the team could scale with infinite possibilities and where a culture existed of inclusion and tolerance.

That really set me free and I realise today that My job is simply to give them permission to be the best that they can be. And they rarely disappoint. Give people space to be amazing – they rarely disappoint.

It is something I often use when coaching others in leadership roles today. Values really matter and not all the great ideas come from the top!

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career?

My top tip would be to go through a period of self-reflection. Early in my career, I was so swamped with trying to keep up with everybody else. I won’t deny that I suffered from imposter syndrome and self-doubt, all compounded by being a mother to a small child, being half-Chinese and a woman in a management position in the very male-dominated software industry. I needed to find the shortest route to success, and I realised that it was not going to be found by doing it the same way as everybody else. So, I asked myself a simple question: ‘What am I good at?’ And when I stripped it down to the basics, I realised that my core skill is that I am good at solving problems and more than that I have the ability to ‘spot friction’ in the system. So, with that in mind, I branded myself as a trouble-shooter to large enterprise software companies.  Once I had done that I never looked back. In fact, once LinkedIn became ‘a thing’ (Because, of course, the internet and the mobile phone did not exist for businesses until late in my career), I never looked for a job again. They came looking for me….

Top tip then would be: Know what your core skill is and brand yourself that way.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Isn’t it bizarre that, as Chairman Mao once said, ‘women hold up half the sky’ in so many ways; economically, domestically and emotionally? We are often seen as a source of strength and backbone under pressure and yet barriers still exist when it comes to opportunities in tech and especially in leadership.

Jacqueline de Rojas

The question is ‘what can we do about it?’ and I am afraid to say that there is probably no silver bullet here; the cavalry is simply not coming. So, it falls to each and every one of us to play our part.

There are so many initiatives which champion not only the cause of women but all forms of diversity and inclusion for underrepresented minorities in tech.

The Tech Talent Charter run by Debbie Forster who advocates precisely how companies can make diversity a priority, ColorInTech which promotes BAME inclusion in tech via research and learning, Founders4Schools founded by Sherry Coutu CBE and which supplies schools across the country with business mentors and role models (Please sign up as a mentor!), the WISE Campaign headed by Helen Wollaston which runs the PeopleLikeMe programme supported by the diversity and skills council at techUK chaired by Sarah Atkinson.

We are so blessed to have incredible momentum created by individuals who just wake up every morning wanting to equal the playing field and I honour the work done by Vanessa Vallelly OBE here at WATC alongside others like the Stemmettes run by Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, Code First Girls run by Amali de Alwis MBE,  techmums by Sue Black OBE, the returners programme sponsored by Sheila Flavell COO at FDM, TechPixies by Joy Foster and to Jack Parsons who leads the way to improve the odds for young people every day. This is a small snapshot of the incredible work of what we refer to as the #Sisterhood and our amazing #Manbassadors in UK Tech.

I was privileged to meet the Dalai Lama once and he reminded me that ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito’.

With that in mind, the question to ask is ‘are you a bystander or are you a participant?’

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Join hundreds of other companies in the UK and sign the Tech Talent Charter! Supported by government and advocating simple steps for companies to make a difference to a diverse workforce. Find out more here

Jacqueline de Rojas, Tech Talent Charter launch

There is currently only 15 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would ask us all to consider one simple question every time we are in a position of influence or challenge: ‘WHERE ARE THE OTHERS?’ If we ask this question at every meeting and every opportunity where it is clear that diversity and inclusion is missing, I am sure we can create momentum for change

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Probably the single thing that separates the UK tech sector from any other tech community on the world is the fact that we have an extremely strong and nurturing network that is actively looking to inspire, recruit and retain diverse talent into the industry.

There is no doubt that we stand on the shoulders of each other and I am grateful for all of the effort and resources within this network to help and support others become successful in their journeys. We are all role models whether we choose to be or not and I believe we lead by example in our sector to create opportunity for all.

The great thing about tech is that there are no barriers to entry so check out your local network via WATC for example, as an individual join Digital Leaders for access to networking and online learning and sharing, join techUK if you are an SME or a large tech business to ensure that your voice is heard when forming government policy, check out TechNations amazing online learning resources for entrepreneurs and start ups and check out the Institute of Coding for courses that can increase your learning in new areas of technology.

As the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st century, Yuval Noah Harari says: ‘It is not the robots you should worry about, it is how you are going to reskill yourself every ten years or less…’

Lifelong learning is a personal responsibility it seems. I make a personal commitment to learn something new every year!

Also I love a good podcast!


Debbie Forster featured

Inspirational Woman: Debbie Forster MBE | CEO, Tech Talent Charter

 

Debbie Forster is a recognised figure in the areas of diversity, tech, innovation and education, first as the UK CEO of Apps for Good and now as CEO for the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective which aims to deliver greater gender diversity in the UK tech workforce.

Signatories of the charter make several pledges in relation to their approach to recruitment and retention. Debbie was awarded an MBE in January 2017 for “Services to Digital Technology and Tech Development” and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) named her Woman of the Year for 2016, describing her as “an exceptional and inspirational woman... an extraordinary role model.” She has also been named on Computer Weekly’s list of “25 Most Inspirational Women in UK IT” in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am originally from the US, but have lived in the UK since 1989 and have dual nationality—the UK is definitely home for me. Like many women, I “fell into tech”, but quite gradually; it had happened before I realised it. I began as an English teacher of all things, but in the 90’s if you used a computer in schools, you rapidly became an “expert” and I found myself involved more and more in technology. I was not a “natural “ techie; I didn’t love the tech per se, but I loved what it could do, the creativity it unlocked.

When I was a headteacher, I was one of the first to adopt a scheme called Computer Club for Girls. As a result of this, I was becoming more and more involved in working with business people and government around tech in education. I eventually left the school and worked for 2 years as Head of Education for e-skills UK (now Tech Partnership). While working there, I came across the founder of Apps for Good, fell in love with the idea and joined just as we began reaching out to schools. I became the Co CEO there and we grew from 40 students in 2 centres to reaching over 75,000 young people in 5 years, 50% of whom were girls.

Then last year I decided it was time to start a new chapter. I left Apps for Good as CEO (though I’m still on the Advisory Group) and soon became CEO of the Tech Talent Charter (TTC). The TTC is a not-for-profit organisation which brings together companies from across industry to move the dial on diversity in tech.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Good heavens no, not in any long-term way. At the start of my career, I just took whatever seemed the next step whenever the opportunity arose, working my way up the ladder. Then after being a head for 6 years (and therefore at the top of that ladder), I realised I didn’t want to just keep doing that role again and again.

To some people, my choices were crazy—leaving a set career path and a steady job made no sense. But I loved learning new skills, connecting with industry and policy makers. Then after 2 years I left that to join a start-up charity, some thought I was mad. But the great thing with age is learning what makes you tick, what makes sense to you. Each jump was scary but I loved it. I know now that at 3 years, I get an “itch” in a job, and if there isn’t a significant new challenge, by 5 years, it becomes a rash! I like doing things I am passionate about, taking on new challenges and I’m happiest in “start-up mode”, taking a great idea or concept and just making it work. So now that is how I “plan” my career—I understand what I need, what I’m best at and try to never be afraid to take that chance or make that leap when opportunities present themselves.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Absolutely, every step of the way! And like many women, I suffer dreadfully from imposter syndrome. But now I recognise that I actually thrive when facing a challenge and am at my best when I am a wee bit terrified! And one of my mantras is, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and always have 2 back up plans.”

On a typical workday, how does you start your day and how does it end?

My day generally starts early but slowly, and with lots of caffeine—I am a night person trapped in a morning person’s world! I usually get up, put the kettle on for a ridiculously large cup of tea and hit my emails. Then by the time my other half is up about a half hour later, I’m ready for some civilised conversation and then off for meetings or on my laptop to tackle the day’s work.

It typically ends with a long hot bath and if I’m being virtuous (and decadent) reading before bed. Though I have to admit I am terrible at going through my inbox before I turn the light off. It’s an awful habit and I’m trying (with mixed success) to break myself of it this year.

How would you encourage more women and girls into a career in STEM?

At the moment, that is actually part of my job! The reason I’m at the Tech Talent Charter is that it is such a huge problem now that no one person, company or initiative can solve it in isolation, it is going to take joined-up work. There is some great work out there at all parts of the broken pipeline, from inspiring young girls in school, to changing how we recruit, to offering more re-training routes, etc. But to date, they’ve not been joined up and there has been too much overlap and replication. Our mantra is that we are determined not to re-invent the wheel but to connect the dots. And we are making progress--more companies are joining every day, more initiatives working and collaborating with us (including We are the City). There is a huge amount to do, but I genuinely believe together we can make a difference in the UK

Why is it important for companies to join the Tech Talent Charter?

Because no one company can solve this themselves and even if you come up with a great strategy, it is like buying a great new fishing rod but still fishing in the same leaky barrel as everyone else. The TTC members are committed to sharing ideas, trying new things and working together. And we have the full range of companies, not just tech but broadcasting, transport, food and leisure, not for profits; we have start-ups, SMEs and big multinationals. So it is the place to be if you want to learn, collaborate and share, not just with your type of company but across sectors and sizes.

It is also a great way to show publicly that your company is committed to doing things differently, to take action rather than just talking about it.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?

Mentoring is fantastic, I’ve had great mentors and mentees. For women in particular, having someone to share and learn from, to offer perspective, encouragement and challenge is invaluable. And I love mentoring, because you always up learning more about yourself as well as others.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

Greater flexible working for all, not just women, for it to be the norm. I think flexible working is a great way to have not just a more diverse workforce but a healthier, more rounded one. I think this is equally important for men, because while it is often seen as a weakness for women, it can be seen as career suicide for men in some companies. In my experience, I’ve got so much more from my teams when we’ve offered flexi working. It isn’t easy, but it can be transformational.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Tough question! I should probably say my MBE, but it isn’t. On one level it would probably be my fearless 20 year old daughter, but I can’t really take credit for that. I’d like to say my greatest achievement hasn’t happened yet. There is much I am proud of, but I’m far from finished!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Getting TTC really growing and sustainable and showing genuine impact. There is so much to do, but I’m seeing more and more amazing people and companies getting involved so I am incredibly optimistic about it. I want to be able to look back on this in 2 years and really be able to see and to say this year was the year we genuinely started moving the dial on diversity in tech.

Oh, and work-life balance. I’m utterly rubbish at that. But this year, I really want to make a breakthrough on this.