Charly LesterCharly Lester is co-founder and CMO of Lumen.

Lumen is the first app-only dating platform for over 50s.

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

I’m co-founder and CMO at Lumen – the dating app for over 50s. We launched last September, and already have over 1.5 million users worldwide. Six years ago, I fell into working in the dating industry when my dating blog ’30 Dates’ went viral. I ended up working at The Guardian as their dating editor, then at Time Out as their Global Head of Dating. My first business – The Dating Awards – launched in 2014, an industry awards for the online dating industry. The Awards started in the UK, then spread to Europe and the US, making me one of the leading voices in the sector. After 4 years running it, I had tried and assessed most dating apps and websites out there, so when my co-founder suggested we launch a dating app for over 50s, I jumped at the chance to create a product which directly tackled the issues I knew consumers faced on other apps.

I run all of Lumen’s marketing, and a huge part of that is tackling the way society views over 50s. It’s a demographic people haven’t designed apps for before and they are extremely undervalued and misrepresented. I spend a lot of time trying to make our brand and our advertising as ‘pro-age’ as possible.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Haha, never! I did Law at university, a Masters in Broadcast Journalism and then I went into banking (after a few gap years travelling!).  What I love about my career is that it has shaped itself, and I have ended up designing a role for myself which suits me down to the ground. As I look back at what has got me to the position I’m currently in, there are so many skills I picked up from other jobs which are so useful to my role at Lumen. We’ve launched the app in five countries so far, and every time we launch, I have to do interviews on live TV. Who knew my TV journalism experience would come in so handy?

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

When I launched my first business I didn’t have any female friends who ran companies. I didn’t know anyone else who had taken on that risk, and I can genuinely remember really doubting my abilities.  There were lots of ups and downs involved with running a business for the first time, but I wouldn’t change any of it because I learned so much along the way and realised what I’m capable of. Probably the biggest challenge was other peoples’ preconceptions and fears. My own parents died when I was a teenager, but my friends’ parents have often worried about my decision to step away from a ‘traditional career path’ and take risks. There have been many times when they haven’t really understood what I was doing, and have told me as much. I had to learn to understand when to listen to other peoples’ concerns, and when to take them with a pinch of salt.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Appearing as a judge on the final of The Apprentice when one of the candidates designed a dating app was a pretty big career high. I also spoke at the Oxford Union in a debate about the existence of true love (my debate partner was the creator of Love Island!) – probably the most daunting evening of my life! And thanks to Lumen at least three couples have already married, hundreds live together, and hundreds of thousands of people have met – that’s a pretty amazing feeling to know you have quite literally changed someone’s life.

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

I always break things down into small steps. In my spare time I run ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons, and a huge part of that is breaking something huge and unmanageable into small steps. I know how to pace myself, and I never let the final goal daunt me. That’s the same attitude I apply to business. No matter how slowly I’m moving at times, I’m always moving forward.

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

Find mentors you admire and trust. When I first started working in the technology team at Time Out, Ellie Ford was Head of Innovation. She is one of the most inspiring women I know, and about 10 years older than me – Ellie is so intelligent and I learned so much from her. Knowing who to go to to ask vital questions – including what to do with my career when my role was made redundant – was a huge part of my career progression, and five years later I can still hear her words of 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 look at the teams at Magic Lab (Lumen’s parent group) there are still departments which are heavily male, despite us trying to hire as equally as possible. Women and equality are really high on the agenda, however tech companies still need to have women in the hiring pool in order to employ them. Part of the issue is educating women that certain roles are for them just as much as they are for men. The barriers start right at ground level – treating little boys and little girls exactly the same. Making them understand no hobby is gender-specific, and neither is a specific career. And then helping women to ask for progression and the salaries they deserve when the time comes for that.

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

I was at a talk recently by Caroline Criado Perez and she was saying that it’s not just a case of getting women to ask for the pay rises or promotion they deserve – if that’s not the way most women behave, why not adapt the way pay structures and promotions work to better accommodate female ways, instead of accepting the ‘male way’ as the norm.

There needs to be total transparency in all companies about peoples’ salaries – this is where our ‘Britishness’ has let us down – because the women still bear the brunt of our desire to be discreet and not talk openly about money.

I also think we need to be more flexible with work arrangements, not just to accommodate working parents returning to work – but also to get the best out of people. I for one know I get far more done working on my sofa at midnight, than I do sitting in an office at 8am.

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?

Teach coding to all children from age 11 – mandatory. My dad was a computer programmer and I am so gutted I didn’t learn to code from him when I was a kid. It is such an incredibly valuable skill and would certainly change a lot of women’s job options after school or university.

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

I’ve just finished reading ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez. That, and ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, is impossible to read without stirring up your inner feminist! I used to try to attend a lot of Women in Tech events, but now I also try to encourage as many women to attend events for everyone.  There is nothing more depressing than turning up at a tech conference, and seeing a panel of all white men on a stage.