Louise SheridanDr Louise Sheridan is COO of the Nest Startup Academy, which aims to level the playing field for underrepresented founders and address the lack of diversity in tech.

She was previously Head of International Tech Hub network at the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), where she led on establishing tech hubs across Africa, India, Brazil and Indonesia, and helping to build thriving digital ecosystems that supported inclusive innovation and growth. She has worked as International Adviser to the UK’s National Technology Adviser, and represented the UK on the Digital Nations committee. She has also worked on international policies on the rights of women and girls, and holds a PHD and MRes in gender, ethnicity and diaspora studies.

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

I grew up in a small town in South East Ireland, in a family of 6 children. Throughout school I wanted to be a journalist or novelist, but at university, I had some really amazing women lecturers that inspired me to follow their career path. I was fortunate

to pursue an MA and PhD through scholarships. My  primary research interests were how ethnicity, gender and socio-economic backgrounds affected the experiences of migrants and diasporans.  After a few years in academia, much as I loved it, I realised I wanted a career that could greater impact people’s lives. And so I entered the UK Civil Service.

In the Civil Service I was able to work on issues I felt hugely passionate about. In Government Equalities Office for instance, I drove international policies on the rights of women and girls. Over the years, my career took me to Government Digital Services (GDS) and Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), where I saw increasingly the potential of digital tech to improve people’s lives and drive inclusive development. My latest role in government was Head of DCMS’s International Tech Hub Network which sought to help build digital ecosystems across Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and India to drive inclusive and sustainable growth.

Whilst running Go Global Africa, a programme that supported founders in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa to scale, I met Gary Stewart, then CEO of Wayra. We continued to work together on various programmes and Gary later invited me to  meet his co-founder Rasha Said Khawaja and join their exciting new company The Nest. The Nest is an online, mobile-first platform that aims to level the playing field for underrepresented founders and drive diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurialism through mobile-first, snackable video content that includes the stories of what we call the ‘underrepresented majority’.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really. I’ve always been ambitious, and Iooked ahead, but I’ve never done any real career planning. What I did know was that I enjoyed work that could help to improve people’s lives. From a personal perspective, I need a role that I feel passionate about and where I can learn, and I tend to go with my gut instinct on new opportunities and challenges. Hence a move from the relative stability of the Civil Service to Startup life!

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

A challenge for me in the past couple of years has been trying to balance career progression with choosing roles that I loved. It has been a dilemma at times, being aware that to be promoted I may have to take roles that I wouldn’t be so passionate about.  I’ve overcome this challenge recently by moving from public to private sector. Startup life has brought a whole new set of challenges, but positive ones , as I learn how to build from scratch and create something amazing with a talented bunch of colleagues. Taking a leap into the unknown has meant I can continue to drive diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship, but from the front line!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest achievement to date has been the work to establish tech hubs in emerging ecomonies, to support underrepresented founders including women, to scale and grow, and drive inclusive growth and development. But I think my major achievement is yet to come in the Nest, as I continue to support underrepresented founders, but in a way that has huge potential to scale and make even greater difference. That’s incredibly exciting for me.

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

It sounds cliched but the support of people around me. I have great family and friends, who always encouraged me to take chances, and a partner who supported my decision to leave a secure job in government. And my CEO Gary Stewart, who is incredibly supportive and is passionate about driving diversity and inclusion.

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

  • Don’t be intimidated by a career in technology, or rule yourself out of exciting opportunities because you think it is all about coding or deep tech. I don’t have a technical background but I see the enabling potential tech has to accelerate and maximise opportunities to improve the lives of people.
  • Network, network, network! Go to meetups, talks, conferences in tech, and speak to people,
  • If you meet someone you admire, or feel you can learn from, don’t be afraid to ask for their mentorship, or guidance.
  • Be curious, don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit you don’t know something.

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

Yes and not just for women, and not just in the tech sector. In entrepreneurialism for example, barriers remain for what we in the Nest call the underrepresented majority; that incudes groups excluded on grounds of gender, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic background.  In Europe 92% of VC-backed teams are all-male. Women are 52% of the population but female-led startups receive only 2% of all VC funding. Black founders receive 0.5% of all VC funding.

One of the ways these barriers can be overcome is to ensure underrepresented founders have access to a community, and to support.  Our solution at The Nest is an online platform designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs, at all skill levels, to navigate the hoops and hurdles into commercial success.  All they will need is a smartphone.  The mobile-first technology we are developing will allow access to a range of threads to empower them: video masterclasses provided by our Pioneers, or inspirational business leaders, interaction within the online community, pitching to investor competitions and more.

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

Companies need to take an honest look at their culture and gender balance, and it must be channelled from the top. Senior leadership needs to role model a commitment to diversity and inclusion, including ensuring women in senior leadership. In many organisations, including in government, women, particularly BAME women, are underrepresented in senior roles, and this impacts the confidence and aspirations of those in less senior roles.

There is currently only 17% 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? 

This isn’t a new concept, but we need to ensure that girls and women are encouraged into tech roles from an early age, across the entire pipeline, and that diverse role models are championed and visible to encourage this. When I was in secondary school, our career guidance teachers firmly encouraged girls into teaching, journalism, the arts. It has improved in recent years but we are not there yet.