Meet Elona Mortimer-Zhika, CEO of IRIS Software

Elona Mortimer-Zhika

In this piece, we hear from Elona Mortimer-Zhika, CEO of IRIS Software, one of the UK’s largest software companies.

In 2016, she was IRIS’ newest CFO; by 2018, she had become COO and was then promoted to CEO in 2019. Elona started her journey to CEO from humble beginnings. Read her inspiring journey below.

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

I was born in Albania. Inspired by my father who was a mathematician and economist, I developed a passion for maths. Some of my earliest memories are of us doing maths puzzles together. From a young age, I was certain I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an accountant to combine my love of maths and business.

At the age of 16, I was delighted to win an International Baccalaureate Scholarship to UWC Atlantic College in Wales. I was the only Albanian student chosen alongside 200 students from 130 countries and experienced first-hand the true power of diversity. Following this, I won a scholarship to Reading University and graduated with a First-Class Honours Degree in Accounting and Economics.

I became a chartered accountant and progressed my career with Big 4 and then Acision from various finance roles to SVP Chief of Staff to CEO of Mavenir. I joined IRIS Software Group (IRIS) as CFO in 2016, promoted to COO in 2018 and appointed CEO in 2019. IRIS is one of the UK’s largest privately held software companies, which provides software solutions and services to over 120,000 organisations from FTSE100 companies to micro-businesses.

I was named Top 50 Women in Accounting 2021, UK Tech Businesswoman of the Year 2020, Global Banking and Finance Businesswoman of the Year UK 2020 and Venus National Finance Professional of the Year 2018. I am also Chair of Audit Committee and Non-Executive Director at Purplebricks.

I am a mentor on the ICAEW F-Ten programme, supporting women in leadership. I am also a patron of Boardwave, a powerful community of leaders in the European software sector.

As a chartered accountant, I’m passionate about the critical role accountants hold for every business; and as a female leader, I want to pave the way for others.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

From a young age, I knew I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps (he was my hero!) I had a love for numbers but was also passionate about business. Studying Accounting and Economics at university was the obvious choice.

But it wasn’t an easy journey. I spoke little English, and I knew nothing about economics because Albania was a communist country with a centralised economy. I didn’t understand the concept of free trade or demand and supply.

Despite this, I was delighted to graduate with a First-Class Honours Degree. Following this, I joined Andersen to do my chartered accountancy qualification.

I didn’t have any further future plans, but I gave everything I had to every opportunity that came my way and performed my absolute best. As a result, I received promotions and new challenges, which motivated me to work even harder and set new high standards for myself.

I never planned or dreamed that one day I would end up becoming the CEO of a business worth over £3bn, but as the saying goes, ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get.’

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

After many years at Deloitte, I decided to join one of my clients as the Group Financial Controller in 2009. Leaving the ‘safety net’ of the Big 4 was a big decision. I did my due diligence on the business, spoke to my mentors and made sure I negotiated a great contract. Little did I know that none of that would matter soon.

By the start of 2010 the market crashed. The business went from being worth $1bn to almost going into liquidation overnight as we couldn’t meet our bank repayments. Most people around me lost their jobs and I panicked. I had left my successful career at Deloitte, with guaranteed job security and progression, and was now working for a business that was struggling to survive.

I remember speaking to my mentors at the time and their advice was clear: challenging businesses are made for good people. There is always more opportunity to learn in a crisis than in a steady state.

I decided to stay, and it was the best decision I ever made. I learnt so much. Due to inevitable redundancies, I rose to become one of the most senior people in the business. I built and led the transformation plan; delivered on a cost reduction of over £100m; changed the commercial model from capex to SaaS and successfully returned value to shareholders – achieving £100m cash back in 2014 through refinancing. In 2015, the business sold for over £500m.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Leading a large business through Covid-19 as a brand-new CEO (I was in post for only six months when then pandemic hit) was no mean feat. But everyone had to do that. However, transforming the business was much harder. Since Covid-19:

IRIS has moved from being a desktop provider to a cloud platform business. We have spent over £60 million developing cloud platforms, with now over 50% of our software revenue being in the cloud. When building technology, one must ensure that not only it works and customers love it, but you are able to drive the adoption in a seamless way.

From established UK market leader to the Americas #1 challenger. We have gone global and doubled down in North America, serving over 6,000 Certified Public Accountants (CPA), including 54 the of the top 100, which delivers $70m of Revenues – making IRIS the number 1 challenger brand for CPA software providers.

Business for good. With an Environmental, Social and Governance rating of 9.5/10, we are ranked #2 overall in our investor Hg’s portfolio. IRIS is now a Great Place to Work (#12), Great Place to Work in Tech (#9), Great Place to Work for Women (#25) and a Great Place to Work for Wellbeing (#23).

I’m proud we have more than doubled in value over the last three years, but more significantly have transformed our culture, brand, and reputation to become one that both employees want to work for, and clients want to work with.

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

I’m fortunate to have some incredible people in my life who have helped me achieve success. When I was younger, my dad inspired me to follow my passions. I was a numbers geek, and he was an economist, so he really fostered my curiosity to learn more about the world around me.

I’ve also been fortunate to have some supportive bosses and mentors, and my leadership team constantly amaze me with their dedication to go beyond to ensure our customers and colleagues have the tools they need to focus on the work they love.

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

My favourite phrase is part of a Roald Dahl quote, ‘Lukewarm is no good.’ Find the thing you are passionate about and really go for it. Give it 100% or nothing. Life is too short to waste time on things you don’t care about – I have returned to this repeatedly throughout my career.

It is essential to be your authentic self rather than the person people expect you to be. Unfortunately, you will never be able to please everybody, but remember your job is to make decisions for the greater good and protect your business.

It’s also important you choose to work for a business whose values align with yours and has diversity at its heart, because that is a sign of a successful sustainable businesses.

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

As a CEO of a business with almost 3000 people, I’m proud 44% of our workforce is female, over twice the IT sector average of 19% – and I’m determined to increase this to 50%.

One of the main obstacles facing women in technology is their personal bias towards the qualifications needed for a particular role. Most women don’t apply as they think they have to meet > 90% of the job criteria.

Some of the ways we’re tackling this bias at IRIS is by ensuring we use gender neutral language in our recruitment adverts; making sure the qualification criteria are not stringent; training all managers in unconscious bias and stipulating to recruitment partners that 50% of candidates need to be female. We also make sure there is at least one female leader on interviews.

But it’s not enough to just bring women through the interview process, you must ensure you retain them. We have created a supportive environment at for current and future female leaders through our Women in Leadership programme – developing the extraordinary talent we have and guaranteeing more females to enter our top ranks.

We host motivational guest speakers on International Women’s Day and International Engineering Women’s Day. We sponsor the STEM Women UK careers event and the Women in Tech Festival. We also have a Returnship programme for women who’ve had extended career breaks and need support in returning to work. We also partner with charities that provide young women experience working in technology, a space that is stereotypically dominated by men.

We have belonging groups, where women talk about workplace issues including mental health, the menopause and the gender pay gap.

And it’s not just about women, it’s about true diversity. We collaborate with over 12,000 schools, holding talks and inspiring the younger generation on what it’s like to work in the industry. We have created safe spaces for a thriving LGBTQ+ community, as well as people of ethnic minority and faith groups to come together and celebrate their differences.

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

Madeleine Albright famously said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I have made it my mission to empower others like me and pave the way for many more women to enter the top ranks.

As a mum of two myself, I believe in a healthy work-life balance particularly for working parents. When a woman returns from maternity leave, IRIS automatically provides her the right to work part-time. I always have my diary non private and I’m very open with everyone when I have to move my diary around critical school events.

Flexibility is a must for everyone these days and as employers we should create a culture where all that matters is output not input.

We launched the IRIS Returnship programme for women who’ve had extended career breaks and would like support in returning to work. I meet so many amazing women who just don’t have the confidence to take on roles and this is exactly what this programme is designed to help with.

I also write a company-wide blog on a weekly basis, celebrating our achievements and shining a light on the people who are making it happen – including all the amazing women who go above and beyond.

There are currently only 21 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?

Above, I mention the initiatives we are doing at IRIS to get a 50% female cohourt.

But the biggest challenge is wider than hiring and retention. There is just not enough diversity in the pool of candidates that apply for technology roles. To ensure diversity is easier in the future, we need to change the mix of talent that is applying in the first place. That means carrying the message of diversity outside of IRIS and inspiring younger people.

My goal is to ensure the next generation, especially those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have opportunities and are ready for the world of work. As a 16-year-old from Albania, I was given a lifechanging opportunity and I want to pay it forward.

Here at IRIS, we encourage employees to engage with local schools and share experiences of working in the technology industry. We partner with the Bookmark charity to support children with their reading. We partner with REACH, encouraging girls into technology. We partner with the Prince’s Trust to help youngsters maximise their dreams.

Further, we provide scholarships for students from low-income background to study Computer Science and Software Engineering at Salford University. We also provide internships for students from the Metropolitan University of Tirana, Albania.

I urge you all not to limit who can contribute to your business. Diversity is not a tick in the box, it is necessary for every business, a responsibility of every leader and a privilege that we must ensure we drive.

We each have the power to break the unconscious bias that exists, to celebrate our differences, to allow true meritocracy to happen and make the world better for our sons and daughters. Like I have said many times and will continue to personally champion; diversity is a corporate strategy so don’t limit who can contribute.

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

I belong to a few networks for women in leadership. These are all managed by the Big 4 and numerous banks, and I encourage you to sign up with one of the providers you already use. The Global Women in Leadership programme, which is run by the ICAEW, is also very valuable. You don’t have to limit yourself to just technology networks. No matter if you work in manufacturing or technology, most businesses face the same challenges.

I’m subscribed to Megabuyte and attend their events and webinars. I also go to conferences organised by The Critical Eye. You can also join Boardwave, a powerful network of influential professionals in the European software industry. The UK Tech Awards are held every November and are aa great way to network with some of the best players in the industry.

I recommend connecting with like-minded people on LinkedIn since it is a fantastic resource for thought leadership and education.
When it comes to books, I like to read real stories about people who inspire me. One of my personal favourites is Michelle Obama.