Gemma McCall

I’m CEO and co-founder of Culture Shift – a software development business that builds products to empower organisations to tackle harassment and bullying.

Our proprietary online reporting platform allows people to confidentially and safely report harassment of any form. We work with over 50 of the UK’s biggest universities and have a proven track record of activating change in organisations for the better and eliminating the stigma around reporting any form of harassment.

I set up Culture Shift with my co-founders Carl and Stuart in 2018, following a string of stories around bullying and harassment in high-profile business across the UK. Before that, my background was in the digital sector, having worked in digital agencies for most of my career but always on the marketing and brand side. So, setting up Culture Shift was a bit of a sidestep, and my first proper move into a software development business.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did – and it wasn’t initially going to be in tech! I desperately wanted to be an actress from a very young age. I ended up going to theatre school and absolutely hating it which was devastating. I dropped out and moved to Manchester and ended up getting my first ‘proper’ job selling advertising at the Manchester Evening News in around 2005. It was there where I fell in love with Manchester and discovered the impact digital could have on journalism and the world as we know it! My digital agency career began shortly after that.

So, while the career I’ve ended up in now wasn’t my first choice from childhood, Culture Shift is my biggest driver and I’ve definitely found my purpose. I truly believe that everything that’s happened up until this moment (including the devastation of not making it onto the stage!) has happened in order to get me to where I am now.

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

I faced discrimination at work during both my pregnancies which is my number one motivation. The discrimination that pregnant women face is prolific and goes under the radar a lot more than you would think. So, Culture Shift is my way of taking my experience and turning it into something useful and positive. I want every single person facing harassment of any form – in education or in the workplace – to feel empowered to speak out without facing stigma.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date? 

We raised £1.35m in VC funding at the beginning of this year which was probably my biggest career highlight. On paper, the odds are so stacked against a woman founder when it comes to seeking investment – particularly being based outside of London, too. That’s not to say that I felt in any way discriminated against when I went into funding meetings, I didn’t, and I knew that the people I was pitching to knew that I was a good founder. For me, it was more of a case of finding the right investors who really believed in us and what we were doing. We really found that with Praetura Ventures and GC Angels and we’re so pleased to have them on board.

Securing our first few university clients was also a major highlight. We collaborated with The University of Manchester to create the first ever system, with Bristol and UCL coming on board as clients not long afterwards. Seeing that the demand for our product was there from such prestigious universities was really affirming.

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

Definitely the drive I have for the cause and empowering people to speak up about any form of harassment. I really think that when you set up a business you need to believe in it with every fibre of your being to give it the best chance of success – and I definitely have that with Culture Shift.

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

To understand the wide range of roles and skills needed to make a tech business work; it’s not all about software development and coding which a lot of people automatically associate with a career in tech. To make a tech businesses work, you need so many different roles and skillsets.

It’s helpful to completely remove the word ‘tech’ and just look at what you enjoy, or are good at. For example, if you are interested in psychology and human interaction, you’d probably be really good at a career in UX, or if you enjoy history, you could make a great data analyst. Don’t assume that if you’re not a coder that there’s no room in the tech sector for you – that’s absolutely not the case.

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

There is still a level of unconscious bias happening in the sector, which means we gravitate to hiring more people that are like us. We have a lot of mums in the Culture Shift team, for example, because I’m a mum myself and want to support others – but I’m aware this is a form of unconscious bias!

Similarly, because tech teams are more commonly run by men, a lot of the time you end up with more men in the team. If businesses can understand how to identify this unconscious bias, they can start working on removing it.

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

It’s incumbent on tech companies to be hiring as diversely as possible, which doesn’t just come down to gender. It’s about so much more than that and encompasses age, ethnicity, neuro and cognitive diversity. The more diverse a team, the better the products it creates will be, so it should absolutely be at the top of every tech business’ agenda.

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