Katy WigdahlKaty is a fantastic CEO and brings with her a wealth of experience in leading finance functions and improving the overall quality of data and decision-making.

Katy, who has worked previously at Unilever and Transversal, is a hugely valuable addition to the Speechmatics Leadership team as we embark on the next stage of our expansion.

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

I am currently the CEO of Speechmatics, providers of any-context speech recognition technology for mission-critical applications. We are a global business with an HQ in Cambridge where I am based. Our technology powers applications that need the most accurate speech recognition across many different industries e.g. subtitling in media or automatically transcribing calls in contact centres. When voice data is still so prevalent, it is critical that we are able to draw understanding and insight from this data.

There aren’t many women at the helm of fast growth technology companies – particularly not in ‘deep tech’ and artificial intelligence. My career has been somewhat unconventional in that although I am a qualified accountant, a chunk of my early career was spent at Unilever initially as a Commercial Manager for the household division and maximising brands such as Persil and Comfort. As a result of the merger of this division with personal care, my role expanded to driving product diversification and launches. I led the European rollout of Dove with the evolution from a bar of soap to a product portfolio across a number of categories and European expansion.

Technology has always interested me though and when I took the lead in implementing SAP business software in Europe for Unilever in several countries, I saw first-hand how technology could enable efficiencies across the customer journey and supply chain and enabled optimisation of resources and transparency of performance.

After a period as a management consultant, I then took the leap into the exciting fast growth tech sector at Transversal Corporation drawing on my holistic business management skills – often needed in small but quickly expanding teams where you need to wear many hats! I joined forces with the CEO and led transformation and change initiatives that led to business growth and ultimately a valuable exit.

Having been bitten by the scale-up tech bug I joined Speechmatics as CFO before moving to CEO and am excited by the huge growth opportunity we have over the next few years.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I was lucky to be selected to join the Unilever graduate scheme. I choose this path over other opportunities offered with other big multinationals, owing to its values. I had worked at CERN in Geneva for a year prior to Unilever but I wanted to work for a blue-chip company in which I could learn key skills. I qualified as an accountant as this was a key requirement to accelerate my career path. I realised very quickly that I excelled in working in an environment where I was given huge autonomy and opportunity to make a difference and deliver demonstrable growth within a category.

The graduate scheme gave me the most amazing training and had secondments with global management consultancies which I think gave me the toolkit to work across industries.  I never planned my career but realised I enjoyed different challenges which is why I have worked with PE companies, start-ups and growing tech companies. I always saw myself as going into an opportunity and growing high performance teams to deliver shareholder value.

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

A challenge is simply an opportunity to think differently. But I am very resilient and calm by nature and have taught myself to let things go that I can’t control. Working long hours in a male-centric industry when I was bringing up young children was tough. I worked through and kept pushing because I knew that it was important that I continued to grow intellectually and learn each day. I wanted to be a good role model and that kept me focused on the positives and looking forward to my goals.

I think any business leader is facing a real challenge now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Our teams aren’t physically together and there is a lot of uncertainty. We are really focusing on understanding every detail of our business, our customers and the value we bring. And of course, our people because without an energised, engaged team you simply won’t be able to move any business forward.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date? 

Running the competitive process which resulted in the acquisition of Transversal Corporation by Verint systems. The process spanned over 9 months and required iron-focus, resilience, acute attention to detail and nerves of steel. Securing an exit for a 19 year old company that delivered value to both shareholders and employees.

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

My unfailing energy, positive nature and calm approach has given me the resilience and determination to succeed. People and teamwork are at the heart of any success story and developing high performing cohesive teams with a common goal and clarity of purpose has been both consistent and pivotal across my career.

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

I think there are lots of different types of people with different skills in the technology industry and it is about understanding where you can add value. There are incredible engineers and developers writing complicated code and training machine learning to disrupt whole industries. On the flipside there are commercial people that work out the value proposition and sales routes for that technology. Don’t assume this sector isn’t for you because you didn’t grow up taking motherboards apart. Technology touches every industry from cosmetics to space, and the opportunities are growing at a rate we just don’t see in any other sector. As with any sector, you do well if you understand what your business, your market and your customer is. Develop a network and embrace offers for mentorship. The technology sector is a real ‘ecosystem’ – there are lots of people willing to offer advice and connections.

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

I don’t believe in playing the “women in tech” card. We create our own opportunities no matter our gender. The key driver is education and creating an atmosphere of excitement around technology so that children aspire to learn STEM subjects, thrive in the space and have an abundance of opportunities in front of them.

From my experience, the biggest challenge for women in tech is the imbalance in remuneration and recognition. I believe this will continue to be an ongoing challenge. But I am hopeful that over time it will slowly correct itself as women begin to push the boundaries of what can be achieved.

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

As a company you need to ensure you get reward and recognition correct from the offset to keep the team motivated. FOCUS on the target with a great team set with clear goals, which in the current remote working situation could be vastly different from previous years.

Even though we have had to change how we work, lockdown has shown us that people can work brilliantly with added flexibility to their days. That’s why it is so important that companies, whether employees stay remote or go back to the office, have an environment that offers flexibility – particularly for the primary parent.

There are 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? 

Opportunity and an understanding of the transferability of skills. We are in an era of regular up-skilling and so skills from one area to another are easily transferable to fill in both hard and soft skill gaps. It starts with education and knowledge as a base level for hiring, but companies must be inclusive. If companies show that they are willing and able to give a diverse group of skills a chance, more women might be open to taking the leap and moving into STEM roles. Having a diverse and inclusive workforce also has added benefits of creating a more rounded, open and accessible tech sector that is equipped to offer a myriad of solutions with everyone in mind.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Books are a wonderful source of inspiration. Some of my favourites would be, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Who: The A Method For Hiring by Geoff Smart, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, and The Five Temptations of a CEO also by Patrick Lencioni. Julie Hanna is inspirational to listen to. Her journey to becoming a technologist entrepreneur is incredible. I share her values of the importance of having humility, radical empathy and being actively curious in everything one does.

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