Nichola BatesNichola joined Boeing following a decade-long career working with scaling startups.

Nichola brings extensive experience of international business development and fundraising for growth and she is passionate about the benefits of collaboration with startups. At Aerospace Xelerated, Nichola invests in and supports startups using AI and autonomous technologies to the benefit of the aerospace sector and related industries.

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

I was a lawyer and earned my degree part-time while working in the court service in Northern Ireland. One of my responsibilities became outreach and communications and that was really where my interest and journey started with tech. I was working on the side with different businesses, helping them make the transition into the virtual world, and realised I’d rather do that than be a full-time lawyer.

Then I became very involved in economic development work here in Northern Ireland. I was the first person to bring CoderDojo to the country and I was really engaged in getting the tech ecosystem in Northern Ireland started and passionate about how we could help Northern Irish entrepreneurs succeed globally. I love the fact that it doesn’t matter where you start, and that you can create a really successful startup from anywhere. You just have to be committed to doing it.

That evolved to me joining RepKnight as the number two there, which in turn led me to represent the security sector through a number of trade associations. I was part of the founding team of the Security and Resilience Growth partnership and was the government minister’s appointee representing SMEs. That ultimately created the Joint Security and Resilience Centre (JSaRC) in the Home Office. Which is how I came to join Boeing, as their secondee to JSaRC before moving full time into supporting the growth of Boeing’s UK National Security team.

Now, at Boeing, I specialise in using all my knowledge around tech ecosystems and building startups, to work alongside innovative companies using technology to advance aerospace. We recently launched applications for Aerospace Xelerated, a three-month programme that invests in world-class startups solving challenges for the sector, ranging from autonomous navigation to reduced workload. You can find out more information here.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No. It was a complete accident! While it wasn’t planned, it has been great in terms of having so many different experiences. Now I feel like I’m ready for my second career in this corporate world. It wasn’t necessarily natural to make that transition into corporate but you go with the opportunities that are presented to you as they come. It’s good to be challenged.

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

I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments. We’ve only very recently appointed our first female Chief Justice in Northern Ireland, for example.

I actually struggled with what I thought about working in male-dominated fields and how I should approach that. It’s the same with the security sector, as well as defence and aerospace. But, it wasn’t until I was having a conversation with someone from the UK tech community, someone who was arguing for positive discrimination, where I began to appreciate that it wasn’t enough to survive and navigate this environment. We need to stand up and say, ‘no, this is not okay.’ We have a responsibility to those coming after us.

That conversation really changed my thoughts and my whole approach. I was used to being the only woman in the room. And I had almost built a personality around that in the sense that I knew that I had to come in and be the centre of attention.

But I started to behave in a more authentic way.

Rather than standing and smiling when inappropriate things are being said, I began actually expressing my displeasure at the way conversations are being held or women were being treated. I’m being significantly more proactive about promoting the other women around me in the sector. Before we would almost stay apart because you had to be the only woman in the room. You had to stand alone. That idea of women standing together, particularly in the defence sector, wasn’t something that would have been acceptable

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think if I’m honest, the thing that I’m most amazed by is actually having an American corporate venture company committing to invest in and support the growth of early-stage companies across the world. Not just in the United States. Right now, I think we have a real opportunity to leverage all of the resources that the Boeing company has in a way that I don’t think anyone has ever been able to do before.

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

Tenacity? Grit, I suppose? And maybe just being creative. One of the things that I notice that is severely lacking on the corporate side, which you see more on the entrepreneurial side, is the ability to look at disparate activities that are going on and actually pull the common thread.

Timing too. I think that it’s almost been a bit of a perfect storm for me in the sense that I’ve come into the business at a time when we were very cash-rich. So that allowed more side projects, which gave me the first opening with the UK program. I don’t think that would’ve happened if Boeing hadn’t been as successful as it was at the time. And Leadership. Brian Schettler, who was our VP and now leads AEI Hx, was very keen to try and do more and grow things, his ambition level is very, very high. So that provided more opportunities.

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

Build a network. I think the most valuable thing that you can do is know where to go when you need specific help because I think that the challenges that you’re going to face are much more varied and much greater than you can imagine when you’re starting off. And if you have people that you can go to that have been through it, that understand it, it’s very helpful. Having a range of sounding boards to let off that steam, because otherwise, it’s just too overwhelming. And then you make really bad decisions, both personally and professionally.

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

I think there are. I mean, all the numbers are telling us that in a very stark way – in terms of the amounts of money that women are raising and the numbers of women that are able to raise, for example. But I also think that even more fundamental than that; is how do we get more women into a place where they are of a mind to actually start something scalable?

I also think women are still being told that you can only have half a career because you have to have children, you have to be a wife, and you have to do all that. You’ve got all these other things that are entirely on your plate. I think that idea is still very much alive.

I was always very conscious of how I was being perceived by others because I was trying to do something else. I felt judged by other mums in the playground when I collected the kids whilst also being on a conference call. If the judgement doesn’t come from external sources, the internal dialogue society has given us also means you judge yourself. I think that that’s a real challenge that comes from parents and family. So we face our own internal barriers, as well as external ones.

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

I think that what companies can do first off is to acknowledge the problem. Acknowledge that it is actually a thing that needs to be addressed because I think that for so long, it hasn’t been.

When you think about it, it’s only very recently that it’s now unacceptable to say, I don’t think that women belong here. That’s really recent. It’s not something that’s been around for a long time as an accepted school of thought.

The race incidents in the US last year kick-started a series of conversations where Boeing required all of our managers to have regular conversations with their teams around D&I issues.

Now going forward, we have an initiative called ‘Seek, Speak and Listen’. And it’s about trying to understand the issues that other people are facing because still, the majority of those in our organization are white males from a specific socioeconomic background.

Companies and people have to show acknowledgement and hold their hands up and say, we don’t know how to fix this, but we are ready to listen and act – it’s the first step to actually fixing it.

One of the other things that I’m really passionate about and one of the things that I’m really proud of from a UK perspective is that we require large companies in the UK to publish their gender pay gap statistics. And I think that is something really, really important because – as I say to startups – the only metric that matters is revenue. People can drive change with where they spend their money.

There are currently only 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?

The description for ‘tech’ or the ‘tech industry’ needs to change. We have to move past the idea that tech means engineer. Tech underlines so many sectors now and requires more than just technical people. The definition of what a woman in tech means needs to change so we make the sector more accessible to a greater pool of women.

I also think what is probably the most important thing for any woman in tech is to find her tribe. Your own personal tribe of women. Not just an organisation. The people that if you spend time with them, they inspire you to do more. Then be the inspiration other women and girls need to see. Think big.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Find the people that are at the grassroots of the ecosystems that you identify with, or that you’re interested in. Not just the big names in tech, but the people driving change and making an impact in your ecosystem.