As Chief Operating Officer, Soumaya Hamzaoui oversees everything from operations technology, sales and marketing right through to product design and implementation.

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

I was born and raised in North Africa, a part of the world that’s entrepreneurial in spirit, as well as a phenomenal place to hone your skills and learn how to be self-sufficient. I was surrounded by family and friends who took that approach to life. This atmosphere was a great starting point for me and it’s where my mindset developed as I found satisfaction in the stimulation that comes with solving problems and creating solutions

I moved to France when I was 20 years old and joined an engineering school, my first international experience. There were people from around 40 nationalities at the school and this exposure to other cultures led to me wanting to understand and travel the world. From there, I went on to join an association of young women that sought to promote African economies and nations that were lacking in governmental or institutional support – something that has been my mission ever since.

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve also become more and more interested in the human impact of a company’s work, particularly how organisations can attract the talent that will help both the organisation and individual to grow and develop. When I go and launch local retail initiatives with RedCloud in Africa or Latin America, it’s always with a view to empowering the people,  especially the women. Empowering people is key to stimulating economic growth in many of these countries.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

Plan, no. Set objectives, yes. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, rather than pursue a big corporate career. I’ve always needed a lot of freedom in the way I think, act and manage, and that ethos doesn’t fit in a corporate culture where boxes need to be without asking too many questions. I always like to question how things can be done better.

When you’re studying in fields like engineering, it’s common to see the big tech players trying to pitch for you to come and work for them. You’re sold the idea of corporate life without really getting the chance to question if it’s the right fit. It can be tempting to take the easy route and jump straight onto the treadmill. Where I was lucky is that I really questioned myself, my needs and my motives, rather than automatically accepting someone else’s preconceived ideas of what career success looks like and getting trapped in an unfulfilling cycle.

With women, it’s perhaps even more important to ask questions as there are so many pre-existing judgements, expectations, and notions of what you should be doing on both a personal and professional level. Instead, you must examine your priorities and be prepared for the criticism that might come with it. Once you’re convinced what you’re doing is right, you can overcome any obstacles that might come your way. 

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

There are challenges on multiple levels and in my personal journey, there were three main areas.

Firstly, being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to forge their own path, so when you start a company, you’re constantly challenged about your methodology and spend a lot of time convincing external people that your way of doing things is right, which can be frustrating. This is particularly prevalent with a company like RedCloud where our model is so different to what the incumbents are doing. It’s natural to sometimes doubt your decisions – both on a personal and professional level – which is why it’s important to have faith, trust your instincts and stick to your convictions, especially when you’re going against the grain, to achieve success. Being an entrepreneur requires you to be strong and able to accept, learn and live with the consequences of your decisions. 

Secondly, management and leadership. I started my entrepreneurial life at RedCloud aged 28. Building an international business at this age, hiring and managing people from diverse backgrounds across different geographies is hard. I had to learn key management skills very quickly in order to lead people in the direction I knew I wanted to take – not easy when some of these people had more experience than me. I had to work on myself to grow RedCloud and lead the team we have today, which totals 300 people in eight countries.

Thirdly, overcoming the fear of failure. It takes years of learning, failing and feeling bad to get to a place where you feel in control. Acceptance of failure is key and can enrich your expertise and help you be better. It takes a lot of faith to get you to this space, but it’s all part of growing and finding peace of mind.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

When we talk about women in tech, one of the things I’m very proud of is how working at RedCloud has allowed me to help improve the scope of female representation in Africa. In Nigeria, 80% of our distributors are women and I’m delighted to work in an industry that has this culture in place. We’re developing the opportunities and technology for these entrepreneurs that will allow them to grow their businesses in a geographic location that’s underserved and underrepresented when it comes to access to Chambers of Commerce and similar economical institutions. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the markets we operate in and this is something we’re committed to improving.

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

I would have found it difficult to fulfil the RedCloud mission on my own. Having the right people around you – both within your inner circle and wider ecosystem – is so important and I was lucky to have this. Justin Floyd, our Co-Founder and CEO, and I have been working together for 10 years and he’s always been very supportive. Having the right professional partners is vital, as is a good personal network. I’ve always been supported by family and friends – people who can act as a sounding board while offering encouragement and reassurance massively helps. I couldn’t have grown RedCloud if I was alone and isolated. 

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

I’m not entirely sure that succeeding in technology is vastly different to doing well in any other industry. However, because women’s representation in technology is comparatively low, you may have to work harder to gain recognition, respect and credibility.

It’s important to invest time in learning and understanding your industry and its evolution inside out, whether that’s a new technology, a new business model or a new product. This means that if you’re challenged, you’ll have the right answer at the ready, which goes a long way if you’re the only woman in the room.

Alongside this, you should try and capitalise on every profile-building opportunity and knowledge-sharing platform that will make you more visible in your industry. Again though, it’s better to know your topics inside out before drawing attention to yourself on a public scale.

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

We’re living in a fantastic time where tech might be the easiest industry now for anyone to enter. We’re also lucky to experience the internet era, so if you want to learn about something it’s all online if you’re willing to invest your time and energy pursuing it.

The career progression of women in tech specifically is really interesting. We would love to see more women in developer, infrastructure and architect positions, but, like many organisations, we don’t always receive a lot of applications. In contrast, women in tech firms are making swift progress in other departments, such as marketing, business development, product design, development and strategy. So, the majority of successful women in tech are sitting in non-technical, strategic roles. In fact, at my engineering school, it was 20% women to 80% men but in the management school, it was a 50/50 split.

However, I can see that more recently there has been a massive shift towards attracting women to the tech industry and to technical roles. Twenty years ago, there were barely any women-led STEM initiatives. I think we’re on the cusp of observing a generational shift over the next 10 to 15 years as talent emerges and enters the jobs market. I’m confident that these women will make great strides and go on to be promoted to senior roles.

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

They can help the cause by creating even more acceleration programmes so that we can keep offering women growth opportunities. 

Women are well-represented in the tech industry when it comes to holding middle management positions. However, women are underrepresented at the board level and in executive and C-suite roles. I don’t think it’s right when you see the quality of the work of certain mid-manager level women who clearly would be capable of operating at the board level. 

I’ve generally been against quotas for women as I think they can be counter-productive. There’s the danger that people can be viewed as part of the quota, rather than getting the job on merit. However, what I often see is women progressing to mid-management based fairly on their performance and then they fail to climb any further. This is because the next step is more about relationship building, social selection and company politics. If the board is already male-dominated, the odds are stacked against women. Quotas could help to counteract this particular set of circumstances and could help women to reach a good level of representation at the board level over the next 10 years or so. 

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? 

It would be great to accelerate the pace and get more women represented at all industry levels by jumping one or two generations to land where we need to be. Once this is instilled at all levels, it will naturally make things easier for women in the industry. We’re heading in the right direction but a speedier process would be my ultimate wish.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I read a lot of books about technology, understanding how successful companies are developed and learning from other entrepreneurs’ experiences. They include books about Amazon, Facebook and the early days of Silicon Valley. I also like to read about the development of society and how tech is changing people and industries. I highly recommend keeping up-to-date on the latest technological advances and what will be the next industry disruptors. I listen to the TechCrunch podcast if the topic is of interest but other than that I’m pretty old school and would prefer to read the news, the FT being my newspaper of choice.

Finally, every three months I do a Harvard Business School fast course around specific areas that I want to learn more about. I believe that stepping into the unknown and pushing out of your comfort zone is important as it makes you focused, helps you to gain a competitive edge and allows you to perform at peak level. It’s not easy to get to the top and failing to learn won’t get you there. The tech industry moves quickly and changes every day so you need to know as much as you can about it. Even if a certain area or subject doesn’t directly apply to your role, it will help you to understand the overall culture of the industry.