Sarah Willis

Inspirational Woman: Sarah Willis | Chief Financial Officer, Intelligent Growth Solutions

Meet Sarah Willis, Chief Financial Officer, Intelligent Growth Solutions

Sarah Willis

Sarah is a Chartered Accountant with 20 years in practice and industry, with experience spanning from large corporate PLCs to small owner managed businesses. She believes passionately that we must leave the planet in a better condition than we have found it in and is proud to be part of IGS that supports such an inspiring and compelling vision for sustainable crop production.

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

I’ve worked in a variety of roles throughout my career, mostly in FTSE 100 organisations, from a mergers and acquisitions executive to an asset manager in the North Sea oil and gas industry. I spent seven years in practice with KPMG and then Deloitte in audit and transactional services, before moving into the oil and gas sector.

In 2021, I was offered the chance to join IGS, an agritech business. I found the vertical farming product to be a truly disruptive one and the nascent industry really excited me – I knew it was a company where I could make my mark. I immediately clicked with the people here too, which is so important.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes, at certain stages of my professional life I have spent time reflecting on where I was and where I wanted to go.  The process involved to varying degrees assessing what kind of role I wanted to have and what kind of role model and person I wanted to be, more than creating a vision of my dream job or being driven by a pay cheque. From there I identified what kind of gaps in knowledge or skills I had, and assessing whether I was able to plug those gaps.

Another really crucial part of this reflection (aside from action!) was understanding who may be able to help me, either through sharing their own experiences, introducing me to certain people, or simply supporting me through mentoring or coaching.  I’ve found that a really clear stakeholder map is a useful tool for this.

And it’s important to note that this does not mean I’ve had a straightforward linear path in my career.  I’ve had many setbacks and derailings which at the time have felt hard, but it’s crucial to recognise that no career has a linear tract and that the curves help you build experience and resilience.

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

Being a woman in predominantly male-dominated industries certainly comes with its challenges. You need to be confident speaking up and not be afraid of making your voice heard.

From an early age, I’ve faced being the only woman in the room. During my school years, I was the first girl to attend a previously all-boys school and was one of only six females there for a short while. There’s no doubt that experience has built my confidence and made me feel comfortable being the only woman in a boardroom.

That being said, I’ve found the support of other women to be one of the most powerful ways of overcoming any concerns or challenges I’ve had in being in a minority.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

It has to be joining IGS – it’s a disruptive and exciting company. IGS has revolutionised the farming sector by developing technology that allows food to be produced in precisely controlled conditions to maximise yields. At a time when food production accounts for a third of global emissions, IGS’s technology allows producers to grow crops throughout the year by controlling airflow, lighting and temperature. Who doesn’t want to be part of a company shaking up their sector?

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

Forming allyships with other women working in the industry. Cultivating relationships with women who share the same experiences as me has helped me to identify key opportunities and allowed me to grow professionally.

While I was working in oil and gas during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was part of a mentor group. It was great to have a peer group of women to bounce ideas, thoughts and challenges off and to validate each other’s feelings – it was a circle of support during a professionally difficult time. My allyship with other women has certainly helped me to achieve the things I have in my career.

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

Build up your resilience. It’s important people get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. That’s how you build your confidence in challenging situations and ultimately excelling in your career.

Within the tech space, there are so many interesting people to gain different perspectives from. You should focus on building a support group around you that is constantly exposing you to something new and which pushes you forward.

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

Sadly, I do. These barriers begin at school age where boys are more likely to be encouraged to pursue subjects such as IT, economics and maths compared to girls. To overcome these barriers, we need to change the subconscious bias that girls/women experience on a day-to-day basis. This involves changing the way we speak to girls and removing gender stereotypes associated with activities and hobbies.

The more we do to encourage younger women to break down gender barriers, the more women will feel confident entering male-dominated industries, such as tech and finance.

Another key element to achieving success is to foster male allyships. My experience has shown me that when men speak up on behalf of women, they’re more likely to be taken seriously by other men. As a result, women who have experienced sexism or oppression feel more confident and empowered. Studies show that women who believe they have strong allies at work feel a greater sense of inclusion and more energy and enthusiasm on the job.

It’s also important women working in these industry support other females wishing to join them. I’m passionate about hiring women and mothers. Recruitment of women by women is an easy way to ensure more females enter male-dominated industries. It also doesn’t require any lengthy government policy change!

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

Companies need to work on allowing women to take career breaks and making sure they feel confident in doing so. Many women find it hard going back to work after having one and that shouldn’t be the case.

In Norway, for example, women are welcomed back to the same job after having a baby. They feel valued and this is something companies in the UK need to work on and strive towards. Many women, including myself, have come back to work after a career break, doubting themselves and the value they bring.

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?

Ensure there was better visibility and profiling of women in the technology sector. If more women and young girls can look up to female role models within tech, then they’re more likely to aspire to enter the industry. More representation allows for more people to visualise themselves in that position. We need to work towards this.”

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

The best sources of recommendations come from both my male and female networks so first off, I’d encourage anyone to keep asking friends, family and colleagues if they’ve seen, heard or read any thought leadership or interesting resources.

A personal favourite is Viv Groskop’s ‘How to own the room’ podcast: she interviews a range of fascinating women in various industries and roles.

I also use my professional development networks (ICAS and IoD) websites, which share pertinent short, snappy and validated thought pieces around a variety of topics from diversity to managing anxiety and stress, to governance and technical requirements. From a technology point of view, LinkedIn has some great feeds, and I’d recommend joining Scottish Women in Technology to hook up with some incredible people and events.