Inspirational Woman: Melissa McBride | CEO & Founder, Sophia

Melissa McBrideMelissa McBride is a mum of three and has 16+ years' experience as a teacher.

She’s held various senior roles in London, Canada and the Middle East and became one of the youngest headteachers in the country (at age 29!). After a ‘Sunday morning crisis moment’ over the Maths homework of her own daughter, she left her successful career and set up her own business.  She is the founder of an Edtech app Sophia has been recently featured on Channel 5.

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

CEO and Edtech startup Founder of the UK’s first on-demand App for Private Tuition, Sophia.app. Mom of three!  Doing my best to wear a cap and tiara at the same time.

Canadian Trained Teacher - came to the UK in 2005 to teach.  Joined Thomas’s Battersea in 2006 where I developed my teaching career as a teacher, Head of Department and Head of Year.  In 2012 I was appointed to my first Headship as Founding Head of SW London Independent School and went on to open as Founding Head of Primary a British International School in Dubai. In 2016 I supported the opening of King’s College, Doha before returning to the UK to work as Project Advisor to the CEO of a Global Schools Group and leading a 6m pound expansion project as Headteacher for one of the Group’s Independent Schools.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Full disclosure - I never wanted to go into education. At least not during the years leading up to and including my undergraduate degree at University. My mom constantly told me that I would be a great teacher and I told her constantly I'd never go into Education. But I’ve always been an ambitious, ‘what’s next’ person.  Even in my high school days, I worked as a coach and leading was what I was good at. Leadership and team development have become my special skills and I attribute much of my success in my career to building excellent teams.  I can’t say I’ve ever planned out my career, and I certainly would never have seen myself as a Co-Founder and CEO of an EdTech company, but I’m a big believer in ongoing learning and seeking new challenges in order to grow.

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

From wrong turns, U-turns and searching for new routes - all of these experiences have shaped my career.  I try not to look at challenges as a failure, more as opportunities for learning.   I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and if you have a creative positive mindset and surround yourself with a great team, any challenges can be overcome.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’ve been fortunate enough to feel like I have had many achievements.  Being appointed as one of the youngest Independent founding Headteachers in the UK when I was 29 and taking that school to ‘Outstanding' in our first inspection was one of the highlights in Education.  CoFounding an EdTech startup has been another exciting journey.  To lead from the front and bring best practice in safer recruitment in Education to an unregulated private tuition market is fast-paced, challenging and exciting. Seeing the first client book our services and receiving the excellent feedback on tuition sessions  has been a huge highlight after more than 18 months of hard work to make it happen.

’Safety of children’, a topic which seems to be everywhere, yet nobody had thought about the lack of regulations in the private tuition sector. This is something which Sophia, your brainchild, aims to change. How did the light bulb moment come? 

The idea for Sophia actually came one Sunday morning when I was sat at the breakfast table trying to help my daughter with her Year 5 Maths homework. You would think that my background in education would have put me in good stead but the reality is you don’t fully understand the stress and pressure that is put on our children until you experience it first hand with them. Needless to say that particular incident ended in a tantrum and tears (mine and hers) as I was not able to ‘teach her in the way she understood’.

So as with many people, the best ideas to start your own business come from your own personal struggles. What did concern me when I began to investigate private tutors was the lack of regulation. I realised that this sector lacked the Safer Recruitment Process used in schools. Therefore a private tutor working 1:1 with children in their own homes does not need to be suitably qualified or verified with professional references!

So my main aim with Sophia was to deliver the regulations that we expect in our education services replicated in the private tuition sector: Enhanced DBS Checks and Insurance (Public Liability and Professional Indemnity).

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

My ability to develop great teams.  Leading from the front, making people feel valued and developing their skill sets.  I always attribute my success to the hard work and involvement of the people who have worked alongside me to make our vision a reality.  Strong leaders are those who can mobile their team and build trust.

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

My top advice would be to be open to learning, ask questions, admit when you don’t understand and never be afraid to ask for help.  Be willing to be a lifelong learner and don’t be afraid to get into the weeds to develop your understanding of unknown tech areas.   You don’t need to be an expert, but it helps to have an understanding of the concepts or flow of your design strategy.  Do your research and take your time when making tech appointments; if you get it wrong, own up to it, but take a decisive call and then find the person you need in order to be successful.

Also, being agile is extremely important. What’s exciting about technology is how fast-paced it is and you need to be constantly adjusting to the current climate and market demands. Say for example now, with everything happening around Covid-19, many children, students and parents are looking for ways to minimise disruption in their education and reduce stress from future assessments. Sophia has now launched 1-1 online tuition for clients in London and the wider UK. This wasn’t our initial plan at all, but we’ve identified the need and had to adapt quickly.

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 is always room for talented people; male or female.  Tech requires you to wear many hats, draw loosely and plan widely.  Women are often experts at multitasking and managing multiple relationships required in tech.  I think we are well-suited to this industry and now that the door has been opened, it’s up to us to go through it and change the dialogue of gender equality in tech.

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

So many groups are setting on diversity and gender groups - it’s not about just women in tech, it’s about all minority groups being represented. Starting at the school level, companies can begin to change the narrative amongst children and students regarding opportunities for girls and boys in tech. Breaking gender stereotypes is an opportunity to provide role models and guidance on career opportunities in tech fields.

There is 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?

Provide more opportunities for girls to be introduced to tech from a young age.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Networking events are great, but it’s hard to beat great books which outline the experience of fellow women in the industry.  Join a blog, follow LinkedIn pages of tech women in tech.