Sarah Gilchriest

Inspirational Woman: Sarah Gilchriest | Global Chief Operating Officer, Circus Street

Sarah Gilchriest

I’m 47 years old and currently live in East Sussex with my husband and daughter. I come from a working class background, having been brought up in Luton by my Indian mum who worked as an Aviation Engineer at Luton Airport, and my English-Irish dad who worked as a train driver.

Looking back, I think the experience of growing up as a mixed race girl, first at a predominantly all-white primary school and later at a multicultural all-girls secondary school, taught me very early on the benefits of diversity and the importance of celebrating what makes us all so interesting and unique. I was lucky that my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me from an early age. Starting from my Saturday jobs at the local hairdressers, a ladies clothes shop and the local pub - I was quick to learn the value of a hard day’s work and am a firm believer that you can make your own luck.

For the past seven years I’ve helped to lead the international expansion of Circus Street, the only specialist provider of online training in digital skills, specifically designed for global enterprises. I originally joined as a marketing consultant in 2016, when there were only a roomful of us here, before moving up to COO three months later and then Global COO.

What I love about my role at Circus Street is that it allows me to focus on what I love - helping people to develop and thrive. We do this by creating an award-winning, people focused culture, based on our values of empathy, ambition, inclusion, and collaboration. We have a strength based approach to development, allowing our people to thrive in the workplace, while also being honest about our weaknesses. I believe if you allow people to own their development conversation you create a culture that allows people to be authentic and succeed.This is all amplified by our suite of constant clear communications, which celebrate our success as one team, by praising our people who make our business grow.

This people centred approach has delivered exponential growth for Circus Street. We now deliver digital upskilling in over 150 countries used by over 600,000 learners from enterprises around the world, including some of the world's biggest brands such as Nike, Adidas, Hershey’s, P&G, Coca Cola and more.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not particularly. For me, it was very much an organic, fluid process. I’m from a media sales background, so the initial plan was to try and keep my first full time job!  After many years and a lot of hard work I was lucky enough to land my first role as the publisher of Marketing Week.

Owning a P&L for the first time felt like a real privilege and allowed me to understand the differences that could be made to a business by making insight based decisions. I quickly realised that a common excuse for lack of progression is based around the approach of  “this is how things have always been done”, which is not a recipe for success. As a business leader I believe your role is to create a safe environment for people to use tools available to them now to complete the same and new tasks in a better way. After reinvigorating the MW brand, I was given the role of Publisher Director for the entire Marketing and Creative portfolio at Centaur Media Plc where I assumed overall responsibility and managed a team of 70.

During this time, I came to realise my passion for delivering great leadership and the difference it makes in terms of overall commercial results. For me, a great leader is a coach, not a dictator. It’s about applying a people-focused, personable approach that inspires and empowers people, and helps them to shine on their own while working as part of a team.

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

With over 25 years’ experience in managing high level corporate operations, there have most certainly been a lot of challenges along the way.

During my time in the publishing field I experienced first-hand the inevitable impact of digitalisation on the traditional print business model, and how an innovative and agile approach allows business to deliver a more connected and therefore valued service to its customer.

The pandemic was another time that we had to deal with this transformation, and from a business perspective it was a challenging time for many. At first some of our customers said that they needed to freeze all training budgets, which as a self funded business was a concern.

However due to the unprecedented increase in use of digital channels, our training at Circus Street became a business essential.

When talking to our customers, their employees urgently needed to be upskilled to maximise the benefits of the digital revolution. This is not only about how they used e-commerce, but understand the data this delivers, the updated ways of working this enables and the increased profits that can be achieved. As a leader you cannot ignore the benefits the digital revolution could give your business. Business modernisation is the most important topic for any C Suite of a global enterprise business. Upskilling their global workforce allows their teams to accelerate quicker than ever before, and not be left behind.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Undoubtedly, I consider my contribution to Circus Street’s rapid global acceleration my biggest achievement to date. Since joining in 2016 we have seen headcount multiply over five times and revenues grow from £3.5m in FY17 to £13.3m in FY22 at a CAGR of 30%. Over the same period, EBITDA has gone from a loss of £0.1m to a profit of £4.4m, improving the EBITDA margin from a loss of 3% to a profit of 33%.

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

Being humble and realising we are all human is certainly core to my value set. I am a people person. I love being amongst people, getting to know people, learning about different people’s views, cultures, ways of working. Being amongst people is where I thrive and I guess it’s this that has helped me to develop and maintain genuine, meaningful relationships both with the teams I’ve led, the clients I have worked with and the vendors we have partnered with. I think that all too often leaders can get lost in strategy, figures, forecasts and take their eye off the mark when it comes to their biggest asset – their people. Investing time in your team and creating a motivational, authentic and lifetime learning environment in my view is key to success.

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

Never be afraid to ask questions. Especially in the tech sector, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of nodding along with everyone else in the room out of fear that your question might sound stupid. From my experience, so long as you ask with integrity and listen to the answer, people don’t mind answering questions. It's important to remember, after all, that none of us have all the answers to everything. This is an imperative business skill for finding out more and enabling you to accomplish your role better.

I’d also say don’t feel marginalised if everyone around the table is different to you. Being a mixed-race female from a working class family, they’ve been many times I’ve found myself in meetings with people from completely different backgrounds with different personalities than my own. But I haven’t let it put me off. In fact, I think this has been key to my success. Even when working with incredibly talented tech people, I have always been sure to get to grips with the overall business case. If I haven’t understood it, I’ve kept asking questions until, as a business person, I’ve felt I can fully justify an investment to other people in the organisation. In this way, even if you’re dealing with the cleverest person in the room, don’t be afraid to question, negotiate, put yourself forward and use your skill set. It’s about never underplaying your part in overall delivery in what tech can do - even if you’re not the person putting in the system or writing the code.

It’s also important to have empathy. In fact, this is a key value at Circus Street. For us, it’s about respecting and listening to one another to work better as one team. If we have failed, we’ll always view it as a team issue to be tackled as a collective rather than a departmental issue. Also I think it's important to be real. I’m a wife, a mum, a daughter, a sister, and the owner of two demanding dogs! By genuinely being who I am and being quick to let everyone know I’m a person too, helps keep everything in perspective.

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

Yes, but it’s not just for women working in tech but women working in general. The fundamental issue is that women are generally more likely to take time out after having a baby, which could impede their career progression. At the same time, a lot of women will also oversee a lot of the responsibility for running the household, childcare arrangements and the like. Then we have the ‘always on’ culture today, along with the pressures of social media. It’s a lot and can be incredibly overwhelming, which it’s why it's so easy to see why so many women lack confidence and feel like they’re running on empty. We need to talk about this more, work together to help solve these issues and ensure we look after our physical and mental health as priority.

At Circus Street, half of our leadership team are female, and I believe a key part of this is because we offer such a supportive, inclusive workplace for all, including those who are parents and have families.

In my case, I have a daughter with a medical condition which means I may need to spend periods of time in hospital. What’s really comforting is I know my team will support me, and, if needed, help if I am unable to be present and I’d do the same for any of them. This approach is so important to me and fundamental to the success of our business.  I love my work, it’s my passion, but none of that matters if I don’t get to be part of my family.

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

I think we need to do more. Much more. More targeted recruitment, more focus at educational level, more coaching and mentoring, more gender-neutral training. We need to have a diversity and inclusion strategy that delivers now.

For this to truly happen it’s also important to curate an open, inclusive culture which recognises and celebrates all of us.

At Circus Street, we have an incredibly diverse workforce with over 26 different languages spoken across our team. We are exceptionally proud of our award winning culture that cherishes our mix of backgrounds. We celebrate lots of different religious festivals and host things like family days in the office. We have a huge focus on Wellness, as we believe that this allows our people to build up reserves that they can use when life’s stressful times hit. Food is a big commonality for us too, and we regularly eat together and share our favourite recipes from around the world.

We also operate a flexible hybrid working model. This allows real flexibility for all of our teams, but importantly we also come together as a group on Circus Days, which we host twice a month. This is really important for us in terms of curating a culture where everyone is talking to everyone. While there are many pros of remote working, it can be all too easy for certain, more introverted personality types to hide in the background and not reach their potential. For us, part of working at Circus Street is having relationships across different departments, sharing ideas and expertise, getting passion out of your work - much of which goes beyond a video call.

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?

A common belief is that the lack of available women to staff these sorts of positions starts in the classroom, with girls traditionally discouraged from entering what are perceived to be more ‘manly’ occupations and therefore less inclined to enrol in Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) subjects. While this is slowly changing, it has impacted the ratio of females entering tech so far. For me the answer starts at school, as we reframe how kids view STEM topics and allow these to be made more relevant, enlightening and engaging

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Even if you’re operating in tech, it’s important that you educate yourself about the business side of things too. From the Financial Times to the latest McKinsey reports, don’t be afraid to  educate and inform yourself with the latest business trends, drivers and issues. This will help you understand how your day to day departmental objectives and outcomes deliver value to your business.

I’d also suggest looking for a mentor and increasing your network. There’s lots of mentor schemes available now and, if in doubt, if you have somebody even in mind – just drop them an email or note on LinkedIn. What’s the worst that can happen - they say no?  I think what’s great in this industry, especially in the female community, is we understand just how challenging it can be and there’s a real aptitude to help others on the start of their journey. Reach out, get in contact.

Women on a desktop

Gender gap in STEM subjects remains high

Women on a desktop

Sarah Gilchriest from tech startup Circus Street on STEM Day and the crucial role businesses can play in getting more women into tech.

Despite receiving a lot of attention in recent years, the gender gap in STEM subjects remains high. Only around 35% of graduates are women - a figure that has remained largely unchanged for the past five years. When you break it down to subjects such as computer science and engineering and technology the statistics are even worse - 16% of graduates are women. STEM Day is the perfect time for us to reflect on why there is such underrepresentation and consider how we can do more to redress the balance. What is clear is that the current approach isn’t working.

The lack of women taking on STEM subjects is cited as the number one reason there is such a gender imbalance in the UK’s tech industry. Only one in four people who work in the startup scene are women, with the number of female tech CEOs and founders depressingly low. There is an element of chicken and egg. How can young women and other underrepresented groups see themselves pursuing careers in tech or engineering if these industries look overwhelmingly male and white? On the other hand, how can we address diversity issues if there aren’t enough qualified people?

The reality is that we all make incredibly important career choices, usually without realising it, at a very young age when we choose what subjects to study in school. In fact, the factors that influence our choices are often engrained at an even earlier age. I’ve recently had first-hand experience of this when I talked to my 13-year-old daughter about what career she might like to have. She has already made many sweeping judgments about what she does and doesn’t want to do. In all likelihood she will change her mind as she learns more, however, many young people stick to their guns or simply do not learn enough in time to challenge their own decisions. Consequently, a lot of people end up set on certain career paths in their teenage years. By the time we realise what we actually want to do it can seem too late or difficult to change course.

However, blaming the education system isn’t going to solve the problem nor is it the full story. There is actually a lot more businesses can do to improve diversity and consequently encourage women and other underrepresented groups to study STEM subjects with a view to working in the tech industry. A major way this can be achieved is through a nationwide upskilling scheme.

Upskilling offers people a second chance to develop their career in the direction they want without the cost and impracticality of going back into full time education.

People can be guilty of thinking of upskilling as simply learning a new trade. It’s not just that - it’s about giving people the skill sets, mindsets and behaviours that they need to develop a huge range of skills applicable to different circumstances. It’s a continuous and nuanced process. We aren’t necessarily talking about training legions of fully-fledged data scientists, for example, we’re saying that we need to give everybody basic data skills so they can apply this knowledge to their own professional circumstances. These individuals may go on to learn coding, marketing or IT skills that combine to make them a highly skilled worker in their field.

In essence, through upskilling, individuals can replicate the core skills businesses look for from STEM graduates. If we applied upskilling nationwide via businesses we would give everybody an opportunity to develop into the careers they want. It will inevitably mean more women and other underrepresented groups will be able to get into the tech industry. If young students see people that look and sound like them in the tech industry they will be more likely to consider it a real option and choose subjects to meet that ambition.

Sarah GilchriestAbout the author

Sarah Gilchriest is Global COO of Circus Street. For the past seven years she has helped to lead the international expansion of Circus Street. She originally joined as a marketing consultant in 2016 and in the time since has overseen Circus Street expand five times larger to support a range of global companies including Nike, Adidas, Hershey’s, P&G and Coca Cola.

If you would like to find out more about Sarah you follow her on twitter and LinkedIn.