Career advice

Twin Twinterviews

The Twinterview is nothing new.  I did my first one for the @IoDNI back in 2013.  Having a limited number of characters in which to answer a sometimes quite complex question is good discipline.  Many of my readers will already know Susan Hayes Culleton – the Positive Economist.  Susan is a Dublin based entrepreneur, a published author, an accomplished speaker & legendary MC & like me a constant traveller, an investor in teenagers and young people, a fellow IIBN board member and a firm supporter of everything #GlobalIrish

Susan and me 1

Susan Hayes & Mary McKenna at the IoD NI conference in March 2018

Susan & I know many of the same people & over the years have made numerous introductions for each other across the globe BUT apart from occasionally speaking at the same events, we’ve never actually worked on anything together.  I was therefore delighted (and I must admit a tad nervous) when Susan contacted me about being the subject of her September Twinterview.  A lot of people enjoyed this live on Twitter but others have mentioned to us since that they missed it – so here’s the text below where we cover startups, collaboration, business failure, career paths, business mistakes, travel & much more.

SUSAN’s TWINTERVIEW WITH MARY:

SH Q1 – What separates startups from scaleups?

MM A1 #Startups in my eyes are still finding their way, seeking their niche, pivoting, testing the water; #scaleups know where they’re going & have the pedal to the floor. Need different animals at the helm as you move from chaos (fun) into order (boredom?)

SH Q2 – What characteristic(s) do you look for in a business collaborator (in the broadest sense of the word)?

MM A2 Collaboration is always where the magic happens, as many big cos are finding in working now with #startups – BUT – identifying collaborators & partners can be one of the trickiest parts of business & can take you from top of the pile straight into court – honesty is a good start

SH Q3 – What connotations do you associate with the term “business failure”?

MM A3 Many, many good people fail in business; the really good ones see that experience as a stepping stone & have another go better equipped next time around. In Ireland failure is seen as negative; not so much in the US. Success in life is more important

SH Q4 – What did you do differently in your 30s in comparison to your 20s when it came to your career?

MM A4 My career path is straightforward but weird – partied right through my 20s (networking?), went back to school in my 30s & qualified as an accountant (shhh – don’t tell anyone), then started my first business at the age of 43 – have never looked back since

Susan and me palace of west

Networking together in 2016 in the Palace of Westminster with people we met in the queue!

SH Q5 – Tell us about one mistake you avoided.

MM A5 It would be easier to tell you about the hundreds of mistakes I’ve made! The one I’ve chosen might be controversial but it’s electing to #bootstrap as a #startup rather than take investment – getting to your own revenue at lightning speed trumps finance (handouts?) every time

SH Q6 – How can hunger for business success turn from aimless energy to a strategic vision?

MM A6 If you’re serious about starting a business you’ll have measurable goals & one day the talking stops & action starts … you have to pee or get off the pot. Never forget that once you’ve thrown that dice it’s v hard to turn back – weigh up if the #entrepreneur life is really for you

SH Q7 – How do you always maintain relevance?

MM A7 Curiosity helps. The tech world moves at pace. I work hard. I network & read constantly. I’m out & about a lot & meet a lot of people – like a shark – always moving & looking for the next interesting snippet – lol. I can’t imagine being behind the times – it’s what I fear most

SH Q8 – Many people would agree (I’m first on that bus!) that you’re a role model. What’s your gut reaction when you hear that?

MM A8 My shyness makes me squirm but then I remember the importance of women & girls having tangible, real, touchable, available role models – especially in #tech & #STEM – & I carry on doing stuff way outside my comfort zone because we are still few – though our numbers are growing

SH Q9 – You travel LOTS and LOTS and LOTS! How do you keep it interesting?

MM A9 I lead a blessed life with lots of variety. Living on Ireland’s #WildAtlanticWay in #Donegal means everywhere involves travel. People are what interest me – people & opportunities. I only wish someone would invent healthy packed lunches for travelling businesswomen. Travel = writing

SH Q10 I agree with you about the healthy lunches! Salad bars, frozen yogurt shops and artisan producers certainly have improved the situation but yes, it’s difficult to be always good!

Complete this sentence: Work Life Balance is….

MM A10 “Work life balance is … sensible & necessary but grossly overrated. Life is life. If you don’t love your work enough then do us all a favour & do something else” And that’s a wrap for today’s Twinterview folks – I hope you enjoyed it as much as @SusanHayes_ & me 🙂

Susan and me 2

At the IIBN conference in Dublin in November 2017

Anyway – we enjoyed that first one so much that we decided a rematch was in order, this time with me posing the questions to Susan.  We were more in the swing of things second time around & had learned from our mistakes – so for the second one we did a bit of advance advertising and we kept all the questions & answers in a single Twitter thread – which made it a lot easier for latecomers to find & read.  In this second Twinterview we cover when you should say yes or no to offers, the place networking plays in business, how to become a published author, how to be an excellent event MC and what it’s really like to work with your husband.  Here we go.

MARY’S TWINTERVIEW WITH SUSAN:

MM Q1 OK – ready to go – You have a lot of plates spinning Susan – author, entrepreneur, pundit, expert MC & more. What’s your personal elevator pitch in your own words?

SH A1 I’m the “Positive Economist”, a speaker that always focuses on what you CAN do, CEO of @becksearch, our evolving knowledge management business that we started this year and co-founder of @savvyteens focusing on careers, communications and confidence in teenagers.

MM Q2 – With such a varied portfolio & skillset, how do you decide what to say Yes to & what to say No to?

SH A2 Starting off, I said yes to everything (like #SavvyWomen) and that was the right thing to do. Today, I say yes to what I feel that we can do really well. I also say yes to what we can learn a lot from or what can be a great experience for our teams. That’s a #GlobalIrish mindset.

MM Q3 Love it Susan – I say Yes to far too much – next question will be interesting for many of our readers – You sometimes work closely with your husband. What are the pros & cons of doing that?

SH A3 Sincerely, it’s all a pro. I’ve always worked with @ArdleCulleton, even before we were going out together. We can share the highs, the lows, the lessons, the achievements. He is my mentor and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our Friday board meetings are my fave time of the week.

MM Q4 Ha! I’ve heard tell of the Fri board meetings with @ArdleCulleton manys a time – Some people say they can see the value of #networking but they don’t have time for it. What’s your view on this? (looking forward to this answer!)

SH A4 There is no such thing as “having time” for it. Networking is building relationships, with your clients, stakeholders, staff, influencers, leads etc. It’s what we do as business people all day every day. It’s not just power breakfasts! I’ve learned a lot from how you’ve done it.

MM Q5 And a related #networking question – Do you have any stories about specific amazing things that have come to you from your network that you can share with us?

SH A5 So, SO many! I will never forget my first @IIBN conference where I met you Mary. That one day launched everything we’ve done in the UK, the work I’ve been privileged to do with @dfat and the #GlobalIrish and the #Brexit event I did in #NY with @maryannpierce. It was lifechanging.

MM Q6 The @IIBN conferences are completely unmissable – the next one is 8/9 Nov in Dublin folks (tickets here) – Susan – a lot of people will be wondering about this – How did your first book deal come about?

SH A6 #PositiveEconomics – the economics textbook was a fellow author’s idea and we rang the four publishers about how to get started. We wrote the “Money & Banking” chapter and by that Christmas, we had a contract! Our next one will be out in 2019. (My experience of #blogging helped).

MM Q7 So pleased you mentioned how #blogging benefited you Susan – here’s a related question that will be of interest to anyone out there who’s thinking about trying to get published – Is it worth the time & pain of becoming a bona fide published author?

SH A7 Absolutely. AB-SO-LUTE-LY. In the case of “The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom”, I wrote it as if I was having a good chat with friends and giving #SavvyWomen some advice. Lots of people have commented since that their reading experience has felt like that #DreamComeTrue

MM Q8 I heard @tulster speak about women’s freedom & knowledge of personal finance at 2017’s #Inspirefest – You’re the best all day conference MC I’ve ever seen Susan. Anyone who attends the @IoDNI conf in Belfast will agree. What are your tips for others hoping to improve?

SH A8 Thank you so much Mary! Be interested … in everybody’s story. Listen hard. Your job as an MC is to be the glue that binds the event together, to be a problem solver and to manage the energy in the room. Put those things right at the centre of your focus.

Susan cartoon

Susan caricatured in March 2018 – it’s pretty good!

MM Q9 And no requirement to be able to compose poetry on the spot! Yes – there’s no doubt prep is everything in business & probably life – here’s the next one – Be the best or it’ll do/it’s good enough – which of these approaches are you most a fan of & why?

SH A9 The latter and then the former. You have to learn, test and tweak by trying a product or service out with real people. No hiding behind useless perfection.  You have to get market research and sometimes that comes in the form of rejection.  After that, it HAS to “be the best”.

MM Q10 Hell yeah – also great advice for software developers – I love your practice mentioned in your #TEDx talk of writing down the biggest achievement of your day so that you can easily look back at progress. Where did you come up with the idea & do you still do it yourself?

SH A10 It’s a variation of something I’ve learned from @brianbuffini. Most progress is incremental and unless we enjoy the small things along the way, our levels of resilience to absorb the tough stuff may not last. I always reflect on serendipity and the actions that really mattered.

MM Q11 Ooh – must check out @brianbuffini – I can’t wait to see your answer to this next one – Do you ever procrastinate & if you do, how do you combat it … or if you don’t, what advice would you give to those that do?

SH A11 I used to until I learned about “tagging”. Tag something that you procrastinate about with something you never question. For example, I have a call with @vveurope every Monday at 4pm and then I started tagging that with going to @DCUSportsWellbe . An exercise habit was formed!

MM Q12 No doubt it’s worth investing time in creating good habits! OK Susan – we’re getting thru these well – You’ve achieved an incredible amount for someone who’s still in their early 30s. But do you have any advice that you’d give to the you of 10 years ago?

SH A12 Expect GREAT things to happen. We often worry about what could go wrong, but my Mam responds to this often with “what if it goes right?”. Synchronicity often has wonderful surprises in store. Work on the small steps and be open to the big ones.

MM Q13 Paying attention & being open will always generate rewards – 3 more questions left – What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?

SH A13 I want my mind to be so much further open, my portfolio of business ideas to be so much further advanced, and my network to be so much more diversified than I could possibly have imagined or dreamed today. The hashtags #SavvyWomen #GlobalIrish should mean so much more by then.

MM Q14 I’m glad you mentioned business expansion – would you like to tell us more about your new venture @BeckSearch

Susan Sinead me

Breakfast in the Westbury Dublin last year with Sinead Crowley

SH A14 I’ve been so fortunate to have had breakfast with you and @Scrowley88, chats with @denisemcquaid, invaluable insights from @irelandinnz and the connectivity of @gaaasia. Person-to-person #km accelerates careers & businesses. I’m passionate about making that happen #WatchThisSpace

MM Q15 Watch this Spaces are my favourite! Last question for you is this Susan & I’m sure anyone who knows you will be wondering the same – Do you ever relax & if so what do you choose to do with your free time (business planning doesn’t count – lol)?

SH A15 I do. I really do because “being kind to yourself” is a true competitive advantage. I love spending time with family and friends. I love to read and immerse myself in international cultures. I love simply being alive and being aware and sharing it with @ArdleCulleton!

MM Exactly the answer I expected to receive from you @SusanHayes_ & I knew that @ArdleCulleton would be the recipient of the last words!

Phew – we covered a lot of ground in those 25 questions.  Some priceless little nuggets in that exchange, even if I do say so myself.

I hope you enjoyed participating in our Twinterviews or reading the transcript if you missed them.  If you’d like Susan or I to help you with anything you know where to find us.  Any questions you have – as usual post them up in the comments & we will do our best to answer.  Thanks everyone!

Brand New Year; 4 Shiny New Projects; Bit of Help Needed

Mary Fusion Fest 1

At Fusion Fest NI in October (photo credit Stephen Latimer)

Happy New Year everyone.  After the dulling sadness of losing our beloved and adored mother in 2016, 2017 was a much better year for me & my family and one in which we moved at long last to Greencastle in Co Donegal on the magical Wild Atlantic Way in May.  As we now move into January and yet another new year … here’s a quick round up of the new projects I’m involved with for 2018.

St Marys College

With the St Mary’s College students during Global Entrepreneurship Week last year

Number 1 and most important on the list, I’m joining St Mary’s College (@stmarysderry), an all girls’ school in Derry’s Creggan, as their first ever entrepreneur in residence and I’m urging all other successful female entrepreneurs to find a school and volunteer to do the same.  If we want to move the needle significantly on the women in business and women in tech agendas then I believe taking personal action and doing this is key.

Since announcing the St Mary’s initiative a month or so ago there has been widespread interest across Ireland and I’m especially happy that my esteemed friend, Brian Caulfield, former Chairman of the Irish Venture Capital Association, said this back in December:

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, I think it’s a GREAT idea.  We need to find a way to scale it like @CoderDojo”

Thanks Brian for the vote of confidence.  If any readers are interested in what we’re doing at St Mary’s you can read more here.  Our launch is Tuesday 9 January so I’ll keep you posted on progress.  Anyone who’d like to help us (or copy us) please get in touch.

Next up, Clare McGee & I have launched 300 Seconds Ireland (@300Seconds_IRL) with the support of 300 Seconds founders Sharon O’Dea, Ann Kempster & Hadley Beeman.  Our first event is in Derry on the evening of 23 January.  Our purpose is to encourage more gender diversity into the Irish conference speaking circuit by helping specifically women get started with public speaking.  We are seeking modest sponsorship so if you’re a business in Northern Ireland or on the island of Ireland with a keen interest in promoting diversity and you’d like to get involved then please get in touch.  The evening of 23 Jan is free to attend and you can register for your ticket here and read more about 300 Seconds Ireland here.

Back for Business

With Paula Fitzsimons of Back for Business at the IIBN conference in Dublin in November

Number 3 on my New Year 2018 list is Back for Business, the Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s programme to support returning entrepreneurs.  I’m the Lead Entrepreneur for Ireland’s NW region and my first entrepreneur round table is taking place in Letterkenny on 19 January.  I have a great bunch of entrepreneurs and founders in my group and I’m looking forward to working with them this year & seeing some great businesses emerge.

Finally and last but definitely not least, as Brexit dominates our daily news and thoughts I’m formally joining the EU as one of the entrepreneur members of the European Innovation Council SME 2018 jury.  More info in the official EU press release here.  I’m extremely proud to have been invited & selected and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time in Brussels this year with the entrepreneurs, their projects, the EU EASME team (@H2020SME) and, of course, the other jury members.

I’ll be continuing in 2018 with my work at the Entrepreneurship Centre of Said Business School, University of Oxford and in my hands-on non exec director roles with Elemental Software and Knowledge Hub/PFIKS.  Also my charity/not for profit commitments on the boards of the Millennium Forum, CAST, SCIE, Young Enterprise Northern Ireland and vInspired.  I will of course continue to make time to help as many entrepreneurs informally as I can and I hope to be invited to speak at some interesting events and write a few tech or startup related articles in the year to come.  I took 72 flights in 2017 (yes – that isn’t a typo!) and choosing to live in beautiful Inishowen in County Donegal means I can expect 2018 to be the same.  If British Midland Regional would like to make me a brand ambassador and give me free flights from Derry to Stansted in 2018 that would be most welcome 😊

I’ll leave all the other entrepreneurs out there with a thought for this new year 2018 – in the coming year we’ll have good days and we’ll have bad days as entrepreneurs, but they’ll all be OUR days.

My rallying call to female entrepreneurs everywhere – it’s time for us to take positive action

St Marys College

Global Entrepreneurship Week at St Mary’s College Derry

At events or in interviews I often get asked: What should we be doing to address the lack of women entrepreneurs/women starting businesses/women accessing investment/women in tech/women in STEM/women in senior business roles/women in business generally? (delete and replace with your own soundbite as you see fit) and I’ve always been stuck to come up with a good answer or solution.  There’s plenty happening out there to address diversity inequality but with worrying reports about the numbers of women working in IT actually being on the decline is any of it really moving the needle and making a difference?  Don’t even get me started on the tiny percentage of venture capital finance that goes to female founded companies – thought to be somewhere between 3 & 5% of all VC investment and rumoured to also be declining.

Then a chance conversation with Stephen Keown, the vice principal of my local girls’ post primary school in Derry Northern Ireland, St Mary’s College, took place in the corridor as I was leaving the school during Global Entrepreneurship Week last month and it sparked a thought…or a series of thoughts.

Anyone reading this who knows me will know that while I admire the global changemakers and their big dreams I try to bring about positive change in the world by taking action closer to home and in ways that are within my own gift to make happen.  I’ve done this to date by angel investing in 6 early stage tech businesses (so far) and by having a stated preference for investing in startups with female founding teams.  I also spend considerable amounts of my own time pro bono to help other entrepreneurs – mostly informally but also formally by being one of the Entrepreneurship Experts with the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School (University of Oxford) and locally by being one of the Entrepreneurs in Residence at Catalyst Inc (previously the Northern Ireland Science Park) and by being a board member of Young Enterprise Northern Ireland.

Whilst these activities are useful (I think) they don’t significantly address the issues in my opening paragraph and at best probably just tickle them a little around the edges.  My interventions are overwhelmingly biased towards early stage or established entrepreneurs – beneficial to those who’ve already made the leap and opted in; but not really helping to bring more girls and young women into the funnel that eventually becomes the pipeline.

I often think about how when my sister & I were teenagers growing up in a working class area of Doncaster there were no entrepreneur role models for us to look towards.  Hardly anyone we knew aside from the corner shopkeeper owned their own business.  Our father and uncles all worked for other people.  Our mother and aunts didn’t really have careers although they sometimes worked.  My older cousins followed their fathers’ footsteps or went to work “in the bank” or “at the council”.  It was the same for everyone else we were at school with.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I thought about the 860 girls and young women of St Mary’s for a few days following Global Entrepreneurship Week and then I sent a DM via Twitter to Marie Lindsay, inspirational head teacher at St Mary’s, asking her whether she’d be interested in me joining the wider school team as its first Entrepreneur in Residence.  A flurry of exchanges happened, a bit of dialogue occurred between Marie, the teaching staff and me and it culminated last week when Conor Lynch (Head of Business Studies) put the suggestion forward to the entire school at assembly.  At the time of writing we have over 100 pupils from right across the St Mary’s age range who’ve indicated that they’d like to be involved and we’re trying to figure out how to best accommodate that interest.  It’s such an exciting prospect and I can’t wait to start working with the students.

So what will a good outcome look like?  The honest answer is that at this moment in time we have no idea as we’re still brainstorming and I’m trying to figure out how to work with the school in a more structured way than perhaps I’m used to.  My plan is to find a way to augment the work already being done with pupils by great teachers such as Gavin Molloy and Clare Doherty and by Young Enterprise Northern Ireland by bringing to life some of what the students are learning in the classroom about entrepreneurship.  We’re launching our programme in the New Year and I’ll be documenting our progress, warts and all.  As far as we’re aware this is the first time an arrangement like this has been tried in Northern Ireland and we’ve even struggled to find examples further afield – so if you’re aware of any please shout up and connect me.

I’m hoping to achieve early doors:

  • Students better informed at an earlier age of what setting up a business really involves
  • Clarity for students around the sorts of qualifications that will be useful for the careers they’re interested in
  • Understanding about all the different types of business it is possible to start and the benefits & drawbacks of each
  • Demystify the process about setting up a business and given some exposure to the practicalities of running a business
  • An introduction to networking and building a positive online digital profile and personal brand

and further down the line I’ll be happy if this “connection” to me grows into a few mentoring relationships with students who do go on to start the sorts of business that I or people I know can help them with but maybe that’s a bit ambitious at this stage.  In truth if everyone in the school ends up slightly better informed that will be enough to make it worthwhile.

Why am I doing this?

Primarily because it gives me an opportunity to influence the career choices of a large number of young women and open their eyes to a few options that they may be unaware of or uncertain about and maybe help a few of them to avoid career mistakes.  I’ll be on hand to answer their questions honestly and in relation to the real world of work.  The world is going to be a very different place by the time the 11-18 year olds I’ll be working with in the coming months and years leave school or university.  The job landscape is about to change dramatically and in ways none of us can really imagine, no matter how hard we speculate.  I’m worried that if more girls and women don’t embrace careers in STEM they may find themselves languishing in jobs towards the bottom of the work pyramid as the middle tiers get replaced by machines.  There are loads of other reasons.  I care deeply about this NW corner of Ireland and about finding ways that our young people can stay here and make their lives here instead of having to leave and go to the other side of the world looking for work.  Teachers do a really great job but the nature of what they do for a living means they’re in a bit of a bubble and I want to help them by bringing the real world into the classroom.  We are living in very uncertain times in this corner of Europe and it’s hard to prepare our young people for jobs that don’t even exist yet.  I’m happy to do anything that will improve their chances.

Why did I choose St Mary’s College?

I chose it because it’s local and because it’s a girls’ school but also because it has a strong sense of belonging and celebration of common success that is apparent from the moment you cross the doorstep.  I’ve been impressed by the enthusiasm and can-do attitude of the students and I love that the school is technology and STEM focused and that it’s led by a strong, inspiring and forward thinking woman and a great group of teachers.  (As an aside, the school was founded the year I was born and – well – it has a great name…)

What can you do?

Instead of sitting back and bemoaning the lack of women in x (insert your own word there) you too can go along to your own local school and offer your services.  Don’t wait to be asked as no head teacher would ever dare presume that a busy entrepreneur could spare the time or would want to volunteer in this way – but I know you can find the time!  Failing that you can help me by offering your support in ways that will no doubt become apparent in the coming months.

Thank you for reading.  I’m extremely happy to be joining St Mary’s College as its first Entrepreneur in Residence and the next time someone asks me that question I’ll be able to look them in the eye and tell them about what I’m doing practically to address the issues.

Startup CEO – a perfect job for the jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus

This interview of me by my friend Barry Adams (@badams) appeared in the December 2016 issue of the NI Digital Expert interview on the Polemic blog.  I realise it’s a bit weird to feature it on my own blog but I know a lot of my readers are thinking about a change of career or thinking about starting a business & I thought it might be a useful long read; especially for anyone who is perhaps having doubts and needs reassurance from another person about how they’ve done these things without the world subsequently ending.

Barry Adams

Barry Adams in his usual mega cheerful & positive mode

If you don’t know Barry already then I recommend you check him out.  He’s a Dutchman living in Northern Ireland who is well known for his digital expertise and strong opinions that he isn’t afraid to voice.  Barry’s been building and ranking websites since 1998 and he’s the most awesome SEO expert I know. As the founder of Polemic Digital he delivers world-class digital strategy services to clients worldwide and you can find out more about Polemic’s services here.

Here’s Barry’s interview with me – if you have any other questions you’d like to ask me about my career journey or about my own experiences founding & growing a tech startup then just post them up in the comments section & I’ll answer them if I can:

Tell us about yourself and your journey into digital: how did you discover tech and become so involved in it?

Like many people I didn’t have a traditional route into digital. I suppose my first “tech” job was working as part of the then very small British Telecom Mobile Communications team within BT back in 1987 where I was the proud owner of one of the first car phones (the battery filled the entire boot of the car and pretty much every phone conversation I had started with “You’ll never guess where I’m ringing you from…”). That team eventually went on to become Cellnet and then O2 of course.

After that I spent the next 12 years in London, clambering my way up the greasy corporate career pole & by the year 2000 I was a reasonably successful Finance Director. By the age of 39 I had itchy feet so when the headhunter called, I was more than ready to leave the safe, comfortable job that I could do in my sleep to move to Belfast to join a high tech startup which was a spin-out from Queens University Belfast. That company was Amphion Semiconductor and we created semiconductor IP – the code that makes chips in just about everything work. At the time Amphion’s engineering team was immersed in the JPEG & MPEG technology around enabling text & photo messaging on mobile phones for a Japanese client. We used to chuckle daily in our Belfast office at the idea that anyone would ever use their phones to send photos to their friends. 3 weeks after joining I found myself catapulted into the heart of Silicon Valley and all the madness of the Valley in the early 2000s. The learning curve (both about what we did & what my part in that was) was nearly vertical but luckily I learned quickly and I was bitten by the technology bug.

I guess my point here is that you don’t have to be a coder to work in the tech industry. Understanding the value and business benefits of tech and being able to explain that to others is a very useful skill to have.

Bryan Keating was Amphion’s chairman and I was very lucky to spend the best part of 3 years learning a lot from him. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s most inspirational and wise business leaders and of course he’s Learning Pool’s chairman today.

You’ve got a degree in Business Economics, which doesn’t have much to do with technology. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?

I like the quote from Alexander Graham Bell that goes “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” 

Because I’m an open door looker the past isn’t somewhere I visit too often so this question has really made me think. I’ve sometimes joked that if I had my time over again, I’d be a tax accountant and by this point would be a long time retired.

I believe that nothing you ever learn is wasted. I temped for 2 years in my mid 20s and did some terrible jobs (complaints desk for a large US oil company, processing industrial injury claims for a trade union) but it’s remarkable how many times I use something I learned back then today. University at best formalised my natural curiosity tendencies and it set me on the path for lifelong learning.

When I was 17 I turned down a place at the London School of Economics choosing instead to study at a regional university in NW England. I was the first person in my family to attend university and the day I went to the LSE for my interview was the first time I’d ever been to London. At 17 I couldn’t figure out how to move to and get established in London and there was no-one who could help me so I chose the easier option. If I’m honest, I partied more at university than I attended lectures and that is something that I did used to regret when I was starting out in the world of work at the age of 21 with a 3rdclass degree. These days I can see that all those parties I went to was the start of collecting people and building my network and in truth, my network is what’s been useful to me over the years. I’ve only ever applied for a job formally once in my life. As everybody knows, everything in life and business is about people.

In the course of what I do today I encounter a large number of young people who skipped university choosing instead to go straight into a startup. They’ve missed university and the solid foundation that goes along with working for a few years in a more traditional organisation. They’re now onto failing startup No 3 and at the age of 22 or 23 find themselves more or less unemployable and their lack of a wider education is very evident when they get up to speak. I’m generalising of course but for most people university gets you off to a good start if you use your time there wisely. I didn’t but university opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.

With the benefit of hindsight I guess the right thing to have done would be to have been braver and take the place at the LSE but it’s too tricky to call. I’ve always loved those time travel sci-fi stories where someone goes back in time and changes one tiny event and this leads to far flung never imagined consequences. I’m pretty happy with my life and my career so far so I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing.

My advice to young people starting out today though is pay attention to the changes in work that are coming fast down the pipe and choose something that’s going to be useful in the new world of work. If you do decide to go to university and can afford it, choose a course that encourages problem solving and fosters a questioning outlook. It’s about more than just getting a degree. Keep your options open. A lot of today’s steady and well paid jobs will be gone sooner than we think. I saw a recent statistic that said 65% of children starting primary school now will leave school to do jobs that don’t even exist today. I’m not sure if I believe that (it could be 90%!) but there’s no doubt that the world is changing fast.

You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as the co-founder of Learning Pool and a startup investor and mentor. What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your Learning Pool experience?

This is something that I’ve thought about a lot and written about from time to time on my blog. It’s hard to distill it down into something that’s easy to read so I’m going to focus on what I believe are my own key learnings.

My first point isn’t really a lesson. It’s more of a statement of fact and it’s about the importance and value of prior experience. Learning Pool was the 5th startup I’d been part of. The first 2 startups I worked in were founded by other people and both were successful in their own way. Both were acquired by much bigger fish, one after I’d left and one when I was working there as CFO. The next two were businesses that I started. The first was a business turnaround service and the second was a boutique management consultancy business, Agility Consulting, with Paul McElvaney who went on to be my Learning Pool co-founder. I made plenty of money in both of those companies but they were lifestyle businesses and not in any way scaleable. Paul & I used to talk a lot in 2005 & 2006 about generating revenue in a business while you sleep and Learning Pool was our solution.  Having plenty and varied prior experience makes it so much easier because a startup CEO needs to know quite a lot on a wide number of topics in order to scale a business fast. It’s a perfect occupation for a jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus! My advice is that it’s a lot cheaper to acquire that knowledge and experience on someone else’s time and money so if you want to start a business, go and work in a few startups first. A number of our early days Learning Pool employees eventually left us to start up on their own & I was always happy to see people do that. It’s how the ecosystem works. As long as you’ve had decent value from them in the time they’ve been with you wish them luck & let them go in a positive way and with good grace.

I was 47 with a solid background in finance, four startups behind me and a wide network when we started Learning Pool. You’ll find that successful startups with young or inexperienced entrepreneurs as founders usually have someone like me lurking very close by in the background.

We bought Learning Pool as a failing business. It started life as an expensive project carried out badly by one of my government clients when I was running my business turnaround service. A lot of people obsess about having an idea but really that isn’t important at all. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about having a clear plan and you and your team’s ability to execute against it. It’s also about being able to recognise an opportunity when it presents itself – the best opportunities don’t usually carry a big sign saying “Back Me!”.

My next point is the biggest lesson I learned. I completely underestimated the incredible

Trish & me

My sister Trish & me at Buckingham Palace

toll that starting and growing a successful business takes upon the founder or founding team and their close family, especially in those first 3 years you are trading. For the founder there’s a mental, physical and probably spiritual toll to pay that’s very real and shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s all encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice & got started there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable and the company has moved through all those early pivots and found its purpose. It will take much longer than you think it will. I’m lucky to have a very supportive other half and I have to mention my sister here too. She did a lot of heavy lifting for me in the early days when I was working 7 days a week. My mum used to say that in the first 2 years of Learning Pool she saw less of me than she’d done when I lived in London – and Learning Pool was 10 miles away from her home in Donegal.

I had a conversation with one of my mentees about this very thing the other day. She asked me if it was normal to be thinking about her startup when she takes her teenager to his sports matches on a Saturday. I just laughed and said – Oh yeah – that’s completely normal. That facade of going through the social motions on the outside whilst on the inside you’re planning your next marketing campaign or going through your sales pipeline.

I know in my heart I was a nicer person on 1 August 2006 when we started Learning Pool than I was 7 years later when I decided to exit. In the 3 years that have passed since then I’ve worked hard to repair a lot of that damage and I’m a happier person today as a result.

My last key set of lessons is around building your team. Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business and it’s one of the most important jobs of the startup CEO; it should never be abdicated to someone else. I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art. Be clear at the outset what sort of company culture you are going to create and as founders really live that yourselves and show a good example.

In the early days it’s easiest to go fast with people you already know and have worked with before. As your company grows and that intense startup pressure lessens, seek to diversify your team as that will take you further.

When recruiting, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team. Occasionally take a flyer on a wildcard. My best recruits over the years have always been those people that I’ve been a little uncertain about but have taken a chance with.

Having said all of that there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit decent tech talent into a small business or startup and this was something we really struggled with in the early days.

As well as all the negatives I’ve mentioned there are lots and lots of positive takeaways too. Building a startup allows you to understand the limits of what is possible for you and it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover I am far more resilient and was able to achieve more than I thought I was capable of beforehand. For some people pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a challenge but I enjoyed it in some weird sort of way. Providing 80 other people with a challenging and satisfying career is very personally rewarding and at the end of the day, being master of your own destiny is very liberating after years of working for other people.

I could talk on this topic all day but I’ll finish by saying surround yourself with people who are better than you; learn from them and listen to their advice. Have a co-founder. If you’re serious about scaling there’s far too much for one person to do. Keep your ego in check, be nice and pay it forward whenever you can – karma is an amazing thing and people will do a lot for someone that they genuinely like.

Do you feel Northern Ireland has the right environment for technology startups? What can we do better here to encourage technology entrepreneurship?

If you want to start a tech business in a place where free money is easily and readily available and where an established friendly and helpful tech community already exists then Northern Ireland offers a great environment. There’s a lot of help available to get you started; maybe too much and that leads to a large number of unsuitable people having a go – although perhaps that’s okay too in the overall scheme of things. A quick fix would be to restructure the grants available away from startups and more towards scale-ups. The best startups of course don’t wait for grants…instead they get to revenue at lightning speed.

I think plenty of encouragement exists and I salute the work done by Young Enterprise NI, Catalyst Inc (especially through Generation Innovation and Springboard) and Invest NI (especially through supporting initiatives like Propel & Start Planet NI run by the amazing Diane Roberts).

Northern Ireland is still very Belfast-centric however and let’s face it, Belfast is still a long way (geographically and metaphorically) from the Bay Area, London or even Dublin. It’s hard to start a tech startup in a quiet backwater. I know that because Learning Pool was started in Derry; far away from our early customer base and impossible to recruit any job-ready talent. So it’s possible to do, but it’s much harder. You weigh up the pros & cons and you make your choice.

Northern Ireland is a long way behind our nearest neighbour in terms of the effort put into nurturing startups but the Republic of Ireland faces the same challenges of being Dublin or Cork-centric (try starting a tech business in rural Donegal and see what help you’ll get!) and they’re finding it tricky to scale the majority of their High Potential Start Ups beyond the magic 1m euro turnover figure.

I suppose nowhere is ideal outside of the top 3 tech startup ecosystems (IMHO Silicon Valley, London & Tel Aviv dependent on what you’re doing) for all the reasons we all know but Northern Ireland is as good a place as any to get started – just as long as the founder appreciates that the day will come a couple of years down the line when he or she is more than likely going to have to relocate to get the next growth phase moving.

It’s so important that we focus on the generations following us and from an education perspective Northern Ireland could be so much better than it is. Our schools and colleges continue to churn out young people better suited to a world that’s gone or fast disappearing and our Administration seems to be woefully incapable of turning this situation around quickly enough.

As an investor and mentor you see a lot of new startup ideas. Is there any new startup here in NI that really excites you at the moment?

I was lucky to be matched in 2016 as a mentor for new startup Elemental Software through Propel. Started by co-founders Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff (both from Derry), Elemental provides an innovative digital signposting tool to make it easy for GPs and other healthcare professionals to implement social prescribing. I liked the founding team and product so much that I angel invested & joined the Elemental team as a NED in January 2017.

Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?

Ha! I’m a great believer in the theory that if you love what you do you’ll never work another day in your life. My work hasn’t felt like work for the past 20 years. I’m a trustee of several charities and one of those is the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry. That’s been a great source of enjoyment to me over the years. I swim a mile most days. Swimming is like meditation and it’s impossible to make phone calls from the pool. I read a lot and I’m interested in art. I’d like to write a book. I’m toying with the idea of another startup.

It’s maybe a bit corny to say this but I’ve been happy recently to spend a bit of time travelling and hanging out with my husband, making up for lost time.

I still go to a lot of parties! These days I go home a bit earlier…

Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience

Rather than a website or an app I’d like to recommend to any UK readers with an interest in charity or not for profits an incredibly useful community that I’m involved with. It’s the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST). CAST is running the UK’s first charity accelerator (called FUSE) & also the CAST Fellowship for charity CEOs & leaders. An invaluable set of resources exists within CAST for any charities, social enterprises or not for profits who want to get more comfortable with digital and understand better what it can do for them.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog & are based in or around Limerick, I’m going to be joining Pat Carroll of Startup Grind Limerick for a fireside chat on the evening of 25 May 2017.  More details here & hope to see you there!

 

My Top 5 Tips for Success for Women (or anyone!) in business

Network Dublin 2I was delighted to join the Network Dublin women in business gathering in June in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin’s Ballsbridge.  I was keynoting at their annual awards lunch.  There was a broad mix of women present from startup entrepreneurs and solopreneurs to seasoned small business owners to women from the corporate world.

Spending time with other entrepreneurs and hearing their stories is my favourite pastime – even moreso when it’s other women.  There are so many women out there starting and growing fascinating and profitable businesses that we just don’t hear about – either because they’re bootstrapping and don’t need external investment so the government agencies and venture capital providers aren’t involved or they aren’t large scale exporting or they just aren’t part of this month’s “flavour of the moment” sector.

Network Dublin with Barbara Moynihan

Great to bump into fellow IIBN member Barbara Moynihan of On Your Feet in Dublin – Barbara was up for one of the Network Dublin awards

At the event we had representation from niche childcare related businesses to owners of health & beauty businesses and spas to a dating coach, a number of specialist healthcare providers, the usual sprinkling of corporate marketeers and business development managers, life coaches and even a woman who promised to allow you to enjoy your morning meditation anywhere in the world through the magic of VR.  All had a story…or a number of stories.

You all know the saying – If you want something doing, give it to a busy person.  Well our Network Dublin group was made up of exactly those busy women.  Everyone I chatted with had a couple of jobs, a couple of side projects on the go, a couple of charities or causes they were involved with and a family to keep on track as well.

Before I move onto the advertised blog content, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to our charity partner of the day.  It was Hugh’s House in Dublin.  Wow – what a project.  The founder is Ade Stack.  During her own baby’s hospital treatment, Ade learned that overnight accommodation in Dublin’s Temple Street and Rotunda hospitals for parents and guardians of children receiving care was both sadly lacking and grossly inappropriate so she decided to do something about it.  In the past I’ve joked that Irish comedian Dara O’Briain was a nightmare to follow onto a speaking platform but it was much harder to follow Ade Stack’s 4 minute pitch from the heart.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  It’s a fabulous charity so if you can volunteer or help out in any small way then please do.

The main substance of my talk was 5 Top Tips for Success for women in business written from my own perspective and experience.  It was incredibly hard to get the list down to 5 but without further ado, these were the ones I chose:

1 Take a #GiversGain approach to business and life

There are so many elements to this but it’s a theme fundamental to how I operate and have always operated and it works for me and many other people.  Also called paying it forward, paying it back, karma and a multitude of other titles – but I like the #giversgain label that Camilla Long introduced me to.  The basic premise is to help other people and do so on the basis that you will receive nothing back in return.  The reality is if you give to the world, it gives back.

So – have a mentor but be a mentor too.  When networking, be generous with your introductions or give some of your content away without the expectation of something in return.  Positivity breeds positivity.  Enjoy yourself at work and in business and do the things that feel right to you.  In networking I’ve always just collected interesting people that I get on with and like.  I’ve never targeted people that I think might be able to do something for me – that just doesn’t work and I’d feel uncomfortable doing that anyway.

At the end of the day, people buy from people they like and as all opportunities are attached to a person or a group of people, goodwill will take you a long, long way – be it in procurement or recruitment.

Always help the people that you’re a bit further ahead than and remember Madeleine Albright’s words – “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

2 Work Hard – I’m sorry but there are no shortcuts

At least none that I’ve ever found.  Whether you’re scrabbling your way up the corporate ladder or starting a business, putting in the hard yards in terms of time and commitment is critical, especially in your startup’s early days when you’re the main resource or in the early part of your career when you don’t have much of a track record.  I can remember sitting next to a young entrepreneur at dinner one evening and I asked him how he would cope when his only option was less sleep & he said to me – that won’t happen because I’m capping my working week at 60 hours.  He was really annoyed when I replied – Your startup will fail.

Obviously it isn’t about working 100 hours every week but you must accept that success requires work and work takes time.

There are plenty of people out there who will sell you books or courses telling you something other than this but in my experience there is no substitute and those shortcut peddlers are either lying or much smarter than me.

My own worst example of this, and one that I’m not proud of in retrospect, is joining a 1 hour sales Skype call on my wedding morning in 2014.  However, I made a call at the time that it was necessary to be in the conversation and the government agency we were pitching to refused point blank to move the date.  Worse still, we didn’t win the work.  You will know your own reasonable limits and these are different for us all.

 

Final word on this point – you do need to stretch yourself.

Ali

Muhammad Ali – Dancing in the Lights

Cruising along in a well worn and comfortable spot will not bring you the success you’re capable of.  Remember the late Muhammad Ali’s words when someone asked him what it was like being in the ring.  He replied “Out here I’m just dancing in the lights; the real work is done in the back room”.  Enjoy your moments in the limelight but don’t neglect the grafting that needs done.

3 Celebrate All Your Wins – big and small

At the end of every working day, write your greatest achievement of the day in red pen at the top of your paper diary.

Gene with cake

My nephew Gene on one of his birthdays

Some days it might be a big win such as hearing you’ve successfully secured that promotion or received the £50k sales order you’ve been chasing and other days it might be something small such as getting to the end of the day without giving up or clearing those admin tasks that’ve been bothering you for weeks.  As the weeks and months go by, you have a visible and tangible record of your achievements and if you’re ever feeling a bit low or in need of some encouragement, you can flick back through your diary, see how far you’ve come & relive some of the glory of your past successes.  I pinched great idea this from my friend and IIBN colleague Susan Hayes, The Savvy Economist.  In her TEDx talk (5 Key Ways to Define Yourself & Turbo Boost Your Career) Susan describes how she used to do this in the very early days of starting her own business, but it works for many different scenarios and it’s both effective and very easy.

In the early days of your startup, make sure you work towards and measure some milestones, however small.  Ensure everyone in your small team shares and knows this week or this month’s goals and when you get there, take a short break to recognise and mark your collective achievement.   If it’s a Friday evening, take everyone out for a quick drink or a bite to eat and celebrate what’s gone well that week and what you’ve achieved.  Take the time.  It matters and you’re worth it.

4 Don’t Procrastinate and always move things along at pace

Procrastination is a savage thief of time and so much more.  I read a really good (long read) blog about this topic recently and I recommend a read here if this is something you know you’re prone to.  If it is, this blog will scare the life out of you.  I’m not too bad.  Life in an early stage startup improves the speed with which you make decisions and reduces the amount of information you require before a decision can be made.

For years now I’ve managed my own working life using the Eisenhower matrix (the Important/Urgency grid) but the trick you mustn’t miss is to remember the Important/Not Urgent box as this is the one that drives your long term career or business strategy.

The bigger the organisation is that you operate within, the more need there is to spend time formalising and streamlining your decision making processes.  The glacial pace of decision making was what drove me out of the public sector years ago.

Keeping things moving along on a daily, weekly, monthly & yearly basis according to a plan in your head or on your wall or shelf is a real skill but one that’s definitely worth perfecting if you can.  Teach your newbie team members how to make swift and good decisions and you’ll have a much happier and productive workplace.  Everyone likes to see and feel progress.

5 Have a Plan

I like the Sheryl Sandberg quote “Option A is not available so let’s kick the s*** out of Option B”.  Sheryl Sandberg used to annoy the hell out of me with her Lean In preaching but I feel better disposed to her after the way she has subsequently revised some of her earlier recommendations for women in business since her own sad personal tragedy happened.

It’s good to have a plan, but it shouldn’t be fixed in stone.  You need to incorporate an element of flex and you also need at least a Plan B – but probably a less fleshed out Plan C & Plan D as well.  We live in uncertain times and technology has introduced a pace of change into many occupations that would previously have been difficult to imagine.  My Network Dublin talk happened on the day that the reality of the Brexit referendum outcome began to emerge.  Prime Minister David Cameron had literally just resigned and my audience & I mused over what his Plans B & C or D might have been as he went to his bed the night before.  Indeed – we wondered if he had any!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog & please do send us your own Top 5 Tips in the comments below.

An Evening with Willie Walsh

BA aviva

Willie Walsh’s photo of a BA plane skimming over the Aviva Stadium in Dublin during The Gathering

This week at London’s branch of IIBN we were lucky enough to have Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airline Group (parent company of British Airways) as our keynote speaker at one of our regular business networking events.  A New Year boost to start the business year and what an opportunity – to hear the great man address a 200 strong Irish business audience.  Some might say a tricky enough crowd!

There’s been plenty written about Willie Walsh in the 15 or so years since he was first appointed CEO of Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus but on the night I was more interested in seeing what makes the man himself tick.  He didn’t disappoint.  Alongside business chat and the expected slides about performance of IAG he told plenty of personal stories (I won’t publish them here – you’ll just have to go & hear him speak yourself) that were amusing but also gave some insight into the man behind the headlines.

WW

Willie Walsh keynoting at IIBN

The keynote covered IAG expansion (the usual big corporate stuff about world domination), a very useful explanation of how the fall in crude oil price hasn’t cut costs for European airlines due to adverse movements on the currency market (IAG still spends €1.6 billion on fuel per quarter), his work as Chairman of Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (it was particularly interesting to get insight straight from the horse’s mouth into some of the areas the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is investing – domestic life sciences companies, several areas of new technology and also a housebuilding joint venture to address acute housing shortage in Ireland), Brexit (he’s against it, along with most other CEOs of large UK corporates) and Heathrow expansion (“I don’t believe this UK government will tackle the issue of airport expansion and this provides a great opportunity for Dublin”).

But what did I like the most.  First of all, Willie Walsh is a great live speaker.  He’s very natural, entertaining and articulate but there’s an underlying seriousness and real substance to his delivery.  I could have listened to him speak for much longer.  It’s the confidence that comes from having deep, deep knowledge of your subject matter; something you don’t see so much in business these days.  He reminded me of Michael Dell, another great business leader that I heard speak a number of times in 2015 – except that Willie is far more irreverent!  And he probably uses “richer” language than Michael Dell would ever do…but both of them have the gritty determination of people who’ve seen everything their chosen industry has to offer or throw, both command the respect of the entire room and both are and always have been hard working to the extreme – you can just tell that by listening to them.

Cool Beans

Cool Beans co-founders Isolde & Sarah with Willie Walsh

Before the keynote started, we had a 3 minute startup pitch as is usual at IIBN.  We like to give our newer entrepreneurs and future leaders a chance to have their voices heard and to expose them to potential investors, partners, customers.  This week it was the turn of Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, co-founders of the Cool Bean Company.  It was a great pitch and the girls rather cheekily finished up with a photograph of a British Airways plane (long haul flights & beans – I’m not too sure about that!) and a smile over to Willie.  Let’s face it – you’ve gotta pitch when you get the opportunity.  It was great to see Willie Walsh chatting with Sarah & Isolde afterwards and also that during his own keynote he commented what a good pitch they’d given.

A lot of what he said on the night was aimed at people new to business or young people starting out.  He said that he himself has never really applied for a job and told the story of how as a 17 year old at school in Dublin he casually went along to an open day at Aer Lingus and how that led to him becoming an apprentice pilot instead of going straight to university.  He said he’s shocked by how afraid people are of making mistakes and (rolling his eyes) recounted a few of his own.  The message was that if you don’t push yourself so hard that you make a few mistakes, you’ll never reach your potential as you won’t know where your boundaries lie.  Of course, as everyone knows, the cardinal sin is not learning from your mistakes or making the same mistake twice…and the Holy Grail is the knack of learning from other people’s mistakes, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do that successfully!

He also talked on the topic of finding a business personality that you own and are comfortable with.  Fortunately, we don’t have too many Michael O’Learys – although you have to admit that it’s worked for him.  Willie Walsh went back to himself as a 17 year old & said that of the panel that interviewed him on that day, three thought he was smart and self confident but the fourth person thought he was cocky.  I guess he had a bit of luck with him on the day that the balance didn’t go the other way – but the point he was making is that it’s a fine line and one that only the individual can find and get comfortable with themselves.

So – I’m a fan of Mr Willie Walsh.  I like people who care a lot about what they do, who work hard, who believe in their mission and have strong opinions.  I like people who are generous to others that are a bit behind where they are and I like people who are able to admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes.  I like people who dream big and aren’t afraid to go after the massive goals and targets that most people would run a mile from.  I like people who’ve come from humble beginnings but who through their own ability and hard graft are able to shimmy up the greasy career pole despite most of the odds being against them.  I like people who do public service and find the time to give something back.  I like people who take the unconventional road.  And the rest of the audience – they liked him too.  Most had seen him speak before and were very impressed that he used a completely different set of stories and jokes this time around.  I’m with them – there’s nothing worse than people who get up on stage and trot out the same tired old stuff over and over again.

Final word from me today.  Check out Cool Bean Company when you get a chance – we might only be half way through January but they’ve already announced a contract this year with all 135 Waitrose stores so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Sarah and Isolde.

Women and tech – will it take us another 250 years?

I wrote a brief piece on women in tech back in March for the Belfast Technology Conference magazine.  The gist of it was something like this.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

As a woman working in technology in noughties Britain I compare myself mentally to a female artist in the 18th century.  I believe we are similar sorts of pioneers in our chosen field.  At that time significant gender bias existed in the art world and women artists encountered difficulties in accessing training, selling their work and in gaining recognition.  Although the Royal College of Art began admitting women in 1837 it was into a special “Female School”, it wasn’t really until the feminist art movement started in the 1960s that women artists became more mainstream. Even now they are paid less than their male counterparts and struggle harder with appropriate recognition.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun is widely recognised as the most successful female painter of the 18th century.  She became an artist because first her father and then her husband were both painters.  Really it was the only channel available to women at that time.  In the self portrait above she’s having a bit of a tongue in cheek laugh at us – showing us her palette (the tools of her trade) but dressing herself in a completely inappropriate outfit for working in oil paint.  The same woman caused a scandal in the art world of the time by breaking with tradition and releasing a self portrait of herself & her daughter smiling open mouthed (showing their teeth) – imagine!

Many prominent women in tech today are there because of early encouragement by their parents or by an enlightened teacher and this is a story that I hear over and over again when talking to my peers and indeed younger women.

I thought the comparison with the art world back in March was a good one – and then yesterday I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Disobedient Objects exhibition and this poster literally stopped me in my tracks.

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

In case you can’t read it easily, the smaller text on the poster reads “Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are females”.  Hmm.  Maybe the art world hasn’t made that much progress in 250 years after all.

A lot of activity is going on and money is being spent across the world right now to fix the women in tech “issue” and make technology a more mainstream career choice for girls and women. Of course it makes a lot of sense, but let’s not be the generation that allows this process of transformation to drag on for 250 more years!

In this GCSE and A Level results month, encourage the young women you know to pursue exciting, creative and independent careers instead of dashing their dreams and pressurising them to study boring but safe subjects.

I usually stay away from this rather controversial subject but I’ve chosen it as the topic with which to relaunch my blog because the women in tech that I know and work with are all incredible…I just wish there were a few more of us.  As a final point it’s also worth noting that even back in the 18th century, Vigee Le Brun’s portrait commissions commanded a higher price than Gainsborough’s.

As always, your comments on my blog are most welcome and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say on this topic.