Task Squad

Good Things Can Happen if you only say Yes!

Two recent trigger events prompted me to write this blog. The first was this tweet last week from Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) “Women of the world, if you are asked to speak at an event or appear on a panel say Yes (especially if you don’t really want to)”. The second was seeing Carey Lohrenz speak at Dellworld 2015 & listening to her talk in depth about (generally) how women don’t put up their hands until they’re sure they can do 120% of what’s being asked of them. Carey (& I) think you should put up your hand when you can do 75 or 80% & figure the rest out from there.

Badass Carey Lohrenz addressing the Women in IT lunch at DellWorld 2015

I know this topic has been done to death a bit in recent years but I’ve never written about this from my own personal perspective so I thought I’d do that in case anyone finds it interesting & maybe it will encourage a few more people to be brave.

It’s about 2 years since I made the decision to exit from my startup/scaleup Learning Pool, sell my half of the business & go & do something else. As CEO of a small growing business your default position when presented with most decisions is No. It has to be. In order to focus on growing your business, meeting payroll every month & moving the needle significantly in the right direction you need to eliminate as much distraction as you possibly can from your business & your life.

You say No to most conference attendance opportunities, most business social and networking events (especially if they involve travel or an overnight stay) and most requests for you to speak at other organisations’ events. Unfortunately, when you’re in a place where you sometimes wonder if you could function with one or two hours less sleep at night, you don’t have a lot of time to mentor people inside or outside of your organisation either – the smart ones learn by running along beside you.

One thing I did manage to make time for as Learning Pool grew was speaking to students at local schools about careers in STEM, usually through Young Enterprise NI. As entrepreneurs, business owners or people with careers in STEM we all need to do a bit more of this.  The other was chatting to other entrepreneurs who were a few steps behind where we were – I knew from experience how useful this had been to us when we were in startup mode.

I guess the most extreme example of me saying No was the night (it was International Women’s Day 2011 – the 100th anniversary of IWD) when I received a late call from someone in government inviting me to join the Northern Irish delegation to the White House to meet President Obama on St Patrick’s Day. What was my response? I said “I can’t possibly – our year end is end of March & I’m too busy”. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line & then the very sensible person said – Mary – when someone asks you in 5 or 10 years time, what were you doing on St Patrick’s Day 2011 which would you rather say – that you met the President of the United States or that you were doing spreadsheets… I made the right decision in the end!

So – for the last 2 years I’ve been running my own private social experiment in which I try to say Yes to most things that are presented to me – within reason of course. Below are some of the positive things that have happened as a result (to date there have been no negative outcomes).

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

I said Yes to Terry Ryall, vInspired’s founding CEO when she asked me to help the charity launch Task Squad. This gave me the opportunity to work in a charity for the first time in my career & the insights that gave me have allowed me to since make a contribution in a number of different ways to how charities and not for profits can better benefit from technology. I also connected with an entire new network of people (including the fabulous Sam Sparrow), charities and funders and learned all about social impact investment. This eventually led to me meeting Sally Higham and angel investing in her software platform business for youth & sports clubs, Run A Club.

I said Yes to John Knapton when he asked me to join Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast as one of their Entrepreneurs in Residence. As well as being a lot of fun, this has led to me formally mentoring one young entrepreneur for the past 6 months and offering advice & help to a number of other startups. Best of all, I got to meet Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace in June 2014 and on the same evening met Norwegian entrepreneur Ollie Gardener & 8 months later angel invested in her social learning platform, Noddlepod.

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

I said Yes when my colleagues at the Irish International Business Network asked me to run the SharkTank at our November 2014 conference in New York City and by doing so met wonderful Canadian entrepreneur & angel investor Kelly Hoey.

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

We had a lot of laughs on the day, found we have a lot in common & since then we’ve helped each other on a number of things and are on the road to becoming firm friends.

I said Yes when the Research & Educational Network Norge asked me to deliver a talk on the Future of Learning to 200 people in Oslo, even though I can’t speak a word of Norwegian and the prospect of doing something like this was terrifying. You can read more about my Oslo experience in a previous blog here if you’re interested. Suffice to say it turned out well despite my fears!

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

More recently I said Yes when Will Pritchard of AxiCom PR asked me to follow him back on Twitter so that he could DM me about something. Before starting my Yes experiment I could possibly have responded quite rudely to Will’s request. This led to me attending DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell, meeting tons of fabulous people, meeting Michael Dell who’s one of my all time top business champions and finally realising my dream of visiting Austin, Texas after 15 years of being too busy to attend SXSW. Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies so I had to trade him a story. I told him how my friend Tim Ramsdale persuaded our employer CIPFA to buy a Dell server back in 1989, shortly after Dell had started up in London. Michael loved the story & the selfie speaks for itself. I later told another story to the Dell senior team. It was how when Learning Pool was 6 months old we were evicted from the flat in London that we were secretly using as an office. The final straw was when our nosy neighbour opened the door to a courier who was delivering 6 large Dell boxes to us. She rang our landlord to report us & we were immediately evicted. The guys agreed I should have told Michael that story too because he would’ve loved it!

I said Yes a couple of weeks ago when Dee Forbes rang me & asked me to speak at the Digital Week Ireland event that’s happening in Skibbereen 3-8 Nov – more details here. November’s pretty busy so I was tempted for just a moment to say No – but I thought to myself, why not. I haven’t been to West Cork for years & years & it will be so much fun and a good thing to do. Watch this space or come & join us.

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Finally, on a personal note I said Yes when my partner of 23 years asked me to marry him in June 2014. We were married 6 weeks later in Fort William, Scotland on 21 July 2014, a joyous & sunny day.

I have literally hundreds of other examples, big & small. In the past two years my life has been enriched by the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had and the tons of new stuff that I’ve learned.

Not everyone has the same luxury of time that I do right now but I urge you to try this too, even if it’s just in some small way and especially if it’s something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Next time an opportunity presents itself to you & you find yourself about to say No, pause for a moment and ask yourself if you could say Yes instead. I promise you it’s worth it & I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a food-for-thought quote from Carey Lohrenz: “Too comfortable is a heartbeat away from being complacent, and complacent is a heartbeat away from being irrelevant”.  Take action & don’t let yourself become irrelevant!

Three is definitely a charm – my early stage angel investments

Today’s blog is a sister piece to last month’s “Angel Investment from this Rookie’s Perspective”. Last time around I wrote about what I was looking for in early stage startup companies when I was deciding which ones to angel invest in. This time I’m going to talk about what I liked most of all about the three startups I ended up selecting and investing in.

Before I begin, let’s recap on what my motivations are for angel investing in the first place. All angels will no doubt have different motivations. I am excited by the idea of putting something back in terms of helping some new early stage startups get moving. I wanted to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. After some thought in summer 2014 following my successful exit from Learning Pool, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to start another new business of my own and I knew I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else as a bog standard gun for hire (much as I enjoyed my 4 month sojourn in 2014 working with the vInspired Task Squad team – they’re doing really well – check them out) but I did want to carry on working.

This made the quest easier for me as I then knew that I was looking for companies where I could add value with some hands-on involvement and I also knew then that it was important for me to pay more attention to the founder/founding team as I was going to be working with them for the medium term. Let’s face it, in a startup the team or founder is far more important than the idea – ideas are ten a penny and most startups do pivot or at least swivel a little.

One surprising thing – I haven’t invested as part of any formal angel syndicate or group. I really thought I would but it hasn’t happened that way. That topic alone is probably worthy of another blog.

So what and who did I choose? All three startups are cloud based online platforms (a no brainer for me now that I come to think about it!), two of the three founders are female (this makes me very happy), all three founders share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar, two are companies based in England & one is in South Wales (disappointed that I didn’t find anything in Northern Ireland or Scotland this time around), all are involved with changing the way people do things – communicate, learn, organise. All three really care about their team culture as they grow and whilst they’re all focused on generating revenue and making profit, they all know that there’s more to life than making money. Finally, all three have a capacity to really scale quickly and without adding huge resource into the team.

First on my list is RunAClub headed up by fab founder and CEO Sally Higham. RunAClub has everything you could possibly need to run any sort of club or group, all simple to use, neatly packaged and stored in the cloud. Beautiful. Our customers so far are national sports organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups and individual clubs/groups. What do I like most about RunAClub? It’s such a useful product, everyone we speak to loves it and it’s so clearly scaleable. I love most things that truly save people time whilst remaining affordable and easy to use. As an investor, I like that RunAClub is scaling fast in its chosen core market but I also like that there are numerous other verticals for us to move into. An unexpected but very welcome bonus along the way has been that a really old friend has co-invested with me and this gives me a chance to work with him again.

RunAClub team last month in Sally's kitchen in Wiltshire - you don't have to be blonde but it helps!

RunAClub team last month in Sally’s kitchen in Wiltshire – you don’t have to be blonde but it helps!

I first saw Sally pitch at a Clearly So Big Venture Challenge event last summer. During her presentation she said – “what I really need in order to maximise RunAClub’s opportunity is another me” and that resonated strongly with me because I’ve been in that position so many times myself – so when she’d finished pitching I went straight over & introduced myself.

The RunAClub team is the liveliest and most can-do bunch of people that I’ve met in a long time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I’m genuinely looking forward to spending time with them, growing a successful and valuable business.

My next is Captive Health. I love that I’ve known the founder Andrew Cockayne for years. He used to be one of my Learning Pool customers many moons ago and I’m so pleased that he’s become an entrepreneur himself and also that I can continue to work with him. Captive Health is the most mature of my 3 investee companies and in truth is more of a scaleup than a startup.  The company provides the health sector with a platform that allows richer interactions with and between their staff and their patients. Staff can access information and network within their teams when they’re on the move (only 40% of people working in a hospital have access to a desktop). Patients can use Captive Health to provide feedback and information about their choices and preferences. Hospitals love the products and we already have five as customers with many more in our pipeline.

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital – I’m working on their footwear!

I heard Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, speak at last month’s e-Health Week 2015 Summit. His opening gambit was “No industry has ever re-invented itself on the scale that the NHS needs to over the next 5 years without smart use of technology”. Captive Health’s product set offers the NHS some affordable tools with which to get ahead in dealing with their huge challenge and I’m pleased to be part of that mix.

Last but not least is Caerphilly based Noddlepod. Noddlepod is like a Slack for your learning communities. It’s a social learning platform that allows you to easily share your files and search for resources with the same degree of immediacy and familiarity. I met founder Ollie Gardener at a tech event in Buckingham Palace hosted by Her Majesty the Queen. Ollie was wearing Norwegian national dress. You can guess the rest. We’re very grateful to Neil Cocker of Cardiff Start & Matt Johnston of Digital Circle for allowing us to meet!

Noddlepod is my earliest stage investment of the three but it’s grown out of a number of years of considered reflection by the founding team on where learning is going next and Ollie has corralled some very experienced and well know global learning experts onto her Board including our Chairman Charles Jennings and fellow non exec Nigel Paine. Edtech continues to create frenzied excitement in the investor space and we’re encouraged (!) by the recent $1.5bn sale of Lynda to LinkedIn. Great that LinkedIn now has access to all that content but I wonder if they’ve thought about how to deploy it coherently to their millions of users?

With Ollie this month - outside my London Southbank "office" - having tea & more tea

With Ollie this month – outside my London Southbank “office” – having tea & more tea

Until LinkedIn or similar comes a-knocking, we’re focused on bringing Noddlepod to corporate universities and business schools worldwide. I love most that as a Norwegian, Ollie thinks way outside of the four walls of the UK in her growth plans and that she has a number of overseas investors and a pipeline already full of European opportunities.

So that’s my three. Exciting times. I’m certain I’ll prove all those people who advised me against making early stage angel investments wrong. As always I’m interested in hearing your questions, comments, observations. Check us out. Startups always need a helping hand and you all know it makes sense to work with small, growing businesses jammed full of bright, ambitious people with great tech – it helps our local economies and it keeps you sane.

Why are charities struggling to build and launch digital products?

NESTA audience

NESTA audience

This week I was privileged to keynote at the NESTA Impact Investment team’s Going Digital launch with NESTA’s Katie Mountain and Isabel Newman. Katie & Isabel asked me to speak because of my fairly unusual perspective – a tech entrepreneur who’s actually worked recently on a revenue generating digital project launched by an established charity. Earlier this year I was lucky to spend 4 happy months at vInspired, working with Sam Sparrow, Hannah Mitchell & Damien Austin-Walker getting awesome microworking platform Task Squad finessed and launched.

This blog covers the key elements of my NESTA talk without the personal anecdotes and side stories I included on the night. I should also just add a point of clarification here. This blog is about charities/CICs/social enterprises launching revenue generating digital products and services; it isn’t about making charity core business more digital. You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a view on that as well, but that’s for another day. It’s also not about my specific experiences at vInspired – it’s more generic observations across the whole sector. I’ve been a charity trustee myself for well over 10 years.

NESTA's Katie Mountain

NESTA’s Katie Mountain

At first glance, established charities appear to be ideal environments from which to launch digital products. They are crammed full of bright people with tons of good ideas, despite what they say they have more money to invest in product development than most startup businesses, they have a deep understanding of their target market and there’s lots of goodwill towards them, there’s existing infrastructure in the charity for the project to draw from (finance, office space, marketing & PR, etc) and they have easy access to politicians. So what’s making it so hard?

It’s unfamiliar territory…and there’s baggage

The best startups are said to be those that are “scratching an itch”. The entrepreneur sees a gap in the market and develops a product or service to SELL into that gap. The entrepreneur begs, borrows and steals seed funding and assembles a team focused on getting that product or service built and to market as quickly as possible. Money is frequently the key driver but money also qualifies early market interest in the product. Private sector success is often determined by getting to revenue in lightning speed & “owning” that niche before anyone else does. The founder or co-founders have probably had to put their houses up as collateral to raise the seed funding. The team eats, sleeps and breathes the project. Everyone’s under a lot of pressure. Often an unhealthy amount. Despite this, 80% of tech startups fail in their first 18 months according to Forbes (we’ll return to the 5 top reasons for failure at the end of the blog for anyone that’s interested). Charities simply do not work at this pace – but the private sector SMEs they’re competing against do. That’s a challenge.

The second part of this point is that the startup begins with a blank sheet of paper. For charities, many are creating digital projects to diversify away from dependence on government grants or to simply boost their income when other sources are drying up. This is a different type of driver. They are trying to do something that’s well outside their core business. They say that building a tech startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling the plane on the way down. You need your team to be focused and on it. In charities, the digital project is often something people in the team are doing as an addition to their original day job. Working on projects part time is far from ideal and just doesn’t work. One of my conditions upon joining vInspired was that I would only undertake activities where I added value to the Task Squad project and did the things that other people in the team couldn’t do at that time. I stayed away from all-staff meetings, writing reports for trustees and so on.

The environment is risk averse…and no-one has any skin in the game

In my experience, many charity CEOs are very entrepreneurial. They’re also swamped with a million different things. Senior teams and trustees can be very risk averse. Back to that 80% failure thing – this is a high risk and uncomfortable place to be where you have to allocate money and time to something that probably won’t fly. Many charities are only engaging with this process because they are desperate to generate new income. Funders and sources of finance like NESTA, the Nominet Trust, the various social angel groups, will invest in certain projects but they expect to see the charity provide match funding, especially if it has reserves. This puts constant additional pressure on the startup project team as they are under non stop scrutiny and find themselves fielding questions from people in their own team unfamiliar with this territory and expecting to see results fast. For the people in that startup project, the “us” and “them” is very tricky. At least in a private sector startup you’re all working on the same project.

Mary McKenna

Mary McKenna

Too much investment can be a curse

In my view the best digital products start out on a shoestring budget. That way the team is more creative and it’s less of a big deal if the project fails.

A few people when they heard I was giving this talk lobbied me to say the issue for charities in building and launching digital products is lack of money and resources. I’m afraid I disagree. A large budget can lead to laziness, excessive outsourcing and maybe a “build it and they will come” product.

Back to the trustees. Often they meet infrequently but they’re the people who approve and sign things off. This doesn’t sit well with agile development, pivots and product iteration. All startup projects pivot. Getting the trustees into a place where they are comfortable with the risk involved and buy into the match funding element is definitely a challenge, but without it projects are not investor ready.

There’s a lot of meetings and governance

I understand the reasons why charities do this but it’s an additional overhead that other startups just don’t have to deal with. In an early stage private sector startup, decision making sits in the hands of one or two people. They have authority to do what they like. It’s their money. Decisions are made quickly and based upon imperfect data and information. Things move at pace. There are no reports to write, the list of KPIs or metrics monitored in the early days is short or non existent, there’s no-one else to keep in the loop, social impact isn’t measured. A charity tech project has to do all of these additional tasks on top of build and ship.

Pace is the single most frustrating aspect of working in a charity that I experienced. That and having to book meetings with people you can see across the room & who you just want to speak to for two minutes – because that’s how things are done. The structured environment slows everything down.

NESTA Panel - Isabel Newman, Mike Dixon, Kieron Kirkland, Emma Thomas and Shreenath Ragunathan

NESTA Panel – Isabel Newman, Mike Dixon, Kieron Kirkland, Emma Thomas and Shreenath Ragunathan

The team is any organisation’s most valuable asset

Charities have great people. Sam Sparrow who leads vInspired’s Task Squad project is one of the most impressive and talented people I’ve ever worked with in any business. There’s been a terrific drive to get a lot of charity team members onto and through accelerator programmes. What charities are bad at doing is allowing their newly trained intrapreneurs to be responsible and accountable and just to get on with things; especially with people that are considered to be “junior”. Structures are hierarchical where they need to be flatter and more matrix or project driven. In a tech startup, the most appropriate person is allowed to get on with what they’re good at within clear and agreed parameters. I’ve found that in charities, the decision making boundaries are sometimes unclear and this is one reason why the CEO and trustees end up as bottlenecks.

On top of this, there’s a Europe (world?) wide shortage of digital skills, developers and people with good commercial skills and there’s a great deal of competition to attract the best talent. Because these skills are in short supply, the people taking important decisions may not be properly equipped to do so – especially about digital. This results in poor commissioning and bad management of suppliers.

Here’s my presentation slides from the night:

I’ve probably just scratched the surface here and am very conscious that I’ve put forward an awful lot of challenges without many useful solutions. Fortunately, on the night there was an expert panel present (Kieron Kirkland of Nominet Trust, Mike Dixon of CAB, Emma Thomas of YouthNet and Shreenath Ragunathan of Google) all of whom were able to voice their own very practical advice on how the sector can improve in this space.

For anyone who’s wondering about the top 5 reasons startups fail – here they are:

  1. Lack of deep market knowledge – know your audience!
  2. Lack of USP or the ability to properly articulate it – market test your idea, work on your messaging and remember that some ideas are just bad ideas.
  3. Failure to communicate and lack of clarity
  4. Leadership issues – not so much for a charity – this one is more to do with flaky founders or personality clashes amongst co-founders that lead to the startup imploding
  5. The business model is wrong or underdeveloped – this one is KEY – spend as long as you need to getting your business model right

As always I am very much looking forward to your comments on this rather long blog. I hope we can have some useful and positive narrative about what we can all do to make this better because frankly, we really need to. If you have any questions for me about any of the above then please get in touch with me or post your questions up in the comments section for everyone to read and I’ll do my best to answer them.

10 under 30 – female fire starters to watch

My gift to you today is a list of the 10 young women under 30 in my own network that I admire immensely and believe are ones to watch.  This blog is loosely connected to my other posts on women in tech and is also a nice precursor to a couple of events I’m speaking at over the next few weeks (Create: 2014 at CultureTECH in Derry on 17 Sept and Digital Women Teacamp at the NAO on 9 Oct).

I don’t think anyone else out there will know ALL the remarkable women on this list so this blog will allow those that are listed to find each other and it will alert everyone else to their existence – so that you can all find and follow them.

The women on this list are very different from each other but there are a number of common threads that unite them.  They’ve all started something interesting of their own, or are poised to start something.  They’re all friendly but tenacious, busy but generous with their time, smart but hungry to learn more, successful but humble.

Anyway, without further ado and in no particular order, here’s my list:

Sheree Atcheson, Kainos

Sheree Atcheson of Kainos

Sheree Atcheson @nirushika
In her day job Sheree works as a software engineer at Kainos in Belfast. She founded Women Who Code UK as one of her many sidelines and she was one of the organisers of the Belfast Technology Conference earlier this year, attracting and engaging with speakers from the US and elsewhere. Sheree works tirelessly to promote STEM career options to younger people and she uses a quote on women in tech that I love – “in order to be in tech, you do not need to be a man, a “geek” or a “nerd”. All you need is to be interested.”
Sheree is an excellent role model for younger women and girls who are considering a career as coders and we’re working together in December at Queen’s University on just such a workshop.
You can find out more about Women Who Code UK & Sheree here http://womenwhocode.co.uk/tag/sheree-atcheson/

Serena McCrossan @serenamc
I worked with Serena at Learning Pool where she’s a Digital Marketing Exec.

Serena McCrossan Learning Pool

Serena McCrossan Learning Pool

Serena started her own business, Innov8 Marketing, in her final year of university when she was 21 and ran that for a few years. She wrote a very honest blog about her own startup experience that you can read here http://giveitsomesparkle.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/business-failure-is-never-fatal-a-story-of-bravery/ I like the way Serena managed to take the positives from her Innov8 experience and she’s definitely living proof that walking through treacle only makes you stronger.
Serena’s one of the most confident and self-assured young women I’ve ever met & she also knows more about SEO and web lead generation than anyone else I know. It’s great that she’s working at Learning Pool but a little bit of me wonders from time to time how awesome the next business she starts by herself will be.

Olwen Sheedy, PWC Dublin

Olwen Sheedy, PWC Dublin

Olwen Sheedy @OlwenSheedy
Where to start with Olwen! She’s the most organised person I know and a definite contender for the person who has achieved most, lived in the most places, knows the most people and is still well under 25. Hey – she’s even appointed her own “personal” board of directors. Isn’t that a cool idea – think of all the support you need in the various parts of your life & then slot people in. You don’t even have to tell them if you don’t want to!
I met Olwen when she was working for Enterprise Ireland in London, helping Irish businesses get a foothold in the UK market, but she already had a US track record under her belt long before she got here and she’s now joined PWC in Dublin. Olwen – London’s missing you already & I’m expecting great things from you.

Immy Kaur @ImmyKaur

Immy Kaur, Hub Birmingham

Immy Kaur, Hub Birmingham

Everything that Immy does is about using her own considerable personal energy to make positive change happen for other people and society. Her projects have all been deeply seated in social good and it’s remarkable to see such a gifted young person focus her energies in this way. The world would be a very different place if only there were a few more like Immy around.
In the short time that I’ve known her I can just tell she’s one of those people that gets things done very quickly without much in terms of resources – the best sort of person but one that’s in short supply.
She’s Co-Founder of Hub Birmingham – and I quote “Hub Birmingham is focused on making Birmingham more equitable, more democratic, more wondrous and a home for the 21st century. Made in Birmingham, Made by Birmingham, Made for Birmingham.” Keep on keeping on Immy – I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us when you’re the PM.

Charlotte Jee, ComputerworldUK

Charlotte Jee, ComputerworldUK

Charlotte Jee @CharlotteJee
Charlotte is senior reporter at ComputerworldUK covering government/public sector and how they use (and abuse!) technology. Like Elaine (see later) she gets to mix with and interview a lot of cool tech people in her job. Charlotte starting working whilst she was still at university, writing newswire (three-sentence ticker stuff you see at the bottom of Reuters screens) on the pharma industry for a couple of years.
I feel as if I’ve known Charlotte for years but that’s probably because she’s a networker and a party goer with her finger right on the pulse of government. I love that she calls herself a “government botherer” on her Twitter bio.
My hope is that Charlotte is going to collect lots and lots of scurrilous information about Whitehall personalities and then publish a no-holds-barred book for us all to enjoy.

Elaine Burke @CriticalRedPen

Elaine Burke, Silicon Republic

Elaine Burke, Silicon Republic

Elaine is a Dublin based tech journalist who works for Silicon Republic, Ireland’s awesome online source of technology news. She writes for traditional print media too and has authored a couple of chapters of a book coming out later this year on Dublin’s Silicon Docks. When she’s not writing about tech, she’s talking about it on the radio. Elaine was named Tech Journalist of the Year in the 2013 Journalism and Media Awards (also known as the JAMs).
We first met in real life when Elaine was interviewing me on camera about my views on women in tech. What a job as I hate being filmed. I was so impressed by Elaine’s thorough preparation, quiet composure and command of her technical team.
Basically Elaine has one of the coolest jobs in tech where she gets to meet lots & lots of tech startups, tech glitterati and even better, sample and review all the latest gadgets. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when she starts something herself!

Sarah McBride, Create: 2014

Sarah McBride, Create: 2014

Sarah McBride @SMB_Business
Sarah is one of the youngest women on my list. I’ve worked with Sarah on the Create: 2014 conference that’s happening at CultureTECH festival in Derry on 17 September (it’s not too late to join us) and have been thoroughly impressed with her professionalism and level of ambition.
Sarah just got her “A” Level results this summer (I know she’ll hate me saying this but she got 4 As) and is starting at University of Bath next month. It’s wonderful to meet such a motivated young person and I have no doubt whatsoever that we’ll see Sarah starting her own business before too long.


Lyra McKee @LyraMcKee

Lyra McKee, Beacon Reader

Lyra McKee, Beacon Reader

Lyra is a Belfast based investigative and independent journalist. I first met her at a Barcamp in Derry back in 2009 when she was an achingly young startup founder & CEO but I was immediately struck by her passion and fire. At that time, Lyra had founded (and self funded with 3 of her friends) a startup called NewsRupt, an intermediary company that allowed news editors to bid on stories created by freelance journalists. I’ve since watched her get a number of her own ideas up and running as well as working in other people’s startups on the side to earn a bit of cash.
Lyra is full of great ideas and she’s forever rooting for the underdog. I know that one of these days she’s going to pull off something big. You can read her blog here http://muckraker.me/

Lily Dart, dxw

Lily Dart, dxw

Lily Dart @Lily_Dart
Lily is a graphic designer and front end developer for public sector web design business dxw. She describes herself as a “geek and feminist”. We’ve recently been working together on the preparation for the second #DigitalWomen Teacamp event that’s happening on 9 October at the NAO.
I first encountered Lily at one of the UK Govcamp events a couple of years ago and was impressed by her straight talking about what it’s like being a young female web developer working in a largely all male environment and her useful advice for other young women.
I love that Lily (like Charlotte) started working as a freelancer whilst she was still at university, earning money and building her network. We need more women like Lily in tech.

Emma Leahy @emsiememsie

Emma Leahy, Get Invited

Emma Leahy, Get Invited

I first met Emma when she was the Editor at Sync NI, Northern Ireland’s most respected technology, science and innovation magazine. I was bowled over by her energy and positivity. No wonder she was the person chosen to profile tech giant Steve Wozniak when he graced the Province with his presence and I will be forever jealous that she got to meet one of my absolute favourite entrepreneurs, Sir Tim Smit.

These days Emma is Marketing Manager for online ticketing and event registration startup Get Invited. The guys are going great guns and currently have almost 400 events advertised on the platform with gross ticket value approaching £3m – wow!

I’m always delighted to run into Emma at events because she has the sunniest personality and she knows all the best tech gossip!

Samantha Sparrow, Task Squad

Samantha Sparrow, Task Squad

Samantha Sparrow @SamRSparrow
I couldn’t write a blog like this without including Sam, even though she’s ever so slightly past 30 (sorry for telling everyone that Sam). Sam is a force of nature and a complete one-off. In my long and varied career, I’ve never worked with anyone else like her.
A lawyer and a social entrepreneur, Sam is the driving force behind Task Squad, a social innovation startup from national youth volunteering charity vInspired. Sam has worked in the 3rd sector for 10 years and daily brings to bear all the skills she gained as part of her legal training in a positive way to help bring about social change. For the first 4 months of this year the two of us met with hundreds of people across London and without fail, every single one of them said to me afterwards “Wow – she’s impressive!”

Sam’s a blogger (check out the High Tea Cast) and a Hoxton Radio DJ, she ran the London Marathon for 2 children’s charities this year, she’s a chatterbox, a multitasker, a visionary and a livewire with a heart of gold. Cross her at your peril!  If we had more people like Sam in charity innovation the world would be a very different place.

Olivia McVeigh @omcveigh15 & Shelly McVeigh @mcveigh_shelly

Olivia McVeigh and Shelly McVeigh

Olivia McVeigh and Shelly McVeigh

At 16 and 17 respectively these are the youngest women on my list and they’re also the ones closest to my heart as they’re my nieces. To say I’m expecting big things from these two is an understatement. They’ve just received their GCSE results and are starting out with A Levels next. They’ve both been brought up to believe 100% that they can do ANYTHING with their lives and that opportunity exists at every turn in the road. I have no idea yet what Olivia and Shelly will choose to do but I know it’s going to be huge – and for that reason I’ve sneaked them in at the end of my list.

OK – the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that I’ve listed not 10 but 13.  I hope I haven’t missed out anyone from my circle…

Please continue the conversation and make your own nominations in the comments below.

5 immediate improvements we can make in the charity sector


At #UKGC14 - my first outing in a vInspired t-shirt telling the Task Squad story (Photo by David Pearson)

At #UKGC14 – my first outing in a vInspired t-shirt telling the Task Squad story (Photo by David Pearson)

Friday marked the completion of my first 4 weeks working in a charity – ever.  In the course of my long and varied career I’ve so far worked in local and central government, been a freelance consultant, temped in a trade union, spent time in countless (and many pointless) private sector organisations, done a bit of quango-hopping and I’ve worked in or founded 5 start-ups.  On 20 January I joined Task Squad as its first ever CEO.  Task Squad is a brand new social innovation project from national well known volunteering charity vInspired.  Our mission is to get young people into paid employment by matching them to entry level micro working opportunities.

I thought 4 weeks in might be a good time to reflect upon and write down my experiences so far before I lose them.  It would also be good to get feedback from others at this early milestone – if I’m truthful I’m seeking reassurance that I’m progressing in the right direction and haven’t missed or misinterpreted anything.

Some of you will know me as a tech entrepreneur and one of Learning Pool’s co-founders.  Many, many people have asked me why I’ve chosen to work in a charity at this time instead of rushing off to start another private sector business.

The reality is that charities and social enterprises are doing a lot of innovative and interesting things.  In the past 4 weeks I’ve been introduced by Task Squad team members and funders to loads of wonderful projects bunged full of enthusiastic and motivated people who work hard and are as committed as any startup team.  What the projects I’ve been interacting with so far have in common is they’re all using tech for good and they’re all being run by teams of social entrepreneurs.

Anyway – it goes without saying that charities and social enterprises exist for good reasons and to do good things.  However, these are the 5 things that have bugged me a bit in my first month.

1.       There’s so much duplication within the sector.  What I mean is there’s so many projects doing what appears to me to be the same thing.  Government and the big funders are partially to blame by funding similar projects in isolation instead of forcing teams to merge and work together.  It would be useful if there was a matching service for small charities or social innovation projects that want to merge to save money and cover more ground.  Maybe there is?

2.       The entire sector is gripped by “accelerator” fever.  The prevalence of and participation in social accelerator programmes is reaching epidemic proportions.  Every which way I turn I uncover another one.  There has to be a better way for the sector to learn.  Also – who is paying all for all these growth accelerators and is that a good use of money.

3.       The working environment seems very formal and structured to me – even in a charity that’s relaxed and informal in many ways.  A lot of internal meetings take place and a lot of time is spent on governance type activities…what I describe as doing things the right way rather than doing the right things.  I wonder if there are ways to improve productivity whilst preserving integrity and just getting on and doing more “stuff”.

4.       Trustees appear to me to be underutilised by many charities and I don’t know why this is.  I’m a trustee of a couple of not for profit organisations.  I joined because I wanted to help them make a difference and they were looking for someone with my particular skill set.  I want to be useful.  I don’t want to be distant and see only the senior team at quarterly board meetings.  I’m sure this must work better in some places and I’d be interested in finding out who does this well and how they’ve made that happen.  Please send me any good examples you have of charities or not for profits who’ve got a great relationship with their trustees and who are getting the best out of them.

5.       Why isn’t there a central directory of all social funders and investors where they publish all their live funds?  This would make it easier for charities and social innovation projects to find and compare them and it would also significantly improve their dealflow.  Again – maybe there is and if so I would be grateful if someone can point me to it.

Apologies if I’ve dwelled upon too much of the negative in this first blog on this topic.  I don’t mean to be harsh as there’s so much good work happening generally and I personally feel completely elated to be working at Task Squad.  My interest is in helping everyone help each other to cover more ground with the limited resources we all have at our disposal.

I need your comments more than ever.  Let’s get some conversations started!