I grew up in east London and I have always loved technology, maths and technical things. I studied my GCSEs early, got three and a half A-levels in maths, in addition to French and physics, and I graduated with a master’s degree in maths and computer science from Oxford aged 20.
However, it was more work experience than academics that set me up for my first role. I did an internship at Goldman Sachs and spent two weeks at Lehman Brothers in my first year of university, then I started working at Deutsche Bank for my graduate scheme.
I was quite fortunate – in the roles that I had in these organisations and the teams I was in – that I wasn’t made to feel any prejudice because I’m a woman. It wasn’t until I spoke at a ‘women in tech’ conference that I realised being a woman was something that could have counted as a disadvantage.
At that conference, I heard from the keynote speaker that there’s such a poor representation of women in the technical field. Yet hearing there are things that can be done to change it was the impetus for founding Stemettes.
With Stemettes we’re trying to change the social norm for wider society as well as for girls and young women. There are lots of different ways for us to try to do that, as young women live in lots of different places and have varied interests, but we are trying to change how a ‘technical woman’ is perceived.
As I’m quite technical, one of the biggest challenges I have is that I’m used to working with algorithms, which work mostly how you ask them to. Human beings don’t act like that. Whether it’s people we’re hiring for the team, partners we’re working with, or schools that have their own internal policies that they change all the time, there’s always human beings involved in any kind of transaction that we’re doing. I’m continually trying to work out how to overcome this, with new ways to engage with people, new guides and different ways to set expectations for people, it’s a continuous learning process.
Leadership for me is about giving people a reason to follow you, and giving them a way they can follow you that makes sense for them. So it’s not about the carrot and the stick approach, it’s about what they actually need, what motivates them and helping them to achieve that and to be fulfilled by that, in line with what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re trying to get done. It’s about setting a vision, and enabling people to understand why that’s the vision they want to work towards, or being able to tap into how that links to their vision too.
I think it’s important for women in any position to have a group of people who are either peers or mentors – people you can trust – to compare notes with, because anything you’re going through is not unique to you. There’s someone else in the world that’s gone through that; there’s probably someone else you know who’s been in that position before, and, whatever it might be, there’s always someone else that’s gone through it. There are so many networks and resources, mailing lists and forums out there to help you find your tribe.
Also, I think it’s very important that it’s not just when times are hard that you’re looking for ways to make changes and for things to improve on. Often, if you’re in a position of leadership you might think, ‘It works for me, why wouldn’t it work for everyone else,’ or ‘Everyone should suffer through what I suffered through,’ when actually being in a position of influence and leadership means you’re able to change things and make them fairer for the others that are coming up behind you. You could be that change, and you should be that change.
The best piece of advice I’ve been given is from [American computer scientist] Grace Hopper: ‘It’s better to seek forgiveness than to seek permission’. There are a lot of times you might think, ‘maybe I’m not allowed to do that’. It’s something I come up against quite a lot when I speak and people ask me questions afterwards, such as: ‘What about this, am I allowed to…?’ and I say, ‘Look, don’t ask for permission. If it’s something you’ve done your research on and you believe enough in, go ahead and do it and then seek forgiveness if necessary later on’.
Since being featured in Brummell magazine’s Inspirational Women list in 2016, I’ve got a new podcast out with The Evening Standard called Women Take Charge, and Stemettes has launched a new private social network for our alumni and other girls and young women, aged 13 and above, where they’re able to connect, share, support and collaborate. We’re constantly working on new programmes around qualifications for girls and young women across the country, so no matter where they are, they can be part of a tribe.