For International Women’s Day, Tech Nation is celebrating inspirational women in the tech sector who have found the strength and resilience to lead their companies through the pandemic.
As our chief operating officer Rowena Knapp has noted, Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities for women – and there is growing evidence to suggest that it has made life even more challenging for women working in the tech sector compared to their male counterparts.
Childcare burdens (worsened by school closures), a feeling of increased pressure to be productive and a greater possibility of being laid off – all of which can take a toll on mental health – are just a few factors adversely affecting women working in the sector.
To discover how women are managing to overcome such challenges while leading tech companies, we asked 19 founders and business leaders based across the UK to share what they have learned during the pandemic and what leadership has meant to them at this time. We also invited them to highlight a woman in their team (pictured on the right) who has supported them along the way.
The responses were inspiring – and you can read them below.
Riham says: “For me, leadership has meant steering the ship and making sure no one is left behind. It has meant having a realistic plan in place to cope with the unexpected and acting quickly. I have been able to rely on my team during these challenging times, so I would say choosing a great team, trusting in their abilities and letting experts do what they do best has contributed to our overall success. I would like to recognise Jenika Karsan, our head of global marketing, who is is highly organised, focused and driven – all excellent qualities that have allowed her to excel in her role.”
“For me, leadership has meant steering the ship and making sure no one is left behind.”
Louise says: “Most importantly, leadership has meant empowering my team to solve problems. The pandemic has called for us to adapt and change our business models and priorities, and our teams are our chief problem solvers. They’re at the heart of what happens at our businesses every day – so listening to, and demonstrating trust in, them is key. Adaptability, communication, culture and trust have been key to maintaining positivity during this time.” Lauren David, PR Executive at Confused.com, adds: “Louise has stood as a firm role model to everyone in the company, by acknowledging those that have been worst hit by the pandemic and proactively supporting them.”
Oyinkansola says: “Covid-19 has taught us how to stay innovative and creative. It has allowed me to reflect on how to make impact for the staff members in my organisation, as well as our community members. I have been able to upskill 50 black women who were in low skilled employment to be software developers. Charlene Hunter (pictured centre), head of training at Black Codher, and Olaoluwa Dada (pictured right), our head of marketing worked virtually to support more than 50 women on a project together with the rest of the team.”
“I have been able to upskill 50 black women who were in low skilled employment to be software developers.”
Raina Heverin, cofounder & director of strategy, SupplyWell
Raina says: “Resilience and the ability to stay focused, move quickly and not give in to fear have been vital in these times. It would be easy to only listen to one narrative, panic, and join in the chaos. However, I have learnt that by remaining positive, focused and determined, I can help to lead the team through uncertainty. I think it’s really important for businesses to be agile and pivot where needed, and by staying positive you can spot opportunities. This past year has been unfathomable, and it has taught us is that nothing is certain.”
Lyndsey says: “Iterating our offer to adapt to the needs of individuals and organisations has been a challenge during Covid. Being dynamic in our approach has led to us testing new strategies, reviewing regularly to understand impact and being open to trying new ways of working. My cofounder Lynsey Harbottle and I have both had lockdown babies, so we have had to juggle childcare while continuing to run the business very shortly after giving birth. We have the utmost commitment to realising our vision and mission, to be a catalyst for inclusion by demystifying diversity and providing solutions to break down barriers. The pandemic has highlighted our area of work as a priority to many businesses and we have had to work incredibly hard to blend our lives even moreso to achieve the impact we want to see.”
“My cofounder and I have had to juggle childcare while continuing to run the business very shortly after giving birth to our respective children.”
Suzanne says: “It has been difficult to remain positive at times but being able to use a range of tech solutions has been invaluable. It has meant being able to stay in touch with the team, and managing projects has been far easier than it would have been without them. Having the opportunity to connect with people via video messaging has stopped me and the rest of the team feeling so isolated, and virtual coffee breaks have been a great way to put a bit of fun into the working from home day. Flexibility has been vital over the last year – the day almost never goes to plan when working from home and learning to accept that isn’t easy for a control freak!”
Vicky says: “Emotion is not something to be down played, or held in check. During my whole career as a leader, ‘too emotional’ has been hurled as an easy insult. In this pandemic, the only way to keep the team healthy and functioning has been to accept and embrace that we are emotional beings, not machines. It’s about time!”
“In this pandemic, the only way to keep the team healthy and functioning has been to accept and embrace that we are emotional beings, not machines.”
Sarah says: “We appreciate the need to be creative in staying ‘connected’. Each week starts with a team meeting where we set our priorities tasks and learning goals for the week. Each morning we come together as a team to ensure the day has structure, and on a Friday we wrap the week up by sharing what we’ve achieved and learnt. We’re communicating more, and we’ve virtualised our training and support channels for our community and team. Our business manager Katie Barrie has strategically led the onboarding and training of 5,000 schools. She has created the systems and training systems needed to enable our school community growth to go with ease, enabling our customers and schools to remain valued and special throughout.”
Schehrezade says: “It has been important to have open channels of communication with staff during Covid-19 – not only for the projects we are delivering, but also for me to assess staff morale and mental health. I made a conscious effort to do this once a week, which was easy in some ways because we are a small team. For founders running larger organisations, find senior individuals who can help you carry out the ‘communications check-in’ – but make it clear that your door/Zoom session is always open. The nature of the pandemic is such that you don’t know if illness or death are impacting your staff – and you need to ask. People will remember if you ‘sweat the small stuff’.”
Marie says: “For me, leadership has meant embracing truth and transparency, being honest with our clients about what is possible, both with ourselves and when we need to ask for support. We developed a free library of employee wellbeing tools and resources for the local business community to access, which led to the creation of one of our main services today. So, if your true intention is to show up and provide value for others, I have learned that only good things can come of that. Throughout the pandemic, my cofounder Melissa Armstrong has managed to juggle home-schooling, running another business, and looking after her older family and all while her partner worked away five days a week. Despite this, she has pushed herself to grow and excel in her role.”
“My cofounder has managed to juggle home-schooling, running another business, and looking after her older family.”
Louise says: “Leadership meant not freaking out when it would have been very easy to panic in the early days of the pandemic, and instead taking quick and decisive action to secure the business. It also meant keeping a keen eye on the impact to those working in the markets we serve and responding to their needs, dedicating time and resource to create a community to share experiences and good practice between the organisations we work with. My sales manager Sally Forsyth has helped us increase our market share in the UK, doing so with sensitivity to the circumstances of both the people and the organisations within our core markets. Like many parents of young children she has done this while balancing some incredibly challenging times at home.”
Louise says: “Founders in normal times require significant resilience and drive, and through a pandemic this resilience needs to scale up exponentially. Safeguarding the business and team have been key: micro management of cashflow and very advance planning of fundraising are essential. We cut back on spend fast and severely as you can always spend more if things are more buoyant that expected. We have needed to be flexible and nimble to respond to new regulations affecting our business every few months while diversifying to create new products that are less affected by the pandemic. Working with the team to ensure their wellbeing has been a careful balancing act – collaborating to keep up motivation, support staff juggling home schooling, spot emerging mental health challenges and find new ways to work remotely.”
Louise says: “If I have learnt one thing during the crisis, it is the importance of resilience. I have endeavoured to constantly cultivate hope and a sense optimism for something better ahead. At leadership level, this is vital to help others remain focused and resilient. It is empowering to know that you can choose to let a terrible situation defeat you, or you can make choices about how you respond and how you want to approach a situation moving forward. My advice for other founders is to ask for help when you need it, remember you always have a choice and above all else hold on to hope – be optimistic and others will be too. Our Enterprise Innovation Manager Jess Phillips has continued to be a strong driver for creativity and innovation across our organisation.”
“I have endeavoured to constantly cultivate hope and a sense of optimism for something better ahead. I think this is vital at a leadership level.”
Asha says: “In February last year we launched EduPod, a bespoke online platform to help schools create a whole school approach to mental health. By March, all schools were closed due to lockdown and the launch plan crumbled overnight. I was overwhelmed and did not know what to do but, as tends to happen, one of the best ideas came to me as I was getting to sleep. We ran a series of online webinars based on mental health-related topics, demoing EduPod to more than 3,000 schools. I also led a digital transformation during Covid, which taught me that technology is not scary. There are many buzz words, but strip it all back and it is easy to get your head around. Remember – you don’t need to be a coder to enter the industry.”
“I have learnt that technology is not scary. There are many buzz words, but if you strip it all back it is actually easy to get your head around.”
Lorna says: “Thank goodness for good tech! It has allowed us all to continue to operate and, more importantly, allowed businesses to pivot. I think one of the biggest challenges during Covid-19 is around focus. When everything is changing so quickly, it is easy to keep reacting to every small change, whereas I think it’s been important to recognise what is important to business success and stick with it.”
Anna says: “Leadership during the pandemic has extended beyond the usual boundaries of care and concern for team members during working hours, to concern about their wellbeing 24/7. Coupled with a total lack of information in the early days, leadership has been tough and has certainly pulled on the resilience reserves. I fully believe in being authentic as a leader and sharing our thought process; however, I have held back on sharing the stress load with the wider team as I felt it was important that they could see someone making decisions and taking action without seeing the panicked paddling underneath the surface. Our head of people Clare Dobson has had to move all our hiring and onboarding processes online during lockdown – a huge effort as we have hired 19 people since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Alison says: “Leading a pre-revenue business through the pandemic has tested us. Covid halted our 2020 national university strategy and we were pre-PAYE – and pre-revenue – which left us ineligible for furlough. During these challenges I reflected on my founding values, purpose and why iFynd remains important. The answers to those questions guided me, and despite Covid I can honestly say I am stronger, more focused, grateful and truly humbled to be a surviving founder today. When you hear the words ‘change the world’, I think the pandemic has shown us that the world really can change in huge and unexpected ways – so even in these tough times, startup land is a great and promising place to be.”
“Despite Covid, I can honestly say I am stronger, more focused, grateful and truly humbled to be a surviving founder today.”
Pauline says: “Leadership for me means being adaptable, listening to others and then taking action, as well as problem solving with people. I also think leadership is helping others find their joy in work. I’m a true believer that people do their best work when they are happy. If you have the right people in the right roles, trust them to do their job. Provide guidance, make sure the strategy is clear and ensure they understand their part in achieving it. Despite the juggle of being a full-time working mum during the pandemic, our head of marketing Kristina King always gives maximum effort and enthusiasm in every aspect of her role. Over the past 12 months, she has successfully steered the company in a strategic pivot into a new market and launched a new brand.”
Kim says: “A big learning has been about reframing challenging times so that we spot opportunities and not waste time worrying about things we can’t control. We try to use the language of ‘what if’, as this is a great way to think in a more expansive way versus having a fixed mindset. Clementine has has been like having a third baby (I have two small boys), and I have had to get my head around the fact that to grow, it can’t just be about my voice or ideas any more, which means bringing onboard a new team. Our lead developer Alina Draganescu is absolutely unflappable with complete clarity of communication. She has a growth mindset, is well respected by the entire team and has world-class technical skills.”
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