Tech Startup Champion
Hi Rosie! How are you? Thanks for agreeing to talk to me. I was thinking we should start with a little bit about what you do?
Hi Elspeth! Currently I work at the University of Bath Innovation Centre – we are part of the SETsquared university incubator network. My official title is ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ which (apart from making it sound like I should bring a sleeping bag to work with me…) means that I’m part of the business support team.
On a day to day basis I work with a number of tech startup companies at various stages of the startup cycle – this could be right at the start at the ‘ideas’ end, or finding product/market fit, helping to build teams… or working on pitch decks to go out to investors.
Entrepreneur in Residence is a great title! And what got you interested in tech?
It was my Dad and his Sinclair ZX81 computer that gave me an opportunity to get hands-on with tech. I would spend hours copying out strings of code from a magazine in order to ping a pixel around the screen – but what a sense of achievement! Like painting or lego, the ‘cause and effect’ process of coding is very empowering for a child… and it stuck with me.
I think the other reason is that I’m always happiest at the startup phase of the project or venture and this is what excites me about working in tech as it gives you the tools to be innovative. I learnt early on that, with the right team, you can turn around new ideas really quickly – and there’s a true joy in that discovery process – even it it doesn’t lead anywhere, and even better if it does and suddenly you’re raising money for your startup.
There’s also something really interesting in the way that online tech allows you to watch how people use your website or app and – without sounding too creepy – I find this intimacy really fascinating; you can launch a global product but you’re only ever a few clicks away from the end user.
Do you think that being a woman and having this passion for tech has affected your working life?
I think it led to some incredible opportunities. I never intended to work in tech but it’s how my career has evolved…!
I started out working for the BBC in the mid 90s as a researcher across both radio and TV programmes.
So how did you get to where you are now?
It was an interesting time because the media industry in the UK was just beginning its transformation from analogue to digital; so being part of that change was really exciting. I chose to follow the tech route rather than stay in broadcast because it felt like a bit of a wild west frontier. It took me to a job working at beeb.com, which was an early iteration of BBC online, where I ended up running the Top of the Pops website and doing webchats with popstars!
Then I went to work for a cable company in Amsterdam rolling out broadband internet and digital TV. On the tech side in the mid 90s we were pretty much making it up as we went along as there was no CMS or design precedent to follow – so I developed an interest in coding and in digital production and design. More recently I have moved into business development and marketing which means I get to work strategically with lots of great tech companies … but on the downside it means my coding skills are still stuck in the 90’s!
I imagine that the tech world has changed a lot since the mid 1990s?
In general I have a problem with the term ‘tech’ because it has come to apply to such a broad and mainstream industry; ’tech’ used to be all about hardware and ‘silicon’, then it encompassed the internet and the online experience, and now it includes products and services ie. ‘things’… and almost every company now has some kind of ’tech component’ – jobs that used to be purely about non-tech stuff like content or visuals are now considered tech roles because of the digitisation of the production and marketing process…
What about women in technical roles?
As far as I remember, when the online tech industry was still evolving it wasn’t unusual to see a woman in the coding team or pioneering with visuals or game design because the roles between creative, production and development were more blurred. There was a natural iterative process because the teams were small and roles still being defined; women who had started out as journalists (like me) or designers were doing coding and publishing websites, which then led on to more technical roles.
Saying that, there were never lots of women proportionally and in terms of the volume of ‘women in tech’ I would say there are much more now… but I actually think it’s become more polarised – women who work for tech companies now are doing important stuff; but generally not doing the coding or thinking about how the architecture of the code applies to the product. And I think this is because the route into these roles has become much more formal, ie. it begins at school and then you go to uni or college and you choose (or are are led towards) a ’tech career’ early on in that process (rather than having the opportunity or the motivation to switch to it later in life or to go sideways in your career).
This is an especially significant issue for women and we need to look at the entry points into the industry and the reskilling opportunities, and also, most importantly, at the way girls are introduced to tech at school.
Do you have any advice for women working in tech?
I think a lot of women in the workplace have ‘imposter syndrome’ and it’s probably more exaggerated if you work in an industry where there are fewer women than men. The benefit of getting older is realising you can make yourself be more confident by doing things you’re scared of. It took me far too long to realise this but it works – if you put your hand up for the challenging jobs, take the initiative or question your peers when you know you are right, accept the invitations to do that important presentation or pitch (even though it’s going to take a whole weekend of practice to get through the slides without shaking) – every time you do this you evolve a bit until, holy shit! – you actually become the person that you’ve been pretending to be!
Thanks, Rosie. That’s great advice.