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The third of our interviews for the recently launched Women in Industry Series, encouraging equality across the board with the goal of equipping women with the knowledge and tools to smash the glass ceiling and pave the way for others to do the same. Sarah Windrum inspired us from the day we met.
Tell us about yourself and your career to date…
I’m the CEO of technology firm The Emerald Group who work with organisations in the manufacturing, engineering, construction, and logistics industries. We look at what our clients do at an operational, day to day level and advise them on how they can use technology to do it more effectively. Whether it’s hardware, IT infrastructure, or software, we offer a range of different solutions.
I founded Emerald in 2009 with my co-founder. Before that I was working for a mobile technology company based in London, helping to build their Midlands operation. We built it from nothing up to over 250 customers. It was a great learning curve for me working in the technology and B2B sectors.
Going back even further I worked in a publishing company for nearly ten years, which is when I first got excited about technology. We printed a commercial property magazine and in 2004 wanted to take it online. Now, online publications are standard, but at the time we had only a paper version which went out once a month. Because it was a small publisher they wanted someone to lead the project and then outsource for the expertise they needed. I was project lead and learnt both HTML and SQL, as it was an SQL database at the back end.
We were designing it from scratch asking questions like “what do we want to do?” and “what are people looking for?”. It was brilliant to start right from the beginning. It was so different to putting together the magazine, I loved it. Having instant access to information and being able to tailor what you see was really exciting for me, and it was the first time I realised what technology could do and how powerful it was.
Prior to that I studied English Literature at University so it wasn’t a logical transition to move into a career in technology; but now what is important to me is ensuring technology is an enabler for communication and that it is user focused. So when the project came to an end and I had to go back to my day job, I realised that my passion lay in technology, and I started looking for other opportunities. I was very lucky getting my start in mobile technology because I didn’t have the skills that were typically required for the industry. I had a friend who worked for the company who hired me, and I think that goes to show how important building relationships and maintaining connections are. I haven’t looked back!
What is your definition of success?
Success is so different to everyone, it’s such a personal thing. I measure success in different ways – I can be quite hard on myself and I think that’s a common trait of high achievers. So now I measure it in very small amounts.
Sometimes success is getting myself and my 4 year old daughter out of the house and where we need to be at 8.30 in the morning. That’s what success can look like on some days, it’s you achieving what you want to achieve. Sometimes that’s not being a CEO or being on a board. It might be being able to support your family, or going into your local school to support people there.
I think we put too much pressure, particularly on women, to be that star at the top of the tree. It also depends on what stage in life you’re at as to what success means to you. I think to myself that I love what I do, but I do make a lot of sacrifices. That suits me now, but it’s possible that in 5 to 10 years I might change what I do, and that again will be success of a different kind.
As a leader, who is your role model and why?
I’ve got a lot of different role models but if I were to pick one, it would be my daughter. She teaches me more than anything without realising, I call her my business mentor. She makes me take stock and pause. She makes me believe in magic and the simple things. We can get so caught up in what’s next and she reminds me about being present.
When a child wants to play a game, that game means everything to them in that moment, and they aren’t worrying about what’s happening tomorrow or next week. So life is about a balance; sometimes you have to think ahead, but there are other times when you should just stop and be in the moment. She’s only 4 so she won’t appreciate this yet!
What is your biggest accomplishment in your life so far?
I came from a fairly standard background. No one in my family had been to university and I attended a local comprehensive school. I was told by my English A-Level teacher that I had the potential to go to Oxford or Cambridge University to study English. It was the first time anyone had pushed me further than I thought I was capable of going.
This teacher coached me through the interview process as I’d never been through anything like that before. I went to visit Oxford to see what it was like prior to interviewing and it was beautiful. I was looking at the tutors thinking how amazing it was that I had just been reading their work in textbooks and now I was actually meeting them in person! The interview itself was the most daunting thing I’ve done to date. I was sitting in a room that looked like a museum, I was scared to even sit on a chair!
There were so many hurdles to overcome in the lead up to Oxford; I remember the entry requirements were 2 A’s and a B at A-Level. When I arrived to pick up my results, I got 1 A and 2 B’s so I thought I wouldn’t be able to go. I spoke to my teacher on the day, feeling like it wasn’t meant for me and had resigned myself to not being able to go. Then he told me that actually, “they still want you”. Despite my grades, they saw something in me at the interview and offered me a place based on that.
It wasn’t smooth sailing even once I’d started the course. In the first six weeks I kept getting essays returned with poor marks and every week I would tell myself I was quitting and going back home. It was a real shock as I had been used to being top of the class at school and not really having to try that hard. I was suddenly in this situation where everyone seemed so much smarter than me. They’d been to schools like Eton which were totally alien to me, so it was a real learning curve. In week six I finally had an essay returned with improved marks.
In the end I got a first-class honours degree from Oxford, and I had worked really hard for it. It was the first time I’d pushed myself to be better. When I spoke to the tutor who had interviewed me at the admissions stage, she said they had seen the potential in me and knew I was capable of doing it. That’s what I hope to be for other people now, and so I seek the potential in others. That’s my greatest accomplishment to date, and it was a culmination of people seeing potential in me and also me pushing myself.
In your opinion, what are the key challenges for a female leader in your sector and how could these be overcome?
The technology industry is still heavily male dominated, and many of our clients are the same. It gets really lonely. Once I arrived at a networking event in London, looked into the room and saw a sea of grey suits. I just thought, I could leave now and no one would know. But I’d come all the way to London to attend, so pushed myself to go and talk to the people I’d come to see. It seems that it’s still the case that if you’re the only woman in the room everyone notices.
I was recently appointed to the Local Enterprise Partnership to champion digital skills. The panel who interviewed me were all male. I still have a constant nagging feeling telling me ‘look at everyone else around you, you shouldn’t be here, you don’t belong’. But it’s about turning that on its head and feeling like it’s a good thing rather than feeling negative about it. I was at the Manufacturing Technology Centre recently and people remember me because often I am the only woman. They come up to me and say ‘hi’ and I realise that I’ve become memorable in a positive way. So it’s about turning it into an opportunity rather than letting it get you down. Though I know it’s so easy for me to say, but harder to actually do.
What advice would you give to your 18yr old self?
To not think of a career as being for a lifetime. Too often we put pressure on young people to ask what they want to be for the rest of their lives. When my Dad realised I was clever he was keen for me to be a lawyer or a teacher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I love what I’m currently doing, but actually I may want to do something different in five years, and that’s fine.
I’ve already had quite an exciting career with different roles in different sectors. I’d say, don’t think of it as deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life. See it as what you want to do right now, and in the meantime learn and do things to the best of your ability. Be happy to move on and transfer those skills somewhere else if that’s what you want to do.
What else would you like to achieve in your career?
I want everyone to achieve their potential. Too often I think people sell themselves short based on external factors. It might be where they come from, what school they went to, qualifications they’ve got, or what gender they are. I think if I could solve that problem in my lifetime, by getting people to look at themselves and others as they are rather than all the external influences, I’d be really happy.
In the short term, I’d like to address this issue with women in technology. For all the schemes that there are, female representation in the technology industry is actually regressing. Five or six years ago 24% of the workforce were female, and now it’s decreased to 19%. Up and coming technology areas like cyber security are even lower, with figures around 9%. All these schemes aren’t making it better so I’m interested in what we can do to make it better. That hasn’t come from me wanting women to take over the world, what I want is a more balanced workforce for the industry. Because the more balanced your workforce, the better your results. We need the male and female perspective and the qualities that they bring together. So if I could address it in the next five years and see that change, I’d be happy. Encouraging women to get into the industry at every level is crucial - it’s not just about having women at board level, it’s about apprenticeships and thinking about the talent pipeline and sustainability.
What advice would you give for women looking to progress in a career within Technology?
You are going to have to build your resilience and don’t try to be what you’re not. There is a real tendency (and this is within any male dominated industry) to try and fit in and be a certain sort of person. I’ve been guilty of doing it - being over assertive to try and get my point across. Whereas I think a lot of my power comes from sitting and listening and hearing what’s been said, and then being able to talk about it and find a solution. Using skills that might not have been previously celebrated, such as listening, empathy, or taking unusual recruitment choices, is key. In the past I’ve been accused of recruiting people who haven’t got the right technical ability because actually what I’m looking for is more than that. Don’t be afraid of making those decisions that others in your industry might look at you and think, ‘you’re crazy!’, you might be the real trailblazer. In order to do that though, you need to have strong resilience. If the world is telling you that you’re crazy but you know that you’re not, then trust what you know and be resilient enough to not let people get to you.
We're very grateful to have Sarah feature in our interview series, and we look forward to seeing more of her at networking groups throughout Warwickshire.
For further resources and interviews, please visit our Women in Industry series homepage. If you have any comments or would be happy to be interviewed for further instalments of this series, please get in touch with us at: email@example.com