We visited the Women in Leeds Digital event at the Leeds Digital Festival, for a day of celebrating the amazing work women are doing in the City’s tech community.
In many ways, the digital community in Leeds would be a shadow of what it is now were it not for the many incredible women who are part of it. To celebrate these amazing people, as well as encouraging more young women to join the sector, the Women in Leeds Digital (WiLD) event was held on May 2nd, and we went along to experience it for ourselves.
In the morning, the sessions were targeted more towards students and people looking to get into the world of tech, with panelists talking about their personal experiences and the opportunities available. In the afternoon, the event changed tack to talk more about the great things women are doing in the Leeds digital space.
“Today is a culmination of all the efforts that Deb and I have put in to build this event,” said Sarah Tulip, one of the organisers of WiLD alongside Deb Hetherington, at the beginning of the day. “It’s really exciting. I think neither of us slept last night.”
The event was held at Nexus, the University of Leeds’ brand-new £40 million building designed to provide a gateway for businesses, to access the research and innovation the university can provide. The space was bustling from early in the morning as people from all around the City – as well as some from further afield – came to visit.
Chelsea Hardy, Business Engagement Manager for Nexus, said: “We’re really excited here at Nexus to be hosting Women in Leeds Digital. Leeds is absolutely rocking it in terms of its digital scene. It’s great to see so many inspiring women.”
A large chunk of the morning’s sessions was dedicated to examining how some of the Leeds digital scene’s most accomplished women managed to get into the tech sector. Several panels explored the subject, such as ‘In Two Years’, a series of rapid-fire, ten-minute talks from women in a range of different roles across the digital sphere.
For example, Helen Frith – Content Designer at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) – told the audience how she didn’t start with a tech degree; instead, she studied French at a university in Paris. That led her to a job with Booking.com, which in turn took her into the world of designing content in order to improve user journeys.
Working for the DWP means creating online content that’s easy to use for people who don’t necessarily want to use it, and who have wildly varied levels of digital capability. She described her work on this user journey as “making changes that are subtle, but that have a big impact”.
Charlotte Scott also had a “very convoluted journey into tech”, studying Chinese and Spanish at Leeds University. From there, she was introduced to enterprise, which brought her into the world of tech and the role of Marketing and Events Manager for NorthInvest. She’s also an entrepreneurial coach.
The Digital Festival holds a special importance for Charlotte, as it was part of her journey into her current role. Stuart Clarke, the Festival’s director, took her on as its head of marketing and events in 2018, which she described as her “big break”.
Christina Livesey also got to give a ten-minute talk about her journey to becoming a business analyst for BJSS, one of the sponsors of the day. She always wanted to go into tech, but initially wanted to be a programmer. However, she realised she hated coding, finding it monotonous. Instead, she went into business analysis, where “the only thing that’s the same is the standup each morning”.
The ‘How Did You Get Here?’ talk covered a similar topic, but in more detail. The speakers covered their journeys into their current role in much more detail, expanding on how their particular strengths and weaknesses helped them along the way, and providing a message for young people interested in the industry.
For example, Anna Sutton – co-founder and CEO of The Data Shed – based her talk around the phrase “It’s okay to (screw) it up; you can still succeed”. Her first experience of employment after university was being told she hadn’t passed her probation, and the only advice she got was to dust herself off and move on.
She did exactly that, moving through a range of companies as she found she was being overlooked for promotions frequently. “I didn’t realise at the time,” she said, “but I was learning to run a business”. This led to her creating The Data Shed with her husband, and she developed it while raising two young children.
Zandra Moore told a slightly different story. She is the CEO of Panintelligence, and her route there was defined by something many would assume was a weakness: her dyslexia. Her role model growing up was her mum, who made a living “selling the internet before anyone knew what it was”.
She recognised later in life that her mum also exhibited a number of key signs of dyslexia, and realised this was part of what made her so good at her job. So she embraced it in herself. “I don’t do linear,” she said, explaining that she often sees patterns that others are unable to. “Something I thought was a weakness is now my superpower, and I understand it better and how it makes me, me.”
One of the more unique talks came from Jem Henderson, who had arrived in the world of tech after a tumultuous journey of childhood abuse and homelessness. She explored whether she’d got where she was out of luck or talent, narrowing in on a series of events in her life.
When her trauma caught up with her, she ended up having a breakdown. Luckily, she worked for a former mental health nurse who was able to help her decide to go to university. While it was luck that she was working for him, it was her personality that led him to help her, and her talent that got her into higher education.
This could be a difficult topic to talk about for some, but Jem joked: “Basically, I have no shame!” She added: “Being honest, being truthful, being open and being courageous essentially was what the talk was about, so it felt really natural to share my stories.”
In the afternoon, the event moved on to focus on advice for women already ingrained in the digital scene in Leeds. One of the events held was ‘Find Your Gang’, about the various meetups and networking groups available throughout the City.
As one example, Katie Gleghorn and Claire Ackers discussed the Lean In Leeds group, based around the principles of the book ‘Lean In’ written by Sheryl Sandberg in 2013. The basic premise of the book is to get women to think about what they would do if they weren’t afraid to do it, which started a movement around the world of groups just like the one Katie and Claire organise.
Katie summed up the point of the group: “We meet to discuss our experience and perspectives, and to share, learn and grow together.” They hold breakfast meetups, as well as panels discussing topics such as how to negotiate to help close the gender pay gap, and asking yourself “What’s the worst that can happen?” at work.
Finally, the event also featured a panel on how the tech industry can benefit from being more diverse, and what businesses can do to achieve this. The speakers were well-versed in their subject areas, and made compelling cases for improving representation in the digital sector.
One speaker was Amul Batra from Northcoders, a business focusing on teaching people how to code and finding them jobs in the industry. “We can train anybody,” he said, and the company’s record seems to prove him right. It has produced 337 graduates from all walks of life – including refugees, buskers and stay-at-home mums – and 96 per cent have found jobs in the industry afterwards.
Northcoders’ philosophy, according to Amul, is: “You should be able to choose at any point in life to join the world of tech.” And that applies no matter what has happened in your life beforehand. This isn’t just good for graduates; it also gives companies a much bigger talent pool to recruit from.
Amul pointed out that companies who restrict their recruitment to people finishing a degree in a tech subject are “fishing in a very small pond”, and are therefore missing out on talent. By making the sector more diverse, he is helping it to grow as well as making it a fairer environment for everyone.
Helen Oldham from NorthInvest also works hard to improve the gender balance in the tech industry. While there have been plenty of well-meaning attempts at this, Helen and her company are using investment and financing to make it easier for women to start up tech businesses and become entrepreneurs.
Business founders are more likely to get access to funding from female investors, so Helen’s aim is to seek out more of the latter. Angel investors can be a great source of finance, but in the UK only 14 percent of these are women. “That desperately needs to change,” said Helen.
As the panels closed, attendees filtered into Nexus’ lobby for drinks and a chat after an intense day. Women in Leeds Digital had featured over 50 speakers and it is almost impossible for anyone attending not to have learned something useful.
“Today’s event was fantastic,” said Nexus’ Chelsea. “Seeing that physical manifestation of the whole community in one room has been amazing, it’s been a great day.” Amul from Northcoders agreed: “This afternoon, the breadth of talent and the range of people from experienced backgrounds sharing their stories and what their companies are doing, I think it’s been a really, really good experience.”
So will there be another Women in Leeds Digital event at next year’s Leeds Digital Festival? “We keep talking about that,” said Sarah, “and I think we just need a little respite, but I think it would be hard to say no.” Given the success of the day, it is clear that the City’s tech community would be much worse off if it wasn’t repeated.
Photography by Mark Wheelwright