In honour of International Women’s Day and our partnership with Tech Nation, we decided to create a series of blogs interviewing some of the UK’s most exciting female Tech Entrepreneurs. Women are still hugely under-represented in the tech industry, so we feel it is important to showcase the women that are doing great things and becoming an inspiration to others.
Nominated for Tech Nation’s Rising Stars Award, Gemma McCall is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at Culture Shift Communications Ltd; a company which has developed an online reporting platform allowing businesses to monitor bullying and harassment in the workplace. The Manchester-based business aims to promote positive company culture, well-being and engagement.
We spoke to Gemma about what drove her to start her own business and how she feels about the current state of women in tech.
What made you want to start your own business?
I started Culture Shift because I wasn’t working for employers who understood that you could be a mum and be a professional woman. I struggled to return from maternity leave not just once but twice. Becoming a mother really changed my life, not so much so that I didn’t want to go back to my old job, but I faced discrimination and was unable to go back to my previous role on two occasions.
Being a mum does still go against women quite often when they’re trying to return to work. I wanted to start my own business to prove that you can have and build a business with working parents. There’s life after parenthood.
How does Culture Shift aim to challenge attitudes to maternity leave?
Being a mum is a big part of my identity now, it has shaped what we do at culture shift as well as who we employ and how we employ them. We believed there was a way to strike that work-life balance and put family first.
We offer flexible hours and part-time hours. Everyone in the business has caring responsibilities whether it’s a parent, child or even nieces and nephews. Instead of it being hidden, it’s very much spoken about; we say if we need to go to our child’s nativity or take them to the doctors. We’re very open and honest about what’s going on with our caring responsibilities. The business bends and flexes to help everyone attend to their families and still do the job that they love.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?
This year a big challenge has been raising investment. I didn’t really understand that process at first, so it’s been a steep learning curve. Also, as a woman, it is quite difficult to raise investment. The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship said less than 1% of UK venture funding invested in female-led teams, so the odds are stacked against us. We are just about to close our first funding round which is very exciting, but it’s taken about a year and has been a big challenge.
And what have been the highlights?
A highlight would be starting our business in the first place and realising that purpose and profit can happen together; we’re a tech for good business but we’re doing it so we’re also profitable.
We also contributed to two reports that were published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. An organisation as big and as high profile as them coming to us for our thoughts and expertise makes me very proud and humbled.
What have you learnt so far about running your own business?
I underestimated how much time you spend working with the people that you employ. Not just doing their jobs, but people have issues all the time; in work or at home. I underestimated how much time the people management side of things takes but it is something that I’m really happy to do. People think you must spend loads of time on paperwork but it’s more the people. It all comes down to looking after people.
Who is your biggest role model and why?
There are lots of role models in business but also probably the biggest influence on my life was my Nan. She spent her entire life raising kids that weren’t even necessarily hers and working hard to earn a living for the whole family. She was a real hard worker and I think I got my work ethic from her.
What skills do you think it takes to become a successful leader?
Empathy is a key one, understanding people and what’s influencing them so you can help. Also, always concentrate on the bigger picture. Wins, losses and problems occur on a daily basis and it would be really easy to give up. Being purpose-driven and having an eye on the bigger picture will help you to lead a team, encourage people to get behind you and make it happen!
What’s your best advice for an entrepreneur just getting started?
Make sure you understand that you don’t have to do everything and find people who can do the things you can’t. You’re never going to know absolutely everything so surround yourself with a team that can.
Also, try things and move on if they’re not working. Be agile, don’t be pig-headed and just do the same thing. You learn more from your mistakes, so learn something and crack on; don’t get hung up on it.
Do you hire for skill or attitude?
I hire for skill, but cultural fit is important. If you hire someone that can do the job but isn’t a cultural fit, they won’t always be with the business that long. You can always up-skill, so if you meet someone with exactly the right attitude you can up-skill them which I think is better than finding someone who has exactly the right skills.
What made you want to start a career in tech?
I didn’t necessarily have the motivation to start a career in tech but when I started identifying as a female tech founder, I made a decision to be visible. I wanted to set an example and show women can run successful tech businesses because you can’t be what you can’t see, and I know that.
How do you think businesses can encourage more women to start a career in tech?
They need to be aware of their bias. I think when you’re aware of your own unconscious bias you can challenge your thinking and change. In Manchester, where we’re based, there is no shortage of women who want to get into the tech industry so you can find them, they are there. You must acknowledge that your workforce isn’t diverse and seek them out.
What advice do you have for any women that want to start a career in tech?
There’s a big, friendly and encouraging network of women in tech. There’s a big community of female tech founders, developers and testers out there. Seek them out and join them. Grow your own personal network because it will really encourage you and build your confidence.
Talent Works has produced an employer’s guide for helping to attract and retain women in STEM roles, from company culture through to how you advertise a role. Plus you can find out more about the current state of women in STEM industries with a fact sheet put together by our Director and Shareholder Jody Robie.