Leeds International Festival made its maiden voyage onto the scene this year, with a vibrant selection of music, moving image and tech lighting up venues across the City. Taking up a flagship slot bang in the middle of the Festival’s nine days, the Empowering Women with Tech conference boasted a high-profile line-up of speakers armed with stories of creativity, ambition and technological innovation.
Stepping out of a particularly biting April breeze and into the warmth of New Dock Hall, I found a venue filled with all varieties of ‘women in tech’ – from aspiring graduates to middle-aged mums, and everything in between. After enjoying breakfast next to a VW Campervan-come-photo booth, and absorbing the fairy-lit atmosphere of the room, we took our seats in the main hall.
Miquita Oliver, TV and radio presenter – whom I remembered from the heady days of T4 Sunday – opened the event, and acted as a compare throughout the day, offering a cheerful commentary that glued the speakers’ diverse stories together. She reminded us that despite tech being one of the world’s most spoken languages, only 17 per cent of its workforce is female. ‘We want and need more female creators and voices in tech’, she said, preparing us all for a day that would show and tell us how.
First to take to the stage was Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, Founder of the STEMettes programme, which aims to get more girls into science, technology, engineering and maths. Anne-Marie passed her A-Level computing aged 11, and is a passionate role-model for girls who want to be a part of the male-dominated world of tech. She reminded us of the inspiring women who’ve had fundamental parts to play in technology, medical science and entrepreneurial web-businesses over the years, painting her vision that ‘girl-led start-ups are the future’. Anne-Marie put a fun, accessible spin on jobs in tech, and called for females to ‘find your people’, and develop a community of fellow workers to learn alongside.
After a short networking break under the distinctive orange and yellow helium balloons that rose proudly from every table, we welcomed Emmy Lovell, Vice President of Digital at Warner Music, to the stage. She told us how a childhood obsession with Kylie Minogue had spurred her on to land key roles in the music industry, highlighting the importance of making smart business choices, taking risks, and constantly reinventing oneself to stay relevant. In 2016, Warner Music launched ‘The Firepit’, a creative content division through which the company channels new ways of thinking and innovating. Emmy focused on the power of tech to drive the music industry forward. ‘Women rock’, she said, her voice falling on welcoming ears: ‘Be smart, be bolshie, and be determined!’
Next up was Susie Bubble, full-time fashion blogger and creator of the ‘Style Bubble’ blog.
Susie told us how she sees craft, inspiration and young talent as key drivers for her creativity and work as a blogger. She mapped out the changing landscape of blogging over the years, speaking highly of the industry’s expansion to include new voices and original content, while lamenting the commercialisation and ostracising of fashion bloggers – something she had first-hand experience of. One brave questioner took networking to a new level in asking Susie if she’d consider working with his business, and she agreed to talk to him with a smile, as the room dissolved into a chuckle.
After a lunch break supplemented by a range of avocado-toast-based delights from independent café, House of Koko, we took our seats for the afternoon’s programme of technological empowerment. Debbie Wosskow was first up, giving a powerful talk about her path to entrepreneurship; how tech and policy can work together in the sharing economy; and how she’s achieved success with her home exchange business, Love Home Swap, and as chair of AllBright, an investment fund for female entrepreneurs. Debbie told us that one in ten women wants to start her own business but doesn’t, meaning UK plc is missing out on a staggering £10 billion. She spoke passionately about her mission to make the UK the best place to be a female founder, championing the idea of building a network of support and skills for women. Her parting words of advice centred on three Gs – graft, grace, and grit – the qualities that have helped her climb to the top. ‘Everyone can do it!’ She said, ‘Just do it, and keep going – you have to roll the dice.’
As the atmosphere of empowerment in the room held us in an ever-tighter group hug, Natasha Sayce-Zelem, Head of Technology for Digital Trading at Sky – and organiser of the day’s event – took to the stage to deliver some motivational words on her rise to success. Her warm presence filled the stage, as she told us of her first love for car boot sales; discovering her talent for coding but finding no opportunities to learn more; selling Matt Bellamy’s guitar for a mere £500 just nine years ago; quitting her job to go on a holiday won from the back of a Foster’s can; and ultimately, how she landed a role at one of the world’s top media companies. Natasha highlighted the power of self-belief, and the intensely creative nature of jobs in tech, which is often overlooked.
Dr Sue Black
With the afternoon in full swing and the audience celebrating the rare occurrence of a queue for the ladies’ toilets at a tech event, it was time for flame-haired computer scientist and entrepreneur, Dr Sue Black, OBE, to impart her words of wisdom. Her story, aptly named, If I can do it, so can you, charted her journey through a difficult childhood and broken education to being awarded a knighthood and speaking in Geneva at the UN. In that time, Sue studied computing at university and went on to complete a PhD, realising her talent for tech through a desire to keep learning and help others do the same. She set up the now high-profile campaign to save Bletchley Park, and successfully secured the site’s future in 2011, after three years of campaigning.
After all that, Sue was still driven to help people understand the power of tech to change and enrich lives. In 2012, she set up Tech Mums, an organisation to help mums harness the power of technology, offering a range of learning resources teaching everything from basic IT skills to coding and app design. Challenging the perception of ‘mums’ is an idea that fuels a lot of Sue’s work, and she called for more mums as role models in tech. ‘Because mums aren’t stupid!’ she said, addressing a room that was whole-heartedly behind her. Sue’s parting advice was about following dreams and trusting gut instincts, surrounding oneself with supporters, and of course, never giving up.
Finally, it was time for the day’s ‘headline’ speaker, the woman whose face has adorned leaflets and posters for Leeds International Festival, and only just made it for her speaking slot owing to a delayed train. But make it she did, and Lauren Laverne’s presence in the room was electric from the word go, with heads turning and cameras snapping as she swept onto the stage, grin planted firmly on face. The main topic of conversation was The Pool, the news platform developed with today’s busy female reader in mind, and run by Lauren and a dedicated team of writers and editors. Lauren talked with pride about the content on the site, emphasising how tech should be used to put the user first, not to show off its technicalities.
She also spoke about the link between the digital, music and publishing industries, and how all three forces can work together, mirroring and fuelling each other to keep records and books as strong as social media accounts, digital downloads and apps. There was some excitement in the room when Lauren was questioned about the cultural aspects of the North of England, and her cheerful enthusiasm at the idea of building an audience outside of London was met with decided approval.
The Road Ahead
As the conference drew to a close and members of the audience clustered forwards with cameras, questions and smiling faces, every guest was left to reflect on the inspirational takeaways from the day. For women in tech, it’s about keeping relationships strong, supporting each other, and staying creative and ambitious in order to keep driving forwards. Just as the creative networks in Leeds grow stronger each year – with the International Festival demonstrating the diverse range of talent and interest out there – the tech industry has a lot to offer, and there’s a growing army of empowered women set to discover what’s next.
Photographs provided by I Like Press