Sarah Windrum is CEO of Emerald Group, an IT infrastructure, mobile workforce support and business continuity company. Sarah is a strong believer in harnessing technology as a force for good, serving as Vice Chair of Skills at techUK and having founded the Emerald Academy to encourage more children to pursue careers in tech. As well as being an advocate for women in tech, she sits on the Board of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP, alongside being a governor of Myton School and a #LoveLeam volunteer.
“…There is a real difference between confidence and self-esteem that is often missed. I appear confident but I struggle with low self-esteem. Other people will have much higher self-esteem but not be viewed as outwardly confident. Businesses need everyone…”
Career light bulb moment
I began my career in publishing after graduating with an English literature degree from Oxford. About five years in, I was given the opportunity to lead the project to digitalise our commercial property magazine. I learnt HTML to design the front-end website and some SQL for the back-end and I had the opportunity to use my creativity to plan the user experience and user journey. It was as if a light bulb had been turned on. I wanted to do this and I was good at it!
I moved to a London-based mobile technology company to build up their Midlands operation and a few years later in 2009 I started Emerald with my co-founder.
Being a CEO in tech – I love every day!
The Emerald Group started as an IT support business offering IT outsourcing services for small to medium sized businesses. We expanded into project management and installation services for data and communication infrastructure ,and then invested in our own data centre in Northampton to offer business continuity and mobile workforce support.
My role is so varied. I love every single day! My day might involve a conference call with our remote team, a meeting with a new or existing customer to discuss or evaluate delivery and support, or it might be business planning or recruitment. We now have a management team and a small exec board that I meet with regularly to ensure we plan and evaluate growth and maintain our company values.
Tech as a force for good in business and society
Technology has a mixed reputation. Often we see young people ‘messing around’ on their smartphones or tablets and only focus on the downsides. Of course technology needs to be managed, but it can also be used as a force for positive communication and change.
In business, all too often companies have invested large amounts of money in an IT project that has not worked because the user experience and journey has not been properly evaluated. Sometimes we pick up the pieces of these projects when the money has run out but the problem the company wanted to solve is still there!
There is a bridge to be built between the easy to use consumer apps like Facebook and Twitter to the solutions used in business for their operational processes. Security is also an issue for businesses and this makes business leaders nervous. It’s not about being too afraid to act. It is about making informed decisions based on your critical data and the level of risk. I know this is a minefield for people to negotiate sometimes and this is where trusted suppliers like us can help.
Harnessed effectively technology is certainly a force for good. It enables flexible working which allows everyone to achieve their potential fitting their career around their commitments. It levels the playing field so small businesses can compete with larger ones. And it allows small organisations and groups to raise large amounts of awareness. We have helped raise national sponsorship for local groups like the Warwickshire Wheelchair Basketball Team and the Whittle Wonders. We have also organised Love Leam clean-ups and created Pocket Parks – all by using technology!
My roles at techUK and the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP
Both roles are focused on skills because I am passionate about everyone achieving their potential. Businesses cannot grow without the right skills and individuals cannot thrive without making use of their strengths.
At Tech UK I represent smaller businesses, particularly those like Emerald growing rapidly that need a constant pipeline of talent but don’t have huge amounts of time and resource to find it. At the LEP [local enterprise partnership] I represent the digital sector with a focus on connecting business, education, and local government to ensure we are all working towards the common goal of delivering sustained employment for our young people and the right talent for our economic growth.
The best way for women to develop board experience is to engage with what you are passionate about and where your strengths are. Don’t try and be something you are not. Also, seek out opportunities and grab them with both hands, irrespective of how they come to you. So you appear to be the ‘token’ woman? Don’t worry. It’s not how you got there that matters, it’s what you do once you are there that counts.
Realising the difference between confidence and self esteem
There is a real difference between confidence and self-esteem that is often missed. I appear confident but I struggle with low self-esteem. Other people will have much higher self-esteem but not be viewed as outwardly confident. Businesses need everyone.
We have done a lot of work at Emerald on our values and culture to ensure we are balanced and utilising everyone’s strengths. A good example to share is that I absorb information fast and make quick decisions but other members of the team don’t. Now we have short meetings to discuss an issue and then a follow up meeting a few days later when people have had chance to digest the discussion to make a decision. It ensures I don’t railroad people into agreeing with my idea because it’s the only option on the table.
Change isn’t easy but everyone has something to give and it is crucial that business leaders understand that and change their practices to get the best from their team to achieve everyone’s potential for growth.
Practical challenges for SME businesses following the vote for Brexit
I was disappointed with the result as it felt like we had become a less tolerant, less collaborative, less supportive nation overnight. But when I took a step back I realised it’s not all bleak. We still have the same potential as before. Perhaps the landscape will be harder now. I don’t truly know.
The EU prioritised innovation, productivity and skills, which I support. Emerald and our customers benefitted from these priorities directly in terms of financial grants. Hopefully our government will continue to do the same and continue to support businesses in this way. I think direct trade with Europe will be harder. Trade deals take a long time to negotiate and Norway still have to pay into the EU to secure their deal. But small businesses have a strength and resilience that always makes me feel warm inside. This is undoubtedly a challenge but we will rise to it.
Ensuring gender equality at work isn’t swept aside as other considerations come to the fore post Brexit
We as business leaders have a responsibility to ensure the conversation continues. We have a responsibility both to our businesses and to UK plc. This isn’t altruistic. This is about productivity. How can we grow if we don’t make the best use of everyone and utilise their full potential?
As a business owner, what can you do to ensure your work environment and practices suit everyone? What can you do to encourage diversity in your recruitment? What do you do to support the next generation of talent? Can you be a school governor? Can you employ a work experience student? Can you talk at a local school or college? Can you have a group of students for a visit? There are so many options to suit whatever time you have to give.
I am working on a very exciting project with the Digital Economy Unit on women in technology and making very practical changes to the industry’s recruitment process to ensure it is more inclusive. Role descriptions, recruitment practices, interview processes – all of these need to be looked at to ensure we are attracting the brightest and the best to the sector.
For Emerald, we have gone through a huge period of change and growth, so now is a time for stability. We are planning to launch a global mobile data product in the next quarter which will reduce the cost of mobile data abroad significantly for our customers. If you travel for business or need to stay connected while you are away the costs can quickly escalate and data is so hard to keep track of.
How much does an email cost to send abroad? Could be anything from pence to £100s depending on its size! We want to make sure our customers can manage their costs effectively and never pay over the odds to stay connected. There’s always something new to be done and we love a challenge..!