WOMEN ROCK
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Thanks for being here and welcome to Women Rock – a voice for diversity in tech! Here you will find some of the most inspirational stories about ED&I in the tech industry. Women Rock was created by SR2 co-founder and all-round positive vibe advocate Alicia and exists to help transform the industry and create a positive movement!

A letter from Alicia
WOMEN ROCK02-05-2026

A letter from Alicia

Heya all,    Thanks for being here and welcome to Women Rock – a voice for diversity in tech!  I’m Alicia, founder of Women Rock, co-founder of SR2, founder of Technology Volunteers organiser of Codebar (phewwww) I’m a positive vibe advocate, lover of constant learning, mushrooms and anything pickled, dislikes pigeons, bad manners and baked beans! Outside of all of that, I’m probably best known for my handstand ability and my almost 10-year tenure as a Tech recruiter in the UK, born and bred in Bristol!    Over the last 10 years I have been a huge supporter of diversity in Tech but always felt I could do so much more, Women Rock is the start of my more. In the early part of my career, it was rare that I spoke or represented women in the industry. Technology wasn’t offered to me as a career when I was leaving school, and my family or friends weren’t interested in Tech so probably naively I didn’t know women were in tech and that makes me sad and we all know we still have so much more to do but not just for women, we’re talking about diversity as a whole.    I love to build relationships every day and in starting this blog, being supported by our awesome Women Rock ambassadors and some of the best companies who are committed to talking about and improving ED&I across our industry I really hope we can make the world a better place!  Women Rock isn’t just for women, we have, and will, continue to hear stories from folk from ethnic minorities, folk who have physical and hidden disabilities. We have incredible stories from trans and gender-diverse peeps and we have spoken to many allies who are committed to live, work and support diversity in their workplace, careers and lives.    Included are conversations about successes, people's struggles, frustrations and commitment from their perspective. We have seen so much improvement when it comes to ED&I but I just don’t think we are sharing and shouting about it enough so that others can follow suit.  I want to create an incredible community and Women Rock to be the place to go to that celebrates diversity.   I’ll leave you with my favourite quote ‘’No matter where you are in life, inspire and empower the women around you. Success is never reached alone. And wisdom and wealth are sweeter shared.’’  Be kind, get enough sleep and don’t change for anyone.  Smiles,  Alicia x 

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Louise Patterson | Northumbrian Water Group
WOMEN ROCK25-06-2024

Louise Patterson | Northumbrian Water Group

Meet the fabulous Louise, Head of IT Operations at Northumbrian Water Group (NWG). This incredible advocate for "learning while you earn" has been a game-changer with NWG's Digital Degree Apprenticeship, offering practical experience and a debt-free degree. Talk about opening doors to tech careers! Louise is all about creating inclusive workplaces that celebrate diversity and help individuals thrive. In her interview, she dives into some of NWG's amazing initiatives like the Young Citizens Work Experience Festival, the Women in STEM working group, and female-only assessment centres. No wonder NWG has been recognized as a Great Place to Work for Women for three years running! Get inspired by Louise's journey and the fantastic work she's doing at NWG.   Hi Louise, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, please can you start by talking me through your position at Northumbrian Water Group?  My name is Louise Patterson and I am Head of IT Operations and Resource Management at Northumbrian Water Group.  I look after our Service Desk, User Experience, Cloud & Infrastructure, Networks, Service Management and Quality Assurance teams. Please tell me about your story so far. How did you get into the world of Tech?  Whilst I was studying for my Marketing degree at Newcastle University, I decided to do a year in the industry for my third year.  I worked at IBM in the Office of the CIO which gave me great insight into IT telecommunications and I got the opportunity to work on some of their key projects, which I went back to support with during the summer after I graduated.  This placement was invaluable as it gave me experience in the workplace which helped me stand out against other graduates and really helped me work out what I had a passion for and ultimately led me into a career within Technology.  Following my final year at university, I joined the Asda Technology Graduate scheme starting as a Project Manager and this gave me a great platform into working in Tech as I spent 10 years getting the opportunity to move around various roles within their Technology team including Service Management, Governance and Programme Management. Before moving to Morrisons Technology team where I became Head of Service Management before moving back to the North East to my current role with Northumbrian Water. Work experience counts for a lot, and university isn’t the only pathway to a career. Please can you tell me more about why you are an advocate of being able to “learn while you earn”?  Absolutely, I have my year in the industry to thank for the opportunity I got when first leaving university.  Times have changed from when I went to university, young people are leaving with a degree, a lot of debt and little to no work experience.  So, I’m a real advocate of apprenticeship schemes which I think give young people a far better start in their career.  Earn as you learn and a degree completely debt free - it’s just a no brainer for me and why we have launched our new Digital Degree Apprenticeship scheme earlier this year. NWG’s Digital Degree Apprenticeship sounds incredible! Please can you tell me more about it and who will be able to access it?  Of course I’m really excited to be welcoming our new apprentices starting in September.  They will spend 4 days a week working in our head office in Durham and then spend every Friday at the University of Sunderland to study for their Digital Technology degree.  We’ve worked with the University of Sunderland to put together a broader technology degree which is the IT consultant pathway.  This allows the apprentices to study a broader range of topics rather than specialising in one area.  Throughout the 3 years they will move to work in a different teams, around every 6 months, which will give them a taster of the various roles they could go into once they’ve completed the scheme and they can gauge from the learning in their degree and from their work experience, what direction they want to take their career in.  As a Women in STEM myself, it’s fantastic to see that around 70% of the apprentices that are joining our Digital Degree Apprenticeship are female. You mentioned that you are also setting up a work experience programme for Year 10s. Why is it important for students to make the most out of work experience and how can employers make their work experience offering more valuable to students? Yes, alongside our Innovation Festival at the Newcastle Racecourse in July, we’re also holding our very first Young Citizens Work Experience Festival.  This is open to Year 10 or above students, to attend onsite at the racecourse between 9th – 12th July.  We have a fantastic programme where they will have the opportunity to build up specific skills e.g. teamwork, communication, critical thinking, creativity amongst many more.  As a takeaway they will be able to put together a CV of all of their skills online.  There is also an opportunity for schools to get access to our online work experience if they can’t attend in person.  It’s so important for young people to gain key transferable skills which will help them to be successful when applying for apprenticeships or jobs in the future.  And employers need to put more focus onto the younger generation to give them these opportunities as they are our workforce of the future.We spoke about the importance of diversity in the workforce and whilst there needs to be a drive to get more women in STEM, it is also equally important to foster an inclusive culture that welcomes everyone, and which will in return mean being able to retain great talent. Please can you tell me more about the work NWG are doing to foster an inclusive environment? Diversity is something I am incredibly passionate about and I am part of our Women in STEM working group where we look at how we can foster a more inclusive environment.  It starts with recruitment, and this is something we’re really working on and have seen some great results just recently.  When recruiting for the Digital Degree Apprenticeship we reviewed job adverts and our website to make sure this would attract a diverse group of individuals and adapted our recruitment process.  As an example, we held a female only assessment centre, as research shows that females have more confidence and perform better when they are not a minority in group exercises, and it is important for us to be inclusive and give everyone an opportunity to perform at their best.  This received positive feedback from female candidates.  As an employer NWG is well known for being a great place to work and we’ve been recognised as a Great Place to Work for Women for the past 3 years.  But we are always reviewing how we can continue to make it an inclusive environment, whether that being flexible working amongst many other support offerings. We spoke about the importance of having great role models. Who is/are your greatest role model/s and why? I’ve always been surrounded by strong female role models in my family from grandmothers, my mother and my older sister, which has probably had more of an impact on me than I’ve previously realised.  My whole career has been in Technology, where women are a minority, but I think this early influence has given me the confidence when I have been the only women in a room, to not feel intimidated. If there was one book, song, and/or podcast you would recommend, what would it/they be and why? A book I’ve just recently read is ‘Zcomomy’ by Jason Dorsey and Denise Villa.  It looks at how Gen Z will change the future of business and what to do about it.  It’s an interesting read and gives some great insight for leaders to think about when recruiting or working with Gen Z.  I think sometimes different generations can be critical of each other, so it’s important to better understand young people better as they are the future of our workforce.  Any last words of inspiration?  Say yes to opportunities that come your way to help work out what you are passionate about and always be your true authentic self.Interviewed by Bella Snell

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Breaking The Stigma Around Bipolar | Kelly Morgans
WOMEN ROCK07-05-2024

Breaking The Stigma Around Bipolar | Kelly Morgans

In this episode of Women Rock, Alicia and Kelly discuss Kelly's recent bipolar disorder diagnosis and the need for more awareness and understanding of the condition 🫢 They explore the challenges of misdiagnosis, the importance of early intervention, and the coping strategies that have been helpful for Kelly. They also touch on the stigma and misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder and the need for better support from employers and the healthcare system. Kelly shares her plans to create a well-being plan and a book to help others navigate their own journeys with bipolar disorder ✨ Some key takeaways ⭐ πŸ’š Early intervention and accurate diagnosis are crucial for individuals with bipolar disorder to receive the appropriate support and treatment. πŸ’š Coping strategies such as meditation, journaling, and exercise can be beneficial for managing symptoms and promoting well-being. πŸ’š There is still a stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and a lack of understanding, highlighting the need for more awareness and education. πŸ’š Employers can play a role in supporting employees with bipolar disorder by creating a supportive and inclusive work environment. πŸ’š Individuals should trust their instincts and seek further evaluation if they suspect they may have a neurodivergent condition. πŸ’š More resources and information are needed to help individuals navigate their journey with bipolar disorder and other neurodivergent conditions Thank you so much Kelly for sharing your story, we hope it reaches folk it needs to.

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Carolyn Venn | Swift Strategies
WOMEN ROCK23-04-2024

Carolyn Venn | Swift Strategies

‘I joined Swift Strategies because of the people and their ambition to change the way things are.’ Meet Carolyn, the Head of Business Operations at Swift Strategies.  From her early days marketing in the music scene to online sales, Carolyn's journey has been nothing short of inspiring. She's not just about business; she's passionate about making a difference with everything she does. Passionate about equality, Carolyn founded The Reach Free School, an inclusive institution that recently earned the Equalities Gold Award. It's a place where diversity isn't just welcomed—it's celebrated. She's also a strongadvocate for breaking down gender stereotypes, pushing for inclusive uniforms that reflect today's realities. If you're pondering a career change, Carolyn would tell you  find what you love and don't settle.  With Swift Strategies focusing on social value and welcoming new team members, Leading the charge for more diversity in tech and beyond. Hi Carolyn, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, please can you start by talking me through your position at Swift Strategies? I’m Head of Business Operations – responsible for the back office functions at our very busy Tech and transformation consultancy. Ops should be the invisible scaffolding behind the business. If something’s annoying or time consuming, I want to make it better Please tell me about your story so far. How did you get into the world of Tech? I started my career in marketing, and had an amazing job with a music, video, games and book distributor organising new release activity and in store promotions for our retail clients. Release dates set the pace, and the industry was evolving fast towards being able to buy online. It seems so normal now, but it was a huge challenge to take orders for individual items and deliver to individual addresses when the industry was set up to fill shelves in high streets. We created a new way of working very quickly, and amending IT systems to meet our needs was a big part of the task. I took some time out to have a family, and stepped away from the glitz of premieres and award ceremonies. ‘Making things happen’ was always something I enjoyed, and business operations became a natural choice. I’m not very good at accepting the status quo, and know how important tech is to improving our lives. I joined Swift Strategies because of the people and their ambition to ‘change the way things are’. What advice would you give to anyone looking to make a career change? Think about what it is that you really enjoy, what makes you feel worthwhile, and don’t settle for less. If you feel passionate about an industry or a role, it shines through and others will support you.  You mentioned the importance of having a network of supporters around you. Please can you tell me more about this and is there anybody in particular who has inspired you/been the most significant influence in your network. There have been some amazing people who, I suspect unknowingly, have provided support and helped to dispel my inner imposter syndrome! Early in my career, I worked with a videogame buyer who had joined the company in a junior role, and was progressing in a very male environment to be a highly respected member of the commercial team. She taught me about not panicking, keeping things in perspective and taking the time to reflect when you are in danger of being overwhelmed. Others have supported my campaign to change the school situation in South West Hertfordshire – a topic I knew absolutely nothing about and was a political hot potato. The belief people had in me, regardless of my experience, was invaluable. You founded a school that has recently celebrated its 10th Anniversary and is an incredible achievement, making sure thousands of students have had access to a good education. Please can you tell me more about how this came about. I’ve mentioned already that I’m not very good at accepting the “way things are”. When I discovered the lack of local school places and how the council were effectively shrugging their shoulders in response, I joined a small group of local parents campaigning for changes to admissions criteria and the ability to open a new school. However, the introduction of the Free School programme in 2010 meant that if we wanted a new school, we had to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. I had to learn about site allocations, the planning inspectorate, the process to open a school and how to prove we needed one. We rapidly discovered that we needed education experts, so joined forces with three local teachers who shared our ambition. We also needed pupils, so spent weekends persuading families to add our imaginary school to their application forms. Just over a year after receiving approval from the Department for Education, we opened The Reach Free School in a temporary home of an empty office block. It took another five years for us to move into our brand new purpose built school, but we were determined to negotiate our way through the planning, budget, design and build process to get the best possible school environment for our community. My biggest inspiration are my four fellow school founders. It was, and still is, a phenomenal journey, and one where we’ve shaped the lives of so many young people. You mentioned the importance of making sure that the school was “non-selective” to ensure everyone in your area had the ability to fulfil their potential. Please can you tell me more about this and the importance of making a welcoming space for everyone within education. Our community is surrounded by partially selective schools, where children at age 10 sit an exam and are ranked according to their test score. We believe this has a negative impact on many children and families, and wanted to establish a school where the test result was irrelevant. The ethos is ACE or “Achievement, Community and Enjoyment”, and recognises that if you do not enjoy school, you will not achieve, and you cannot have either of these without a strong community The school has also recently won the Equalities Gold Award which is amazing! Please tell me more about this. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is an important part of our Community ethos, and the Equalities Award enabled us to take another look at the school, its processes, policies and resources to ensure we were creating an environment where everyone was valued. Nothing was off-limits – library books, displays, uniform, curriculum design, policy wording and evidence of equality in every area. It’s amazing what you overlook, just because it has always been that way! We are one of the first secondary schools to be awarded the highest Gold standard, in recognition of the approach taken to ensure every pupil is valued – not just by staff and their classmates, but by themselves as well. We wanted to make sure pupils could see themselves reflected in the lessons, as “if you can’t see it, how can you be it?” Gender constructs are formed from an early age, and we spoke about how seemingly simple things like uniforms make a difference. How important is it that we make uniforms more inclusive and what difference does it make? Uniforms are excellent at removing social barriers at school and developing a sense of belonging. But it isn’t necessary to divide pupils into boys and girls for the majority of their time at school and differentiate pupils through clothing. The school should decide on appropriate uniform options for learning regardless of sex. For example, as an adult, I do not choose to wear a short pleated skirt to exercise in, I wear sports leggings or shorts. When I am sat at my desk working, I may be wearing a smart skirt, or I may be wearing trousers. My job is not impacted by my trousers vs skirt choice, and it’s crazy that we continue to teach young people that gender specific school uniforms are a valid identifier. We should step back and ask ourselves why we don’t send 4 year olds to school in jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, rather than pinafore dresses, tights or clothes with buttons and zips. I suspect we are abiding by tradition, and are inadvertently continuing to embed gender stereotypes into our classrooms.       What are your thoughts on the current IT courses students have access to and what do you think needs to change in the current education system to make courses better? Technology is hugely important to our school. We have been a Google Classroom school since opening in 2013, and all our pupils have their own Chromebook throughout their time at school. We offer Computer Science at GCSE and A Level, and ICT vocational qualifications, and it is always a popular subject. But it takes a long time to develop and introduce a GSCE or A level course, so they aren’t as up to date and inspiring as you’d hope. Children use tech all day, every day, and they are amazing at creating their own content. We need to tap into the joy they have from interacting with tech and match it with a course that shows them how to create and develop new applications. AI will change everything. Teachers and pupils are already using AI, and it’s important we learn how to best utilise the latest tech tool. It’s an exciting time. It’s clear the difference you have made so far, and the amazing work is never done! What challenge are you taking on next? Swift Strategies’ Social Value strategy is firmly within my sights. We’re all really keen to make sure our work, effort and impact is worthwhile. I’m looking forward to 3 new women joining our team this month, and it will be amazing to support the development of more women in tech!  Interviewed by Bella Snell 

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Clare Young | DXW
WOMEN ROCK19-03-2024

Clare Young | DXW

“Confidence is a behaviour, not a personality type. It’s something you can learn!” Clare Young is a Director with DXW a leading employee-owned digital agency that works with the Public and Charity sectors. Clare shares her story, how she practices confidence and how that’s transformed her at work. On ED&I she explains how it’s everyone’s responsibility to understand the problem and take ownership. How recruitment can help address the balance (always happy to help!). Why it’s important that businesses and teams do everything to support diverse workforces, and what it means to offer genuine flexible working - whether that’s study support or going to the other side of the world to watch the cricket. She shares her journey and the importance of having the confidence to challenge people correctly. How DXW have achieved a 50:50 gender split including some practical tips on how you can improve things in your organisation. And that a business is the people that are in it and not the shareholders. PS how her skills as a Delivery Lead supported Comic Relief as they raised the small sum of £78 million. Interviewed by Ben Dennison

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Zara Weston | Motability Operations
WOMEN ROCK07-03-2024

Zara Weston | Motability Operations

Meet Zara Weston, a Creative Producer with over 16 years of graphic design expertise. From the serene landscapes of Somerset to the bustling streets of London and back to the South-West, her journey reflects a passion for precision and creativity. With a childhood filled with art and creativity, led her to pursue graphic design at Bridgwater College and later at the University of the Arts London. Her love for detail and precision guided her towards a career in print design, where she flourished and eventually became a Creative Lead at Motability Operations. But Zara’s path wasn’t without its challenges. As a young woman navigating the corporate world, she learned the importance of self-belief and resilience. Now, as a mentor to young designers, she imparts the wisdom gained from her own journey, encouraging others to pursue their passions with determination and perseverance. Beyond her career, Zara finds solace in the great outdoors, indulging her love for running and CrossFit. With her two beloved dogs by her side, she embraces life’s challenges with a mantra that has guided her every step of the way: trust your instincts. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Zara, Can we start by you telling us about your background and what inspired you to start a career in Graphic Design? My name is Zara Weston. I am a Creative Producer and specialist with over 16 years industry experience. I trained in graphic design at Bridgwater College in Somerset as well as completing two degrees in graphic design at the University of the Arts London. I lived and developed my career in London for 14 years, then relocated back to the South-West to run a design agency in Bristol 5 years ago.  I have always been creative as far back as I can remember, as a child I loved art, painting, drawing you name it - at primary and secondary school I always excelled in this area. I was a very quiet and reserved individual when I was younger and I found I could truly express myself in art. I transitioned to Graphic Design at college when I had two paths to decide on: that on fine art and graphic design. My work has always been detailed orientated and neat, I felt more drawn to the opportunity of Graphic Design – I loved learning the Adobe programmes and experimenting with print. I quickly became passionate in print design and this was the path I took through to university.    What is your current role?  Creative Lead at Motability Operations.  You moved from a small town in Somerset to London at only 18 years old, big change, what did you learn from that life move at such a young age? When I think back now I think I must have been crazy! I have always been hugely ambitious – the sky is the limit in terms of what we can achieve in life. I had thought about moving to London as a teenager for a while, the life and spirit of the city very much appealed to me – there was a bus that used to go from my local Asda there and I would always go up to visit. When I applied for University, I went straight there for my interview and just thought: ‘this is it’.  Moving there fully was a scary and thrilling experience – I loved the freedom and the opportunity to discover who I was as a person. I learnt that if you don’t go after what you want, you will never have it – if you never ask the answer is always no. I grew in confidence and learnt to speak up for myself in what can be a harsh environment.  Moving home, working in London at such a young age, takes a lot of self-belief, what would you say to someone whose in a similar position to you in 2024? I would say that even against all odds if you want a career in any subject enough it will be yours. You must be true to yourself and belief in yourself because you are the only person that can do it.  As a female Designer, have you faced any unique challenges in your career? How have you overcome them?  I graduated at 21 and went head first into the industry, one challenge I had was that I was always the youngest and least experienced person in the room no matter the qualifications I had. I learnt to overcome that by reminding myself of where I was at, always asking questions and working hard to learn what I needed to learn to get to where I want to be. There is real value in hard work and graft, you could be the most gifted person but if you are unwilling to work hard you won’t progress.  You started your life working with cooperate clients, what did you learn from being a young female in those sorts of environments? The corporate world can be tough, especially in London. I have sat in many large board meetings being the only female in the room – I have learnt the importance of learning to stand on my own two feet, believe in myself and skillset along with trying not to worry about what people think of me. Being confident in my own skin has taken time, but I have always been extremely headstrong and have used this as a tool to get me to where I am today.   You have led design teams, How do you use your experience to support and guide people who may struggle with self belief? I am quite an emotional and passionate person, which I struggled with up against challenges early on in my career. But now I believe it makes me a good leader and able to connect with people on a deeper level – I am always interested to understand the person first, what do they want to achieve, what makes them tick – who are they as an individual. I understand from experience the struggle with self-belief, sometimes it’s about simply not giving up, putting one foot in front of the other and showing up for yourself.  You have helped teach young designers at colleges over the last 10 years, what advice would you give to someone first starting out in Graphic Design? To go for it! A career in graphic design is truly rewarding and you will never work another day in your life if you love what you do. The first five years in the industry can be tough, you have got to really want to be a designer to be successful – perseverance is critical.  What do you do outside of work? I am a keen runner and love the outdoors – I have run marathons in many different countries and raised thousands for charity from doing a million bake sales. Since I moved back to Somerset, I have been getting more into trial running – I love a challenge. I also took up CrossFit two years ago and not looked back, if I can manage to do a hand-stand at 5.30am in the morning then I can do anything.  Other than that, I have two gorgeous dogs (one golden retriever and one black lab) and you can often find me out in the country walking them.  Finally, do you have a mantra you live by? I would always say go with your gut feeling because it is usually right. Interviewed by George Booth 

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Anne-Lise Antolinos | The Berkeley Partnership
WOMEN ROCK27-02-2024

Anne-Lise Antolinos | The Berkeley Partnership

"Authenticity is the courage to embrace our differences, and diversity is the celebration of those differences."  Anne-Lise joined us to share insights on a range of topics, including her remarkable journey to becoming a partner at one of the world’s leading management consultancies. She offers practical tips to support ED&I efforts, such as advocating for part-time opportunities, promoting shared leave for fathers, and partnering with external agencies for comprehensive D&I training.  She emphasizes the power of speaking up when witnessing injustice, the significance of allyship, and the importance of recognizing personal biases. Additionally, Anne-Lise underscores the critical role of refining hiring practices to attract a diverse talent pool.  She also touches on her experiences with imposter syndrome, stressing the value of finding one's voice and having relatable role models. And lastly, she ventures into the age-old debate: skiing vs. snowboarding.   Interviewed by Ben Dennison

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Lydia Hawthorn | Cprime
WOMEN ROCK26-02-2024

Lydia Hawthorn | Cprime

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” - Katharine Hepburn An English and Creative Writing Graduate turned agile coach extraordinaire and Delivery Director at Cprime as well as an active speaker on all things agile. She also started her life in recruitment showing there’s hope for us yet… After taking an uncommon route into tech she shares her journey and talks through the power of doing what you enjoy, and how a different approach brings new perspectives and can add real value to a team. She opens up about some of the challenges she’s faced and how she overcame them, shares some practical things we can all do eery day to create a more inclusive workplace, and shares some positives she’s seen from companies helping people return to work. Finally, she talks about the Power of a growth Mindset, and how we can stop viewing things as failures but instead lessons learnt.     Interviewed by Ben Dennison  

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Elisha Kirkham | Softcat
WOMEN ROCK07-02-2024

Elisha Kirkham | Softcat

Meet Elisha, she joined Softcat in 2014 when the company’s revenue was at £500m and this year they achieved £2.56b. Initially joining their Manchester office on reception, quickly being highlighted as a future superstar for the business. Climbing the ranks over the last 10 years to lead the function that manages all Softcat’s recruitment across the UK, Ireland, and their international offices. Softcat has been an industry leader in terms of their diverse and inclusive culture that is truly unmatched in the IT channel. Elisha has played an instrumental part of that offering a truly unique requirements strategy that has led to their record-breaking year on year growth. During the conversation we discuss a variety of subjects and one thing that will shine through and in my opinion, is her superpower, is dropping her guard and showing complete vulnerability. If everyone in the technology could be a little bit more like Elisha, the world would be a better place – Enjoy! Congratulations on winning the CRN Outstanding Returner award! It's an incredible achievement to be recognized by a leading awards body in the industry. Was this the first time you have won the award? No, I think it's been going for a while now because I know we've had a few people go for it in previous years, so I think it's a long-standing award. I came back from maternity leave, and I flagged to my management team that it was something I wanted to go for. This is something I want to talk about at some point as well, I've had a lot of people come to me and have conversations with me about, how did you go about achieving what you've achieved since you returned from maternity leave? Has it been luck? Has it been the right people around you? What has it been? My answer is the same every time. I asked for everything I got. I asked to be nominated for CRN Outstanding Returner 2023 because I genuinely believed I deserved it. I asked to be put on our leadership development programme because I genuinely believed I warranted a place. I truly believe that unless you back yourself enough to say, I deserve this, I'm going to put myself on people's radar and say, I want to go for this. I want to be recognised in this way. The chances of those types of things happening organically are often much slimmer. Can you share your experience returning from maternity leave? It's a common yet rarely discussed challenge. What were the unique challenges you faced and how did you overcome them? So, I think the most important thing to start with is that everybody's experience is individual to them. Talking specifically about maternity leave and returning from having a baby, every woman will experience that differently, and I think that is the first thing managers, or people supporting those returners, need to communicate that there's no right or wrong. So many women leave to have a baby and want to disconnect from everything and have 12 months, 9 months, whatever they take to focus on the new part of their life, to give their all and don't want to be thinking about work and want to compartmentalize in that way, which works for so many. Then you get another subsection of women who are and want more of a balance, wanting to give focus to this new part of their life, but also want to stay connected to a piece of the “old” them. That's more where I fell. So, throughout the entirety of my maternity leave, don't get me wrong, I wasn't on team meetings or anything like that, but I kept in contact with my team, a big piece of this puzzle is I had a significant case postnatal depression after having my little boy Max. There was adjustment and life had changed, but I was okay. There was all of that, plus the fact that I was trying to wade my way through these postnatal mental health issues that I didn't know where to start with. I think all of that culminated by the time it came to me returning to work. That was around 11 or 12 months after having Max. I was excited to get back to a version of the “old me”. I knew it wasn't going to be exactly how things were because my entire life had changed, I was a mum now and things were different, and priorities were different, but the idea of getting a bit of me back, having time to have adult conversations and talk about things that weren't related to nappies, feeding or weaning, I was excited for. What advice can you offer, based on your experience at Softcat, on supporting individuals returning from extended leave? How can other businesses implement similar steps to ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace? So, I think some practicalities need to be considered, right? I think there are the basics, like having some kind of internal returner buddy system is important, because as much as a manager can be there in every way to listen and support, there's an argument for if you've not been through it, it's very difficult to empathise and understand on a real level what that person's experiencing. So, I think the practicalities of having an internal buddy system in place, so that every returner coming back into the business, has or will be connected with somebody who has gone through the same experience themselves and can connect authentically on what that person's going through and validate their experience, from a position of actually knowing what it's like is super important. Listening to somebody one-to-one and nodding and smiling, versus carving out the time of your day to specifically go and sit with somebody and ask how are you? Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? Do you have all the support you need? I am a massive believer in, actively listening to someone and this isn't just listening with your ears, it's listening with every part of you, the engagement, the eye contact, the nodding, all of that culminates into an experience that makes somebody feel genuinely seen, heard, and validated. After our conversations, I can see your superpower is your openness and willingness to show vulnerability. In a world where everyone faces challenges, how has embracing vulnerability benefited you, and do you believe it's made you a better leader? Yes, so firstly I agree with you, Mark. I am a true believer in the fact that vulnerability sits at the heart of effective leadership, not even just effective leadership, but impactful leadership, people you want to follow, people you want to listen to and want to be led by. If you go back 10 years or so, that was a pretty unheard of concept and very much against the grain. It's becoming more prevalent now. It's something that people are talking about, vulnerability and emotional intelligence in leadership. We can't talk about it enough; I think it is that important. My experience of vulnerability as a conscious concept, if I'm honest, I think was probably born out of pure desperation. I referenced earlier that I had postnatal depression off the back of having Max, but before that, if we go back to 2019, I had eight weeks or so off work just due to burnout. I drilled myself into the ground, which had exasperated my anxiety, and it had just gone from zero to 100 across a couple of months. I very much put my head in the sand and didn't acknowledge what was happening. Everybody around me started to notice, saying things such as You don't seem like yourself? What's happening? I just was adamant that I was fine until I wasn't, and that culminated in eight weeks off work, signed off officially by a doctor, sick leave, and all that kind of stuff. That was my first real experience, with mental health challenges and how to navigate them. That was the beginning of me starting to acknowledge the importance of being vulnerable and how that can connect you with others. I think it's important to acknowledge the power of somebody in leadership talking about those things very openly. Whether it be with your direct team or other people around you, it sets a tone, and the expectation isn't to be perfect, always at 150% contributor because none of us are that. As a manager or as a leader, I think it is truly irresponsible if you are consciously or subconsciously giving that expectation out to the people around you, or if you are portraying that you never really struggle and you're setting this expectation with your team and the people around you. Teaching that to progress and to get to your position, your level or move forward in their careers, they must be in a position where they know everything and nothing phases them and they never have a bad day, and that's just not reality for anybody. I think it should be non-negotiable to be an effective leader, you must have a certain level of emotional intelligence, and alongside that comes the ability to be vulnerable in an impactful way, I think this is worth mentioning, when I talk about vulnerability, I'm talking about you sharing a part of yourself that enables somebody else to see themselves reflected. Interviewed by Mark Reddy

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