As part of our IWD2020 focus we interview Emma Mahy, on her role as CEO of IOT Solutions Group, and her views on women in business.
Tell us about your role?
In truth the focus of my role is moving the organisation from start-up to scale-up by working with our expanding team to get all the building blocks in place and open doors. This involves meeting with investors, working with my co-founder CTO and other engineers to ensure we have product available for clients and talking with prospective clients to generate opportunities.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Simply put, the variety. We are in a really exciting phase for both the company and the IoT (Internet of Things) industry. Every day yields new challenges and new opportunities as the market matures.
We started this company, as we saw an opportunity to take a young technology and make a difference to business and society by working in a different way.
My role and this organisation gives me the perfect opportunity to do this. I love that we are uncovering and learning about new applications for the technology every day, I love seeing the huge efforts we’ve put in transform to results and I’m really enjoying seeing the different parts of the operation come together.
And what are the most challenging aspects?
It has to be juggling the priorities and areas of work. We have a number of trials and early stage projects we’re working on and we are still in the process of obtaining our investment, which means that I (and the rest of the team) have to be agile. There’s no sitting in your box and saying ‘that isn’t my job’.
That’s both exciting and challenging as, I’ve had to become an ‘expert’ in everything from law and finance to machine intelligence and GDPR!
What 3 things do you think you need to progress as a woman in business?
Clearly there are many things that are fundamental factors, applying to everyone, male or female but, as far as women are concerned, there are clearly added hurdles linked to unconscious bias entrenched by years of male dominance in the board room and other factors such as maternity leave that has traditionally led to challenges in career progression.
For me, the key assets needed are tenacity, self-belief and a strong network.
Tenacity because, with the additional barriers women face in many organisations, it is likely that extra efforts will be required to break through and be recognised. Whilst conscious and unconscious gender bias continues to be ‘a thing’, sheer bloody mindedness can be irreplaceable in achieving your goals.
Self-belief is very much linked to tenacity but vital when opportunities aren’t forthcoming or obstacles are raised. Continued self-belief and confidence in the goal can be that extra boost needed to keep fighting on.
The most successful people, men and women, have strong networks. They listen to others; they share ideas and collaborate. A strong network opens doors that would otherwise remain shut and provides support when barriers stand in the way. Having a strong network, of all genders, means you are surrounded by people who may have shared experiences and who are able to provide guidance. It also means you have the opportunity to help others with ideas and through times of trouble.
What are the biggest challenges the future generation of women in business face?
Sadly, I can’t see some of the existing challenges vanishing overnight – shared parental leave is still a rarely utilised benefit, the gender pay gap exacerbates this and so inevitably, more often than not, mothers take a career break and are held back under current cultural norms.
I do see a positive shift in relation to attitudes towards women. Workplaces are more diverse in terms of gender balance and behaviours, though there are still many organisations and industries that have cultural hangovers from the 80s and 90s.
The priority has to be to continue to educate and evolve attitudes. To instill the view that everyone has value to offer at all levels of business; female or male, young or old, straight, LGBTQ+, white British or of a minority ethnic background…the list goes on.
Diversity of personnel leads to diversity of thought, which leads to improved debate and performance.
What can the next generation bring to business that previous generations may not have?
For me, this hasn’t changed at a fundamental level, though the specifics have. Every new generation brings new ideas and attitudes combined with a lack of fear and trepidation.
Each generation since the industrial revolution has been exposed to new technologies and ways of working from an early age compared to the previous generation. Early exposure to technologies means they are comfortable in utilising them and see them as the norm that older colleagues sometimes don’t.
Modern day digital natives will not be the pioneers in 20 years’ time, whilst Gen X and Y, who grew up with computers at schools, are no longer the ones rocking the boat as they were 20 years past.
It’s not just about technology though, for me, the most important role for every new generation is to enter the fray without fear and with challenge. Challenge existing practices and help business and society accept and embrace new mind-sets and approaches.
As soon as we stand still, we stop progressing.
How has the innovation support you received helped you as a woman?
Our business and my background is all about innovation and I couldn’t pin point a single element that has helped me specifically as a woman. One of the most important factors though has been the people and teams I’ve worked with.
Any professional can only be successful and drive change if they are surrounded with, and supported by, like-minded innovative colleagues. I surround myself with people who help me learn, challenge me and drive me forward - not those that stifle progress and innovation.
I’m an up-beat and energetic person and working with equally passionate and positive people has been key.
What does a more gender-balanced world-view mean for you?
Much like my answer above really – it’s about cultural change where the world is open to the value that people of all characteristics can bring. It’s not just about gender balance, but ensuring leadership teams in business, government, sports clubs and other organisations represent its constituencies equally. It’s about women feeling they are operating in a meritocracy with an equal chance to progress compared to their male counterparts.
How can we enable more women to take a place at the board-room table?
There are many ways but I think it’s important to not always put the responsibility at the door of others or government. We can all make a difference and do our own little bit. By listening, engaging with people of all backgrounds and levels of influence, by sharing stories and championing positive movements like IWD, by offering support to those who are struggling, being vocal about the need for board diversity and pressuring those in power, we can individually influence change.
How can businesses evolve to be more gender-balanced?
Business has to listen. If the top down approach to management has led to the current situation of male dominated boards and women being held back, it may be that new ways of working could be the answer to more balance and greater productivity.
Increased staff engagement is key to changing working practices and creating equal opportunities for all. Listening to movements such as IWD provides perspectives and lessons that may not have been considered and the ingredient required to change.
Of course, leadership teams need to be open to change but, they don’t know what they don’t know. Therefore, engagement, exploration and listening is vital if organisational cultures and practices are to shift to be more balanced and fair.
What advice would you give to young women and men starting out in business today in context of promoting a more diverse world-view?
This is relevant to all areas of life, from business to politics and from entertainment to religion. Be curious and explore different points of view.
In recent years many of us could be accused of having become entrenched in our viewpoints. Echo chamber is now a commonly used phrase. We have refused to listen to others and reacted with anger and hostility to those with whom we disagree. It doesn’t help.
If we are going to change attitudes and behaviours, in both business and society as a whole, we all need to step out of our trenches, venture towards the ‘enemy’ and try to understand. Listen, share ideas and be open.
By taking an open attitude we have the chance to learn, shift our own ways of working and also help others understand how they may be able to positively change and affect those around them.
Young business professionals have the chance to bring refreshing change and positivity by being curious.
What women inspire you and why?
There are two people who I’d like to pick out.
The first is someone who I suspect will be on many peoples’ list in years to come - Greta Thunberg.
I think she resembles the change we need in this world, recognition that disruption is what’s going to move us forward. It has been too safe for too many for too long operating as we do in a comfort bubble and ignoring issues around us because it suits us. It’s time for us all to think differently and Greta is a shining beacon of that attitude. She’s driven, single minded and able to get across a clear message to the leaders of the world without fear. It’s easy for us to shrink away and pretend ‘it’s not our problem’ but Greta shows that we can all make a difference.
The second is someone I have got to know personally and may not be an obvious choice for many - Jodie Kidd. I met Jodie some years ago and got to know her. Catwalk models perhaps don’t seem aligned with the mission of International Women’s Day and the fight for equality, but when you get to know Jodie, you see how her career and the perceptions of her industry haven’t defined her or pigeon holed her. She lives an incredibly full and varied life, maintains a superb balance between work and family, has set-up her own businesses out of the spotlight and truly embraces life in a way that I suspect many wouldn’t have thought.
She inspires me because she has shown that she isn’t defined by old school attitudes, she has shown innovation, determination and appreciation that life is about balance.