Inspiring Leaders - Interview with CEO of STEMettes - Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, MBE
Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and director of recruitment search and selection firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2019 she is embarking on a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon is a prodigy in every sense of the word. Aged 11, she was the youngest girl ever to pass A-level computing, and was just 20 years old when she received her Master’s Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Oxford. Since then, she has forged an enviable CV, including positions at Goldman Sachs, Hewlett-Packard and Deutsche Bank. Then there are the Honorary Doctorates from Open University, Glasgow Caledonian University, Kent University & Bristol University and an Honorary Fellowship at Keble College, Oxford.
It is this wealth of experience and pioneering spirit that led her to co-found STEMettes, an award-winning social initiative dedicated to inspiring and promoting the next generation of young women in the STEM sectors. Since its inception 6 years ago, it has exposed more than 40,000 young people across Europe to Anne-Marie’s vision for a more diverse and balanced science and tech community. You can find out more about her by visiting aimafidon.com/about and the STEMettes at stemettes.org
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
As with most young people this changed every couple of years. My mum claims that when I was very young, I loved watching the weather presenters on TV, so I decided I was going to be a meteorologist. Then when I was 13 at school they had us all undertake a careers questionnaire. The results showed that I should be a management consultant or a systems analyst. At that point I had no idea what those roles were, so I researched further and thought at least the salary sounded great. I also figured out that if I was a management consultant for a major company such as Sainsburys, I might also get free groceries and I figured that may be a handy thing to have. Then I did various internships and different kinds of work experience, so my plans morphed over the years, but ultimately as soon as I knew I could be paid to be a technologist that was what I wanted to do; anything technology related.
What was your first job?
My first paid employment was a placement with Deutsche Bank. Although perhaps I should really say it’s the work I did in building websites for people. I made websites for family and friends and anyone that needed a site and charged a couple of hundred quid for it.
Who or what, inspired you to launch STEMettes?
I was working in a big bank in their technology department and I’d been enjoying myself, doing really well, working on a system that was across hundreds of people in a global organisation. I was lucky enough to be invited to a conference in the States about what we were doing in IT and the technology that we were building and developing. I turned up at this conference and it was all women. There were three and a half thousand technical women in one place and I'd never been in that kind of environment before. It was incredible, and I remember we went to a Twitter reception which was invite only and I went to a Pinterest party and you had a secret code word that you had to give at the hotel reception. We went up and they had this fabulous balcony area. They were screen printing Tote bags and making Dreamcatchers and it was amazing. I thought at that moment, gosh I’ve been in technology this entire time, I've loved it, it's been great, I've had an absolute ball and earned really well. If only people knew it was this cool, it was this amazing, that you could have these almost “London Fashion Week” type of opportunities, then more people would want to be part of technology. It is so exciting, but we never talk about it, we're not exposed to it, we don’t see it, even I, who worked in this sector didn’t even know until then. That was the moment for me.
Initially I was proud to be in Tech but I didn't realise the significance of being a “Woman in Tech” until that point. There was a keynote speaker who talked about the fact that actually the number of women in technology had been in decline for the last 30 years preceding that point. She was imploring all of us to stay in the sector, the reasons why you should stay and to get a friend to join, so that we could reverse the trend. When I got home and thought about it more, I thought why just one friend, why not more people. There should be a whole generation that grows up having this kind of message, understanding it and seeing this opportunity, so that was how STEMettes was formed.
It was a start-up challenge and I then took a calculated risk when I came across full time. We ran STEMettes for two years before I did so. Initially it was like running two jobs. I called STEMettes a monster for the first year because you are constantly running around, and doing events, it’s quite physical, lots of travelling and train journeys each week. It does take a lot out of you, but the response and the reaction and the growth and the impact is what keeps you going. There is so much you have to deal with, from late payments of invoices, to infinite meetings with certain corporates who just like to have meetings and you’re keen to get them to translate that into action, to wanting to work with girls and young women who have seen the support and the inspiration you've given them and who actually don’t have the resources to continue on with that beyond anything that you're providing. It's been a rollercoaster. Every day there's ups and downs. There are always lots of great things that are happening, and you just have to roll with the punches, enjoy it and learn from everything that happens. It’s been a massive learning curve.
What five words best describe you?
Anne-Marie (you need to start with a name), lazy (I’m physically lazy and always look for the quickest or smartest route, creative, talkative and logical
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
My favourite one is from Grace Hopper - “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”.
What technology are you passionate about?
I'm a technology agnostic. For me, I like seeing how technology can be applied. It’s less the AI or VR per se, but more about, for example how you could use virtual reality to build empathy or a person using artificial intelligence to help diagnose conditions. That’s the kind of thing I find more interesting.
What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?
I do think that hiring is one of the most difficult tasks that I do now, and I am unsure as to whether I always get it fully right. It’s about trying to achieve the optimum, so for me I'm always looking for people that are going to be able to learn things and skill up. I look more for the person with the right ethos and the right attitude, rather than specific skills especially with what we do ie you would assume that we need technical people but actually a lot of the technical stuff I can teach. It needs to be someone that can carry the vibe, carry the motivations, think quick, think on your feet show initiative and have the ability to step up and take control of situations.
Therefore, we prefer to spend time trialling people and getting to see them in action rather than necessarily general interview conversations. They can work alongside the team for a day or two, we get to see what they are like, how they react to the goals, how they pick up on details and how they fill in the gaps. We also tend to keep an eye on volunteers and alumni as well and keep them in mind for future openings.
Do you have a favourite interview question?
I don’t have a specific favourite question and tend to build on the conversation, but I do like to ask people where they see themselves in five years. I can then understand their motivation and what they're working towards and then understand whether we can be a part of that in a larger context, rather than just the role that they're doing now.
How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?
I'm currently a bit frustrated with HR functions across a number of businesses that we work with and see. Historically HR has been there to protect the company. I think what's interesting is your culture is an average of the people that you have employed in your organization.
Therefore, HR isn't purely just about protection of the company, it also needs to serve people better so that they can do a better job of looking after the company itself. I find that I'm often quite frustrated with things like feedback loops, exit interviews and the whole practice around that and influencing culture. I feel like sometimes HR misses out on the listening that can be done and the trends that they could spot. It would be good If they could spend less time trying to protect and enforce and more times trying to ameliorate. For a lot of top HR professionals, it seems like that goes missing; especially when we talk in the technology context, I think that it’s very much missing. People are hurting, work can be harming people and HR are not collecting the data on the missing signs. Rather than trying to improve things for the “canaries in the coal mine” as we like to call them, they're almost shutting people out. Businesses therefore experience a lot of attrition.
Here at STEMettes we can sometimes see the signs of when someone's about to leave a company. They are volunteering with us and it’s almost as if they're reaching out to us because work isn’t giving them everything and that's how they're going to improve things. HR should be focused on doing better for the people we have.
Has workplace diversity now become embedded or is there still much more to do?
I think for you to solve any problem, you have to acknowledge that you have it. I’m happy that there is talk going on. This is a first step but then we definitely need the rest of the steps after it. I'm noticing that when you don't have people talking about diversity, then you don't have people agreeing that it's real and there is no change. We do need as much support as possible for people who do care and do have the right attitudes, so that they can do the doing. I am excited that there is a new book just out called “Invisible Women - Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez. There is a whole section in there on the workplace and it talks about the gender data gap and there are some many examples of where you have defaults. There are many assumptions that you make before you set the HR policy. We almost need to re-evaluate some of those assumptions and say for example that not everyone that works at this company is a fiftieth percentile male in the 1970s. All of the assumptions that you had around situations such as there being a wife at home, to look after the children, when that employee needs to attend a meeting outside of work hours. We have to think about how we set policies to be inclusive, in addition to winning hearts and minds and changing the culture in general and the behaviours that people have. So that’s what I feel is needed now. It’s inclusion in deed and not just in talk.
Do you believe that businesses have embraced flexible working?
Not fully, no, we’ve not finished yet. Flexible working needs to be tackled in stages. Having the policy is one thing but then changing the culture so that people aren't then persecuted for working flexibly. You need to move from persecuted towards celebrated so that eventually its’s the norm and that people are OK with it and used it. We are definitely nowhere near flexible working being the norm in any organisation at the moment, but I am optimistic.
How would you describe your / STEMettes operating style?
Casual, food, fun – We don’t take ourselves too seriously, possibly some would argue we don’t take ourselves seriously enough. We’re going through a transition mode ourselves at the moment. We are going from start-up to SME and are operationalising a little bit more, allowing ourselves to make it a lot easier to scale. I think operationally we are quite laid back and we are quite girl centric.
What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?
I never cry but I did end up crying in this moment. A couple of years ago we did a tech incubator for teenage girls. We got funding, we had these girls living in this massive house in South London, we had 45 of them at any given point and 115 of them across the summer. They were there 24/7 for six weeks straight. These girls had all applied, they all had an interest in STEM and business. Some of them were quite isolated where they were, others were more confident in themselves, others less so and we brought them all together. We said we're going to give you some cash to build a product, build a start-up, whatever you build we'll see what happens. We're here to support your idea, we won’t do any of it for you, but we've got all the resources and you're smart enough to make it happen.
We had a demo day, when they pitched to VC’s and Funders and certain projects received money. At the end of it we had a graduation and looking back across the six weeks, we were tired, in fact shattered but I remember breaking down crying because it was the scale of what we had achieved, the network of girls that we had brought together, the life changing moment it had been for all of them. The fact that I do a lot of these things, not knowing who's going to turn up, not knowing what's going to happen next, but literally believing in the strength of this girlhood spirit. It was lovely as they completely outdid all of our expectations, those of the Funders and anyone else involved. For me that was such a stand out moment, we are still in touch with so many of those girls. In fact, we're launching a new initiative this year, putting those girls on the stage and having those girls then be the ones that inspire and pass it forward, allowing them to develop leadership skills as part of that experience. It’s so lovely hearing from them. These girls are still so enterprising and are everywhere. People run competitions for young innovators and it'll be our girls that are winning those events or from three of the winners, two of them are ex-STEMette girls. In fact, I was in IKEA over the weekend and one of the people working on the tills was one of these girls. She is doing computer science at university, she is currently on a placement with a big tech company and at the weekend she works at IKEA because she can't sit still. These are girls that are part of that network, part of that community and who we are all going to be working for in the future. I am sure one of these girls will be Prime Minister in the future and will be running this country. Being able to give those girls that leg up, that inspiration, that confidence, that support network and everything that we are able to provide to them for being a STEMette is just so rewarding. No wonder I cried, it was the gravity of it all, see their faces, their excitement, really touching lives and really changing things – that’s what I’m doing it for.
What’s next for you and STEMettes?
We are in a transition phase and we are about to launch our official charity arm later this year and we are scaling up. It’s been six years of testing and trialling at grassroots and there are things that we now know work. We've been able to codify them so we're looking now at how we license this, how we expand and allow others to be part of this movement in a scalable self-service way. The other thing is also the legacy. The charity is called STEMettes Futures as it's about the future of these girls and these young women. There's so much that we're looking into doing, into normalising the different pathways and different options that these girls have and putting their voices at the centre of it. There is a lot that goes on in the STEM world anyway, much of it, isn't even gendered, which is fine. However, we are gendered and there’s so much that we do with role models, but this is acknowledging that the girls themselves can be the role models and can do this for each other. Also hearing what they want, what they need and allowing them to lead it, particularly because we know that they can, we know girls that have. We're looking at building that kind of expertise because I think for long lasting change it needs to have that kind of self-momentum
They call it growth hacking, when you have one user who turns into several others. It’s allowing this to become physically viral, to go forward and become an epidemic where all kinds of girls know something they can do, they all know it's an option, they can do it if they want to and they all feel able to. Knowing that we have tested it in the small so we can expand out.
Is there any legislation that needs to be implemented by the Government to support STEM activity?
My view on this changes all the time. We are very industry focused and we are about employment and I think I think that's quite important for us. This is a lot to do with role models and storytelling that we have around the different people that come before us. So textbooks, syllabuses, general curriculum do need to shift a little bit more to get to less of an emphasis on “dead white guys”. There is more that we can do with, I’m not sure if I’d call it legislation, but more around policy and best practice with companies and how they should run and what they should be doing. A small example is company expenses. Hotels are allowable company expenses whilst babysitting fees are not allowable. It’s all about the default. If that senior woman is a single mother and 80 percent of all single parents are mothers and they’ve got to get to an out of hours business meeting, then why wouldn't babysitting be an expense. You can pay for a taxi or pay for a hotel but it’s small things like that, which help us to think about this situation more. You look everywhere and there is this default; it’s pervasive. Diversity at the moment is still uncomfortable. We need to make it comfortable for everyone.
Let’s just do a little bit better. My girls are coming. We’ve done what we can in their formative years which means they are coming and more fool you, if silly little policies that are based on a fiftieth percentile male from the 1970s are going to stop us from advancing as a human race and innovating in ways that we need to.
How would you like to be remembered?
I'd like there to be a thing that changed wholescale that people can point to. As a technologist nothing is ever done in isolation, it’s all in collaboration. There is nothing I have done, just on my own, it’s all collective achievement. I think its more about that change so having STEMettes as part of the lexicon would be great, not for that word but for what it would be a symptom of. I think what I'd love to be remembered for it is just changing that reality, changing that social norm, that there are technical women and in particular there are technical girls and that becomes a norm. In the same way that you don't need to say there are female journalists, it’s just journalists. Although it's frustrating that, that has to be changed, I'd love to be remembered for being someone that helped with a lot of that change across UK and Ireland.
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