Our founder Francesca Valli talks about starting in business, why the next generation of women should look at a future in technology and why gender diversity is key to a socially just world. An interview with Louis Crust, Digital Communications and Marketing Manager at CTR Partners, providers of business transformation leaders to global organisations. This is Francesca’s contribution to their Thought Leadership series celebrating the success of women in business and technology.
See the video and if you are a believer in fast scrolling… below is the transcript. We hope you will enjoy it.
If you wish to get in touch for guidance on business transformation, contact us.
Louis Crust: Tell us about your experience in business, how did you get where you are today? Why did you get into it initially?
Francesca Valli: I start my professional life as a qualified accountant, a good springboard for my later career in IT, as a system analyst first and a programme director later.
I got into technology because I love a challenge. As a woman coming from a country and a generation where technology was not a career path I was expecting to take, I thought… I must understand what this is about and started work as a data manager for a client who was rolling out an ERP technology solution across Europe. Besides, in the mid-90s we knew that there would have been a lot of interesting work coming up ahead, due to the ‘Y2K’ or ‘millennium bug’ as IT skills would be in demand. That was my entry into technology, really.
From there, I specialised in major business transformation underpinned by technology. And from there, it’s been a natural progression into management consultancy where I combine the skills learnt in a lifetime at the forefront of technology complexities to experience of what makes the organisation engage with change and drive forward through its adoption. And I now advise clients on change not needing to be as complex as we make it out to be.
I come from the very entrepreneurial culture of northern Italy and have an entrepreneurial streak. A few years ago, I set up a business to do with developing apps to support the study of Chinese, apps that went on sale in the Apple app store.
I am also a non-executive-director for a tech start up that develops chatbots that plug onto satellite broadband.
LC: Thinking about technology, a key experience in your career… How is technology affecting businesses?
FV: The ERP technology, the technology that supports the complex business of large companies, has been going to the cloud. Our experience of the cloud has been shaped by our experience in our own individual life - the ease-of-use technology we use in our homes we want to see it in the office too. I am thinking how easy it is for us to order online – I have recently worked on a cloud source-to-pay transformation whether the user interface of the application is based on what an Amazon screen might look like, a simple, intuitive interface, with a few clicks you are done. This makes for efficiency and also for increased collaboration, bringing closer, as it does, the main parties in a business transaction.
Also, on how technology of our daily lives has impacted business, I see how the ease and speed of communication that we are used to from our own social media experience is now essential in business. I am thinking how communications practices have changed – from dreary long newsletters and emails to private social networking tools for business collaboration (such as Yammer or Chatter) that not only do keep teams connected, informed and aligned but have the power to influence the adoption of change if they are used judiciously and if they are used and seen to be used by the senior leadership.
I am also thinking about Robotic Process Automation whereby a lot of the back-office, high-volume, repeatable transactions carried out by humans are going to be carried out with the use of software with artificial intelligence or machine learning capabilities. This, as with anything in technology, is both good, with speed, efficiency, automation, and bad, especially for people who might not wish or be able to transfer their existing skills onto other areas of business.
LC: Do you think there is a diversity issue in the tech sector? Has it affected you in any way?
FV: Yes, I think there is a diversity issue in technology as there is one in business and as there is one in life. My own area of diversity interest, gender-focussed in the STEM space, tells me, if you look at last year’s women on boards study from WISE, www.wisecampaign.org.uk, in 2017 9% of STEM companies have 33% or more women on executive committees, compared to 20% of non-STEM companies – but, good news, their list of ‘women to watch’ include more women with a STEM background.
Has it affected me? Yes and no. Overtly, I would say it has not, insofar as, considered singularly, my career has been one of upward-progress. Covertly, I would say it has likely affected my career as I cannot individually escape from a cultural context that doesn’t pay sufficient attention to diversity.
Of course, it’s not just women that might want this type of change, it’s all people of goodwill that believe in a healthy environment for everyone. So, if you can, if it is in your power to do so, take action – and create a better environment for everyone.
LC: What does the future hold / what would you like to see in the future for women in technology?
FV: I would like to see more women at the forefront of defining and developing technology. My own experience has been to progress from system analysis to project management to which I was more naturally inclined. I just wish more women and girls were willing and supported to take on the technology roles, including devising the algorithms that will increasingly make the decisions in our life and business life. This would be a very welcome outcome.
Also I want to see a woman come up with a solution to the way that cognitively we might be changing given the vast amount of information we are impossibly expected to digest – a smart search engine that allows you to access the info you are interested in, a kind of knowledge management system that doesn’t leave you with fear-of-missing-out or doesn’t create echo-chambers.
I am basically looking forward to what the girls who are now 8 or 10 will do in technology, and the impact this will have on the business world.
LC: Are there any particular women in technology or in business who have inspired you?
FV: I keep a broad watch onto the women landscape and so my influences come from far and wide. A woman whose thinking has definitely influenced the way I approach growing into middle-age is Rita Levi-Montalcini, an Italian scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for her work on neurobiology. She has written a book that argues that growing old doesn’t mean losing brain power as experience and accumulated mental abilities will make up for it (I paraphrase, really, the book is extraordinarily complex and extraordinarily empowering – it has been to me) and she died, still going to her office every day, at the age of 103!
But on a more prosaic front, two women I met when I worked at the Intercontinental Hotel in the 80s, having just arrived from Italy, both a wonderful mix of being very good at their job but also friendly and extrovert and super-stylish have definitely been a defining influence in my career! Inspiration can come from many places.
LC: What would be your message to women trying to get into technology?
FV: Do! Do not be left behind, understand the technology around us, be there at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And there’s an increasing number of role models around, which is encouraging to girls. Whilst only 24% of computer science jobs are held by women at this point, which is actually a drop from 1995, where it was 37%, there are plenty of women who are continuing to break the glass ceiling (Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Ginni Rometty, IBM CEO, Lucy Peng from the Alibaba Group.) But to women and girls I’d say: do attack the development jobs not just the management jobs. Or go and work with Google as digital ethicist to build diversity-aware ethics and values into the algorithms.
LC: Why do you feel sustainability is important for organisations to take seriously?
FV: Three aspects I would consider:
The wider equal opportunities for women globally
UN Women have what is called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets a number of goals that see achieving gender equality as fundamental to delivering sustainability, peace and human progress. They report that globally 15m girls will never get a chance to read or write, compared to 10m boys. So equal opportunity is key to sustainability.
Women on boards
Does having more women on the board really mean the company makes more money? A report published by Credit Suisse last year said companies with at least one woman director received a better return on their investments compared with companies with all-male boardrooms. In the UK, the 30% Club was set up with the aim of having women make up at least 30% of the members on every board (that % being thought of as the ‘tipping point’ where women will make a difference).
Academics warn against this seemingly straight statistical correlation. It's not enough to simply ‘add women and stir’, as Robin J. Ely, professor at Harvard Business School puts it – factors such as company culture are important too. In fact Corinne Post, a professor of organisation management at Lehigh University, says that board members don't have a direct influence on the bottom line of a company, but they do have a greater influence on corporate social responsibility. She found that there was a five times stronger correlation between a company having female board members and stronger performance when it comes to ensuring they are environmentally friendly as a company, or involve themselves in philanthropy, for example, than the correlation between female board members and profits.
As someone who is able to recruit people it’s important to be aware of diversity – just because it is sensible, socially just to do so. I have asked partners the question: do you have an equal opportunity policy? So please field a team that shows it. I always assure that the number of CVs submitted is equal and I have employed women - and men - specifically to bring diversity, as well as their skills – this means more perspectives from varied experiences. And when it comes to women, why should you rule out 50% of the population from important jobs? It's about social justice not about profits.
LC: Anything(s) in particular that you are excited about in technology?
FV: Whilst we are far from the days where an algorithm selects the software and another implements it, I am nevertheless standing by for business transformation and change in the age of AI. When those rowdy humans are replaced by obedient algorithms (1), will change management be redundant? I am researching this topic for a chapter of a book I am writing with some fellow management consultants.
LC: How and why did you get The Gherkin Challenge started? And how is it going so far?
FV: 10 years ago I served on the London Business Board, a fundraising board in aid of the NSPCC. One of us brought an idea (to do with this new type of events run in the US entailing people walking / running up tall buildings). I felt able to take it onboard and drive it. On 28-Oct-2018 we will be running the event for the 9th time and, in the process, have raised >£1.2 million. Watch out for the event’s 10th anniversary during which we will be taking over the Gherkin for a Thursday-to-Sunday set of fantastic events in aid of the children the NSPCC does so much to give a childhood to.
I feel strongly about social responsibility and giving something back. I believe in the work the NSPCC does in bringing about the discourse in society on children neglect and abuse and for doing so much to campaign and bring about policy change to protect children in the age of technology-enabled, sadly, online, abuse. Look at their Wild West Web campaign who is calling for new laws to make social networks safer for children, for example. I also serve on the fundraising committee that advises their board. I am very proud of this connection.
I am also a believer in women mentoring girls and I was recently invited to a splendid mentoring session organised by the Women of the World Festival, at the Southbank and partnered by Plan International UK, another organisation that does amazing work to protect girls against violence.
(1) With thanks to Yuval Noah Harari’s splendid formulation in 21st Lessons for the 21st Century. Chapter on Liberty, pp 60.