SparkOptimus’ insights from the European Women in Tech conference (November 26th – 27th 2019)
At SparkOptimus, we are driven by helping our clients deliver more value to their customers or consumers. We are extremely hands-on, and are usually involved in the physical processes and work that transforming organisations entails. Increasingly, we are noticing that – if we want these digital transformations to be impactful – a different skillset and mindset are required compared to in the ‘traditional’ strategy work we also do. In other words: we need different skills and approaches to solve different problems. And this is exactly what we confirmed and delved into more deeply at the European Women in Tech conference – a two-day conference held at the Amsterdam RAI, with inspirational and informative sessions on new technologies, empowerment, diversity and the outstanding achievements of stellar women. To quote Corinne Vigreux (co-founder of TomTom and founder of Codam): “If you only have one type of person to solve issues, you’re only going to solve one type of problem, in one type of way”.
So what did we learn at this conference? Well, first of all, we should have more than just “one type of person to solve issues”. Rather, we need diverse teams. And by diversity we are talking more than just the male-to-female ratio. We are also talking about disabilities, sexual orientation, race, etc. A myriad of research studies have already proven that diverse companies outperform homogeneous companies (no need to cite them here). But Evita Stoop (CMO of IBM Benelux) touched upon a much more important and difficult issue: if you merely tolerate differences, then you leave those differences for what they are: simply bringing in different people is not a magical solution for creating a diverse business. No; you need to embrace and activate those differences in order to thrive. And this requires the active participation of all – especially leadership – to set an example.
Secondly, we don’t want to “solve one type of problem”, because technology can impact everyone. New technologies have incredible potential for achieving environmentally sustainable solutions to contemporary problems, or for developing solutions for marginalised groups. Shaloo Garg (Microsoft for Startups and UN Women) urged everyone to look beyond the obvious innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, as real social impact will come from less developed countries. Problems across the globe and across groups of people are different, so innovation needs to somehow be localised if it is to address these different problems.
Lastly, we should not go about this “in one type of way”, but need to create diversity in the ways in which we work and tackle issues. Many of the speakers at the conference iterated that innovation today requires approaches that are very different to the traditional economies of scale in previous decades. And, many of these much needed new skills are seen as rather ‘feminine’ traits (empathy and collaboration). For example, Helle Thorning Schmidt (Former PM of Denmark and CEO of Save the Children International) applauded the bravery and pragmatism of meeting others in the middle and finding a compromise, instead of attacking or ‘othering’ the other. In a technical world, soft skills – skills that computers will never have – are becoming ever more relevant. Other traits, such as empathy and collaboration, are seen as the cornerstone of innovation. A workshop on how to create a Blockchain ‘Unicorn’ stressed the importance of working together with players in the value chain to create a real blockchain ecosystem. By definition, these types of innovations require a different way of working and a diverse skillset to achieve such goals.
Having a diverse group of people-to solve diverse issues-in diverse ways is quite some ambition. Luckily, we were also handed some insights into how this can be achieved. Company policy needs to be reviewed to remove any (unconscious) biases towards both men and women, and to level the playing field by, for example, introducing paternity leave. But more importantly, the diversity & inclusion agenda should be driven top-down and be carried down to the rest of the organisation by the leadership. D&I cannot be a standalone programme; inclusiveness should be a value. And diversity can only really be applied once embedded into everything that an organisation does. Nor should we underestimate the importance of role models; not just like the ones at the conference, but also (male) allies who can help us live and breathe a diverse culture more fully.
Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon explained the importance of telling the ‘herstory’ of technology. (The great women of tech who invented great things, such as WiFi.) Whilst Nicky Clement (VP HR at Unilever) told us how both male and female role models are striving to make their leadership visible to the whole organisation. This conference certainly did a good job at that. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many strong, kind and smart women making a difference in tech to achieve impact for all!