Heroes of Mobile: Ambition is key for women in tech

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, Facebook
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, Facebook
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Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most recognisable business leaders in the world. But where would she be without ambition?

It is hard to imagine how someone could become chief operating officer of Facebook without drive and passion.

Not everyone who aspires to a career in the technology will reach those heady heights - but, according to one of the UK’s most prominent industry figures, ambition is essential for women to succeed in digital industries.

Lesley Cowley OBE, non-executive director at AQL, said aiming high is key to achieving your goals - whether you are an entrepreneur running a business part-time or someone eyeing up a C-suite role at a tech giant.

But ambition does not mean going it alone, Ms Cowley stressed.

In fact, not being able to get the right support and guidance is one of the biggest challenges the for tech start-ups today.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Ms Cowley : “Success is about being ambitious, but also being realistic and getting the help that you need.

“Whether you’re a CEO of an SME or a big business, know your strengths and weaknesses and get help with that.

“There are lots of women starting businesses nowadays who maybe don’t necessarily have the ambition and are thinking small scale - but why?

“Be ambitious. My advice would be aim for something that’s really big - go for your dream, work towards it and get the help you need.”

Ms Cowley has worked in the tech industry since the early years of the internet, joining UK domain registry Nominet in 1999 before becoming chief executive of the firm in 2004.

While women are undoubtedly more visible in the digital economy than they were 15 years ago, it is still a male-dominated area.

This partly is down to the pace of change and a lack of understanding around the diverse roles that make up the technology sector - which can be a particular issue in schools.

She said: “Girls tend to rule themselves out of things in tech because they don’t realise the opportunities. They don’t realise how exciting a career you can have.

“I work speaking in schools, saying, ‘don’t rule it out, keep an open mind’. If you like maths, fantastic, but you don’t necessarily need to be a mathematician, you could find a career in tech marketing, which will blow your mind in terms of routes to the customer, social media and so on. There are masses of opportunities out there.”

She added: “I wish tech had been around when I was at school. Although I bet I wouldn’t have been encouraged to go into it.”

This week saw the Heroes of Mobile festival take place in Leeds for the first time.

The event, organised by mobile industry expert Helen Keegan and hosted by AQL, brings together a range of speakers from the technology and mobile arenas to discuss challenges and opportunities for the industry.

Speaking at a women’s networking event, Ms Cowley told The Yorkshire Post Leeds is a thriving environment for the digital sector - but that more must be done to promote its successes.

Currently, London is “doing a better PR job” as the home for digital - but it need not be the case.

She said: “Leeds needs to do everything it can to sell itself and sell what a fantastic place it is to live, work and play.

“The business opportunities here are really exciting, both big and small.

“There’s real opportunity for Leeds to put itself on the digital map. Leeds can absolutely hold its own.

“It has the ambition, the right raw ingredients, all we need to do is deliver on that.”

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Lesley Cowley OBE joined Nominet in 1999, having completed an MBA at Bristol Business School.

She was promoted to chief executive in 2004. In 2011, she was awarded an OBE for services to internet and e-commerce.

Since leaving Nominet in 2014, she has taken on non-executive roles at AQL and others. She is the first non-executive chair of the DVLA.