How Women in Leeds Digital is acting as a showcase for careers of the future

Sarah Tulip, right, and Deborah Hetherington co-founders of Women in Leeds Digital (WiLD). Pictured at Nexus, University of Leeds.'25th April 2019.'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
Sarah Tulip, right, and Deborah Hetherington co-founders of Women in Leeds Digital (WiLD). Pictured at Nexus, University of Leeds.'25th April 2019.'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Hundreds of women will be urged to take up technology careers this week. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright spoke to Deb Hetherington. a networker on a mission.

IN the virtual age, the best connections are still made face to face.

Deb Hetherington and Sarah Tulip are ambassadors for the growing number of female technology leaders who are heading to Yorkshire.

There has never been a better time to work in Yorkshire’s digital sector, with Channel 4 soon to establish a base in the heart of Leeds, and the city’s digital festival attracting some of the biggest names to the region.

The one thing that seemed to be lacking was an event that encouraged more women to take up jobs in the digital sector. It’s a sobering fact that only 17 per cent of technology sector employees are women.

If the tech sector is to grow, it must tackle this gender imbalance head on. Ms Tulip, from Software Cloud, and Ms Hetherington, from Leeds Beckett University, are not the type of people to run away from such a challenge.

“Sarah and I are prolific networkers and we kept bumping into each other an awful lot,’’ said Ms Hetherington.

“We thought we could create something where we brought all the people together and absolutely screamed about what we do.”

They have created Women in Leeds Digital (WiLD), a conference which has to quote, Ms Hetherington “connected the city’s three universities, three colleges, a range of the region’s sixth forms, the council, the not for profits sector, global brands and start-ups to build a 54-speaker extravaganza”.

The event - - takes place on May 2 at the new Leeds University innovation building Nexus. Five hundred delegates have signed up to attend the inaugural WiLD event, which will feature talks from representatives from Sky, Microsoft. NHS Digital, Leeds City Council, TEN10 and The Data Shed.

Ms Hetherington said: “We saw a need to bridge the gap between education and industry for our female students, while simultaneously providing a platform to shout about all the amazing things our female industry leaders are doing.

“After reaching out to decision makers and stakeholders from across Leeds, we were overwhelmed with the support and encouragement we received.”

Participants at WiLD will have the chance to play with the latest technology and enjoy direct access to recruiters and universities.

The morning session will focus on those in education or at an early stage in their careers. It will highlight the range of opportunities within the digital sector in the region.

The afternoon session is aimed at those already in the sector. WiLD wants to build a stronger community and learn from female role models within existing networks. Some of the talks will be aimed at women looking to return to work.

The afternoon session includes a talk about finding “your gang” where representatives from six of the female network groups in Leeds will encourage the audience to join them.

“The word ‘tech’ is somewhat scary,’’ said Ms Hetherington. “People think it’s about a geek sitting in a back room somewhere.

“Digital and technology is much more than that. You don’t have to be in a room in the dark writing codes. That’s why we have got a session about the jobs you have never heard of.

“It’s an opportunity to de-mystify what digital means; you don’t need to be a hard core coder to work in digital. I’m certainly not.”

“The response to Women in Leeds Digital has been incredible. We are thinking about what our objectives are going forward. This has got legs.”

Ms Hetherington loves to help the management teams behind small, agile firms achieve their potential. She is a history graduate with an MA in law who has gained extensive experience in business development at the law firm Ward Hadaway and Leeds Beckett. She has also spent time in Malawi as a volunteer youth group leader, overseeing a project to build a school.

“During my time at Ward Hadaway I worked with the commercial team who were advising businesses in the start-up and scale up space,’’ she recalled.

She met many companies that have featured in the Ward Hadaway Fastest 50, which is an annual list compiled in honour of the region’s fastest growing firms.

At Leeds Beckett, she works on the Ad:Venture programme, which is supported by the European Regional Development Fund. Ms Hetherington helps to inspire and support young enterprises across the Leeds City Region. AD:Venture offers a comprehensive mix of tailored business support. If you’re a business which is less than three years’ old in the tech sector, there’s a good chance Ms Hetherington and her team will be able to help you.

“Leeds Beckett is renowned for its outward facing work,’’ she added. “I have a simple motto: ‘There isn’t a business out there that the university won’t be able to help.”

“In 2017, I got involved with the Leeds Digital Festival awards. The festival is an incredible thing that we do collectively as a city.”

The event is a multi-venue, city-wide festival celebrating digital culture in all its forms and is the biggest UK technology event of its kind, after London Tech Week. This year’s festival is hosting more than 60 events and expects to welcome more than 20,000 attendees.

Ms Hetherington is also involved in mentoring pupils at local schools as part of a programme devised by the Leeds-based social enterprise. Ahead Partnership. The Ahead Partnership, which was established in 2006 by the former lawyer Stephanie Burras, provides employer-led face to face careers advice and activities for secondary school students

“I really enjoying seeing the pupils evolve,’’ said Ms Hetherington. “We took them to Leeds Town Hall. The Lord Mayor gave them a tour. The girl I mentored sat in the Lord Mayor’s seat and said: ‘I might be Lord Mayor one day’

“My passion is definitely around education. I would like to see us cement that relationship with colleges and universities. We need to keep our graduates in the city.”

Nothing can halt the march of the digital economy, so students must embrace it.

“You will be working in digital, regardless of what sector you go into,’’ said Ms Hetherington.