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Women In Tech Interview: Zara Nanu

We often hear the barriers which deter women and girls from engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths are unconscious bias and a lack of diversity at board level. To celebrate the launch of Women Tech Founders, we are interviewing the female leaders involved with SETsquared Bristol to explore their career paths and views on issues faced by women in technology. Each of their stories is individual, some have a technical background, others are using technology to enable their business idea.

Dr Zara Nanu, co-founder of Gapsquare, shares her story:

What were your earliest interests?

Literature and poetry were my earliest interests. At my school, there were three classes, one focused on maths, the second on biochemistry, and then there was my class where the form tutor mostly taught literature. It was a mixed school, yet the first two classes were mostly boys, whereas our class only had one boy out of 30 pupils. This was in Moldova, a former Soviet Union country. My mum is a history teacher, so she wanted me to have a proper education. But it turned out I was a bit of a rebel and wanted to do things differently.

Which study route did you take?

After finishing at High School, I had the chance to go and live in Wyoming for a year as part of Future Leaders Exchange Programme. With more pigs than people, it gave me a chance to consider my future. I went to Uni in Moldova to study Education, and stayed working there in a role with the US Embassy to promote Internet Technologies. My job was to provide communications and resources to support the people of Moldova who were Alumni of the US government funded exchange programs. I moved back to the US, near San Francisco to study a Masters in Public Administration and International Management. As you can see, neither of my degrees was STEM related.

Which steps led to the business you have today?

For a short period, I worked in New York with Dress For Success, where I was really exposed to the issues surrounding women’s rights. They were a not-for-profit organisation, supporting women with low incomes around the world to get back into work, providing clothes, skills training and support. I returned to Moldova to work with Catholic Relief Services, on a trafficking prevention project to train and protect young Moldavan women in rural areas. Part of the role meant building relationships with employers to encourage them to employ Moldovan women – but these were often low paid, low skilled jobs, trapping the women in poverty. I wanted to continue my studies; having been told that Bristol was somehow similar to San Francisco, I came here to complete my PhD in Politics. My focus was on human rights, preventing trafficking and creating social justice. I was thinking about starting a consultancy – because I wanted to create a commercial enterprise to deal with social issues. I was sure of one thing – I did not want it to be a charity or social enterprise. It was at a networking event at Bristol & Bath Science Park, where I got chatting with a friend over a glass of wine and we came up with the idea to analyse the trends behind the gender pay gap and the changes required to get more women into senior roles by using technology. From there, we went on to develop and create Gapsquare’s software, which helps companies to analyse and understand the data, gender pay gap and diversity issues.

In what way did technology influence your career?

In my teenage years, I lived my life by a three-word mantra: “I hate maths”. My universe evolved around social sciences; during my PhD I was working with women who had no education and were within the criminal justice system. Even as recently as two to three years ago, I never dreamed my job would be in technology. I could see the power of technology, but didn’t feel I would have the skills to set up and run a technology business. I was interested in economic rights for women, and I wanted to do something to tackle the gender pay gap. I knew technology was being used to disrupt the way we travel or win political influence, so I felt there had to be a way to harness the power to tackle social justice. Most artificial intelligence is built by men, so gender bias is already present within the development – something had to be done about this.

How would you encourage other women to consider innovation or technical roles?

My advice for other women is to go and try something new, especially if interested in technology. Make rejection your best friend – even though it can be difficult at the beginning. Of course, this applies to men too, but I believe rejection hits women harder. Like many girls, I was raised to be compliant and please everyone – we do want to be liked. Then as an adult, you have to learn that you can’t please everyone. It’s important to move on quickly to achieve your objectives. I’d also note that coding isn’t the only route into the tech industry. Skills like adapting, learning and creativity are just as important. Coding may even be automated in the future!

What changes would you suggest businesses could make to encourage diversity?

It starts early. One of my other roles is as Chair of Governors for a Bristol primary school, to keep an eye on their diversity issues and work with the lead teacher for maths and technology.

Companies will have to look at the issues within their organisation and understand what’s causing them. For some businesses, it starts at entry-level with not enough women coming in. Others have a promotion structure affected by unconscious bias – the motherhood penalty is very real. From my upbringing in a communist country where equal rights were closely managed, (even parliament had political quotas to ensure women were represented 50:50) it was a harsh transition to the UK, finding out how parental leave works and how few women return to their career.

From the very beginning of our business, we applied to join SETsquared to be with like-minded people, with a focus on tech and the fast pace of a growing business. Gapsquare is working with a set of early adopters to ensure they have the data and make changes for the future.

Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing