Women in Tech Interview: Becky Sage

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 Becky Sage, the founder of Interactive Scientific, shares her story:

What were your earliest interests and which subjects did you study?

As a child, I spent a lot of time practising gymnastics and I loved theatre, performing and dance. I was really into maths – it was my favourite thing in school. I was always rushing to the end of the next textbook and was quite competitive with it. At secondary school, I chose to do physics, chemistry, maths and further maths for my A-levels. I went straight to the University of Bristol to study Chemical Physics and because I stayed at home to complete the four-year course, it felt a bit like still being at school! I went in, did what was needed at University, then would go home and off to work or gymnastics.

I had somewhat fixed views on different careers. For example, I considered being an accountant because it would be a financially rewarding career. The idea of becoming an entrepreneur was so far out of my realm of imagination – and a business studies degree was viewed as an easy option which was frowned upon for those who were more “academic”. From my school days, I didn’t believe I was creative, so the idea of coming up with new research ideas to complete a PhD seemed out of reach as well.

How did your academic experience influence your career?

I didn’t really take a break from academia until the end of my PhD. In the final year of my first degree, I worked in a laboratory to contribute to research, it was a four-month studentship as a lab assistant. I was there to help another PhD student with their research and run his experiments. The research was using spectroscopy – employing lasers to look at properties of different gas phase molecules.

When I finished my PhD, I wanted to run far, far away from the laboratory because I had struggled through to the end! I had labelled myself as an academic, a person who could pass exams, yet after completing my PhD I had no idea what to do because it was clear to me at that time that I didn’t belong in a research lab. Looking back, I was completely exhausted, lost and I had no passion for working in the science industry.

Instead, I wanted to be an actor or perform on stage, or I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a positive change in the world. I started waitressing and got a temp job as a receptionist with the Regional Development Agency. They were involved in really cool projects which were a cross-section of business, science and economic growth. For me, being in the lab never felt ambitious enough, I wanted to do something to apply science and technology. In my role at the RDA, I started to see how small companies could get money and support and really make a difference. And I met all sorts of interesting people from the Bristol cultural and business leadership, including Nick Sturge and the team at the Watershed, many of whom I work alongside now.

I moved on to work with the Royal Society of Chemistry in Cambridge, in particular on the roadmap for chemical sciences. As Programme Manager for Physical Sciences, it was a lot of policy work and writing about the impact chemistry can make on the world. Whilst it was hugely informative, it was also frustrating because I wanted to do more – and the Society role was confined by the hierarchical organisational structures.

It was the first time I had moved away from Bristol, I wasn’t happy and became unwell. I was only ever working or recovering from the impact of work. That period gave me time to reflect on what I wanted in my life and where I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to be involved in something more active to make an impact. I read the book, How to get a job you love by John Lees, which helped me practically move forward, consious of my own responsibility to work in a way that was meaningful to me.

I realised I wanted a portfolio career, so I could return to performing and be more creative again. I took a part-time position, working with the Science City Bristol project, which enabled us to create Bristol’s first VentureFest event in 2011. I was very proud of how we pulled together business, technology, creativity and the community and we ran the whole event at the Bristol & Bath Science Park. I also did a considerable amount of freelance work for a number of small companies providing business development, operations, HR and business strategy.

Which steps led you to start Interactive Scientific, the business you have today?

The game changer was organising TEDx Bristol – where I was project manager from 2011-2013. That’s where I met my co-founder, David. He had done lots of collaboration with our other co-founder, Phil Tew. The first idea as Interactive Scientific was danceroom Spectroscopy – where rigorous physics and chemistry represent atoms and molecules on a big screen or in a dome – my job was to turn it into a scalable commercial proposition which could bring the beauty and excitement of science to all.

In 2014 I applied for funding to support our vision for changing education to excite small kids with science. Our plan was to create a tool which could be taken into classrooms – which we now have with Nano Simbox.

How would you encourage women and girls to consider science, innovation or technical roles?

I would always recommend that all people think about their passions first and then use that to drive the development of skills which might apply to their bigger ambitions. Skills like analytical skills, maths and coding apply to a high proportion of jobs, and this is only increasing, so can be extremely helpful to get your foot in the door. As a CEO of a technical and scientific company, I don’t have the time to develop my coding and technical skills as much as I’d like, and I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I hadn’t had the grounding in maths and science that I had.

I’d always recommend taking time to think about whether University is right for you, and get experience in the world and in work as early as possible, I didn’t really start to understand my relationship with science and business until I was in the working world. Academic achievements can be valuable, but a person also needs space to figure out what is important to them and how the world works. There have been occasions in the past where having my PhD has meant people show me more respect and opportunities have arisen from that qualification. However, if I was to do everything again I would think more carefully about the academic path that I took, and be driven by my own passions rather than blindly walking along a pre-determined path.

Getting a mentor made a huge difference to me and I wish I had done that earlier. I’d recommend looking out for the people you respect, and who you’d like to model even if you can’t work with them directly.

What changes would you suggest businesses make to encourage diversity?

I wrestle with this all the time and I am constantly looking for guidance, I feel like I have a decent handle on understanding gender diversity, however when it comes to other forms of inclusivity I have a long way to go.

Business culture is very important, and valuing different skillsets equally, e.g. in my product development team we ensure an equal weighting between education/implementation, UX design and the underpinning technology, each area brings their expertise and we are continually working towards creating a common language. Making sure that everyone in the team has opportunities for their voice to be heard. As a leader in the team you need to put yourself into different people’s shoes and ask “would I feel comfortable to be myself in this space, with these people”.

Creating a good environment for inclusivity to thrive requires design, I recently saw a talk on the subject by Simon Fanshawe, OBE. It is not good enough to say we accept differences in people, it is better to celebrate the differences that people can bring. He says “There is no difference between excellence and diversity” and I fully buy into that.

Conscious and unconscious bias appears all the time in tech businesses I have been on the receiving end of this and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I carry my own biases – I try to become aware of my own biases and learn to adjust them as well as supporting others in the team to do the same. Inclusivity is one of our core values so a person’s ability to make a positive difference is considered in our recruitment. I still think we could be doing more and as we grow we will continue to strive towards inclusivity and diversity.

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