Women in Tech Interview: Sarah Bolt

In the run up to our summer conference on Diversity, we are interviewing the female founders of SETSquared member companies. Each one of their stories is individual, some have a technical background, others are using technology to enable their business ideas. Our aim is to inspire the next wave of female innovators to step forward and positively influence future development. What we need first is a practical conversation on Diversity and how to address the barriers which deter women and girls from getting involved in science, technology, engineering and maths. In Bristol, we plan to engage leaders in organisations of all sizes by opening up the dialogue. Please join us on 24 June at the Diversity Conference to hear more.

Sarah Bolt from Forth shares her story:

What were your earliest interests and how did technology feature in them?

As a kid, I always asked for technology-based gifts on my Christmas list, and one of my most treasured possessions was my electronic version of the seventies game, Mastermind. Then tennis on the Atari was the game to have. I was one of the first in my class to have a digital watch, so technology was fairly important to me even early on.
After completing my A-levels, including one in Photography, I went off to Coventry University to do a degree in Communication Studies. It was 1986 and the subject wasn’t very well understood at the time. People close to me thought I would be learning about answering the phone! In reality, the course covered all types of communication, including visual impact and photography; I really wanted to be a reportage photographer and build stories with powerful images.

How did your career unfold from there?

Moving to London was the obvious choice after graduation, and there was a group of us who decided to rent a place together. This was the late eighties and we all got jobs fairly quickly. Mine was a marketing position with a music promoter, where I stayed for two years.
Having not had a break between studying and starting work, I jumped at the chance to travel the world with two of my best friends – something I hope my own kids get a chance at doing. Shortly after I returned, I got a role in a marketing agency who started up an Internet division.  This was 20  years ago, when it was groundbreaking for an agency to have a specialist ‘Internet’ division; the early days of digital marketing when we were working with the confines of a single email address for the whole team. Most marketing and advertising agencies weren’t committing to technology-led marketing, so there were only a few niche agencies springing up to do it.
A couple of years later I started my own promotions agency, working with brands and media titles, until I decided to relocate to Bath in the new millenium.  Here I begin working with an agency which specialised in the drinks industry travelling to the U.S. with Jack Daniels, and developing campaigns for other high profile brands.
I reached a point where I wanted to get out of marketing agency life and learn more about product development.  I went to work at Dyson working on the launch of the airblade hand dryer and later the development of the bladeless fan. It was a great learning environment to be in, however after the birth of my second child I took stock of life and decided I wanted to do something that was more impactful to humankind.  I set my sights on the healthcare industry and began a Masters in Social Marketing at UWE – that’s marketing for public good as opposed to anything to do with social media.

What motivated you to develop Forth?

I joined a healthcare specialist consultancy after finishing my masters, this was around five or six years ago when the healthcare industry was beginning to rapidly change, and with it, people’s attitudes and motivations towards their own health. Mobile apps and wearables appeared on the market – and I raced to order a Fitbit as soon as it became available in the UK. It was then I saw the opportunity to create a business to optimise digital technology, yet support healthcare for individuals. It was 2014 when the initial concept behind Forth was born, to use graphics and technology to help people to engage with and gain insights on their health on the inside. It did take a while to go from having the idea to really making it happen – after securing a business partner with great technical skills, we had the beta product ready in 2016.

Tell us your personal experiences of diversity and factors which have helped you?

To succeed in bringing an idea to market, networking is essential, because I’ve found there are plenty of people out there willing to help. Bristol is a great city for start-ups and innovators who want to launch their ideas. Becoming part of SETSquared has been pivotal for us in the development of Forth, and Monika is a great advocate for women and technology businesses.
I’ve always been strong-willed, so I don’t necessarily identify with some of the barriers which can affect women. When we wanted to start a family, it was my partner who gave up work so I could return to my job. I don’t believe gender should be a factor; all businesses should consider how they support their workforce, and working from home or flexible working hours are obvious options to offer those with families.
Even from my early career, I recognise that the desire to strive forward has helped me because I’ve always believed anything is possible. So I think the most important factor for women – and men – is to have belief and confidence in their idea.  Bringing a product or service from idea stage to market can something be a overwhelming challenge but I’ve learnt to just break down huge tasks into little pieces, to take one step at a time.

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