In the run up to our summer conference on Diversity in Tech, 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.
Jennifer Schofield, co-founder of Fluence, shares her story:
What were your earliest interests?
I remember I always liked business. As a child I set up my own restaurant in our kitchen, charging my parents for their breakfast – even for burnt pancakes! I was really interested in putting all the pieces together for the logistics to go smoothly: I would plan the menus, find all the ingredients, calculate prices and cover the customer service side of it too. I did lots of odd jobs, trying to find ways to make money, however, I also wanted to help people. From a fairly young age, I helped out with charity work, using those business skills to organise concerts for Aid for Women and Children and created events to help at the orphanage school.
Which study route did you take?
I grew up in Switzerland and studied an international high school qualification. Over the summers I did quite a few internships to learn marketing and sales with larger companies. I’ve always been drawn to more technical businesses because I’m happy being the non-techie person in a technical business. Then I wanted to study International Business and Management, so I came to the U.K. to Aston University in Birmingham. During my degree, I took a placement year out to work at Mattel Fisher-Price in Amsterdam. Although the degree was good, I preferred learning by doing rather than by studying at school.
In what way did technology influence your career?
I was brought up to believe I could do anything and not be intimidated by technology, even though I knew my own limitations. My family has been amazing, my dad is usually in a chief technology officer role; he’s always been able to explain complex tech in a way I understand and then I could go on to explain it to others. We had old computers around because of my dad’s keen interest, and we would break them down and tinker with them. However, I was also given the freedom and encouragement to do what I enjoyed, which was the business side.
I started my first business in my final year, which was a technical business called Data Discretion. I hated using multiple passwords, so to give non-technical people like me access to high-level encryption, I came up with the idea for a personal encryption key. There was very complex tech behind it which I developed with my dad, who understood all the technology and made the recommendations to help me. I kept it going for about a year before it ran out of money. I didn’t really know I needed to attract investment to keep going because I thought once this gadget was developed, people would really get it and it would be easy to get it into the shops. I misjudged how much I’d have to persuade people of the problem in the first place. After that folded, I went to work in recruitment for 18 months, finding the best place to improve my sales and marketing skills.
Which steps led you to start Fluence, the business you have today?
I moved to work with another start-up for a few months, but wasn’t happy in the job. At the time, my boyfriend’s family needed administration support to cover a maternity contract, so I went to work with them at Rapid English, where we specialise in giving vulnerable people core literacy skills in under 10 hours. As I got more involved with the business, my work expanded beyond the original role because I was increasing sales and improving the marketing for the Communicate project.
From there, our family co-founded a high-technology spin-off company called Fluence, where I became Operations Director. The technology is very complex; we’re developing a language analysis engine which has many different applications for helping people to improve their language skills. It all boils down to teaching our platform to recognise the differences between good quality and bad quality content, so that it can help people to produce better, more targeted essays, CVs, college applications, etc.
We’re testing this technology in university and college markets, where a high number of students drop out of courses in their first year. Students on these courses cover many overlapping topics such as economics, marketing, and accounting. We use our technology to identify common themes in the course modules and we help universities to streamline their delivery of this material. We also help students to make better decisions about what to focus on, and in which order to study things. We can even ‘auto-diagnose’ students who need extra support before they start in lectures. This is really important for international students, as well as native students from deprived backgrounds who are often at a disadvantage with core language skills. Our goal is to help the university to adapt the curriculum to reduce the drop-out rate. Ultimately, students have to get a job and pay back debt afterwards, so the universities know they need to do more to make their degrees more relevant to the modern workplace.
How would you encourage other women to consider innovation or technical roles?
My experience is based on my upbringing: I’d advise women not to be intimidated by technology and not to be shy to ask for help or admit you don’t know something. When you’ve got other skills, it’s important to highlight what you can do – and what more you would bring to the table with a little bit of support. Confidence is a big factor.
With a lot of emerging technologies, most people around you don’t know much more than you. When you start a business, there are so many things you won’t know. It’s good to treat it as a learning journey. And the starting point is having an interest in how technology can support your idea.
There are a lot of opportunities for women at the moment with support available in incubation or start-up spaces. In just 6 months, being part of SETSquared has been great for our business. The unique thing is that SETSquared focuses on tech businesses, which I realise now, are quite different from other start-ups. All the feedback from their mentors is very specific and even the courses they run, such as Business Quick Start, are very applicable covering all the fundamental things we need.
What changes would you suggest businesses could make to encourage diversity?
Workplaces are historically geared towards men’s working styles rather than women, and that’s hard to change quickly. Women won’t necessarily talk about their salary at their performance review: whereas businesses or line managers can take the approach of encouraging them to ask for a pay rise when they’re doing a good job. It’s important for businesses to appreciate the differences and act to support them.
As a small business, when we advertise jobs, we can’t necessarily offer the level of benefits or financial compensation which a large company does. However, we do offer roles with part-time hours or more flexibility around work-life balance like gym class or childcare and school hours. As a start-up, Fluence can design or carry over the positive culture from Rapid English; other companies could easily adopt these policies and we’ve actually found they attract great talent too!
Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing