If I had to choose three words to sum up the Innovate UK KTN “Women in Digital Innovation” event they would be: authenticity, ambition, and resilience.

It can be quite rare as a woman in business (in particular in the tech sector) to walk into a room that is composed predominantly of other women, but that was indeed the case on Wednesday 29th March for WIDI 2023. Hosted by Kezia Williamson (Head of Place, Innovate UK KTN), there was a packed agenda with really fantastic speakers. It is quite tricky to concisely summarise a full day event, especially one where the quality of speakers was so high and the advice so relevant. I’ve included some of the practical tips in text boxes to make sure readers don’t miss out on these pearls of wisdom!

The event was the brainchild of Laura Smith (Knowledge Transfer Manager for the Digital Economy at Innovate UK KTN) who drew on her own experience as a female founder and some of the difficulties she had faced in accessing the right support at the right time. Laura is on a mission to ensure that current and future female founders have ways to overcome some of those barriers, through the creation of the Next Five Steps Network. Laura’s open honesty really set the tone for the rest of the day.

Laura was followed by the first of three keynotes. Christina King, COO of Sheffield-based Tribosonics, has had such a fascinating life – from her early ambitions to be a fighter jet pilot (to then “fail” at a medical that was entirely designed around men), to her background as an engineer, right through to joining Tribosonics in 2019, via becoming a Guinness World Record holder no less. Christina has had a laser-like focus on growth for Tribosonics, productising the tech, securing recurring revenue, and ensuring IP protection.

Confidence is Christina’s superpower – and her advice to the room was to stay open to opportunities, keep asking questions, and find your passion. Energy, patience and enthusiasm go a long way; many people give up at the first hurdle, so stick to your dreams!

TEAM SY Super Connector Ceri Batchelder chaired a panel on Networks in the North, joined by myself, Lauren Shale (IoT Engine, Barnsley DMC, and TEAM SY), Mel Ellyard (Include Me, D-List, AMID Super Connector) and Fran Parkinson (Enterprise & Innovation Hub at Leeds Beckett). Topics of discussion included some practical strategies for expanding your network and some of the networks that we are personally involved in.

Our top tips included: contacting organiser / host ahead of attending an event; finding other friendly faces to go to new events with; saying yes to invitations; and, if you already have a well established network, to bring new people along with you.

Melissa Chambers, CEO of Sitehop, was our second keynote. What a story. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I wasn’t the only person to find it incredibly impactful when Melissa said: “I don’t have imposter syndrome: I’ve earnt my position and I own my success.” She really has. Sitehop was founded less than a year ago and has already raised £1 million. Melissa demonstrated huge tenacity and resilience despite significant and life-changing personal and professional setbacks.

Melissa’s top tip for networking, especially at events where men outnumber women, is to make it her mission to meet each and every single woman there.

The panel’s top tips included trusting your gut and building your resilience. There were also some glorious nuggets of wisdom: “100% of your worst days are behind you”, and “dealing with shit is a skill”. And a thought exercise for us all: “what is the worst that can happen, and how would I deal with it?”

 Over to TEAM SY Super Connector Samantha Deakin, who chaired a panel about celebrating failure. The four women who took their seats are all very successful founders and entrepreneurs: Melissa Chambers, founder of Sitehop; Arshia Gratiot, founder of Eupnoos; Kate Hutchinson, founder of Yorkshire Sustainability Week; and Claire Daniels, CEO at Trio Media. Despite the fact that they are all running very different businesses and face different challenges, there were commonalities in the way that these four women had responded to, and indeed embraced, failure. All the women spoke about how they had not only bounced back from setbacks, but that failure had actually shaped who they had become and what they went on to do. Resilience was described as the bridge between failure and success, and rather than wallowing when faced with failure, it was important to identify what practical lessons had been learnt.

In response to a number of requests ahead of the event, the next panel session focused on ‘Fund Raising: Public and Private’ – a challenge for many women founders. Chaired by Cat Smith, Senior Network Manager at the British Business Bank, we heard from Helen Oldham, CEO of NorthInvest, Lee Viney, Regional Manager at Innovate UK and Tavia Sparks, Senior Investment Manager at Foresight Group. Cat shared the alarming statistic that in every £1 of investment, 2p goes to all female founding teams, 14p to mixed-gender teams and 85p to all male teams, reflecting the huge amount of untapped potential for the UK economy. Helen highlighted the work of Fund Her North, supporting women to be their authentic selves when seeking investment, and also Women Angels of the North, a syndicate of women investors keen to back female founders. Tavia talked about the importance of diversity and inclusion at her firm and the strong leadership shown by women driving progress in this area. 

As women, we need to keep stepping up to tell our stories. Lee Viney commented on LinkedIn afterwards “An amazing event, I think a lot of men would have benefitted from hearing what all the amazing speakers had to say. I was able to relate to quite a lot, if not all, the challenges that were discussed. For the ones I couldn’t relate to, I still think it’s important for men to hear those stories.”

Laura Smith hosted a panel on bootstrapping, bringing three female founders to talk about how they have built their business without raising investment: Bethany Watrous, Founder/CEO of Experience Heritage; Hannah Bratley, CEO of Frame, and Jo Guy from AJ Recruitment. The benefits to bootstrapping are numerous: the panel spoke about how they enjoyed the responsibility and freedom that came with running their own companies. Every penny is put to work – nothing is wasted. There is flexibility and creativity in responding quickly to customers. One of the downsides was trying to find the (unpaid) time for product development and innovation – this was coupled with a tendency to be more risk averse. It is hard to take risks and try new things when you have to focus on servicing existing clients.

Some of the practical bootstrapping tips that were shared included not trying to be the best at everything, but to focus your time and effort aligned with your skills, and surrounding yourself with people who can fill the gaps (consultancies and agencies can help here). Scheduling in time for core business processes means that you keep on top of things. And, if you have a team, give them ownership. Find your team members’ passions and let them run with it.

The third and final keynote was from Zandra Moore, CEO and co-founder of Leeds-based Panintelligence. Another incredible woman who used her tenacity and get-up-and-go to open doors and seize opportunities. She spoke about the importance of both following your passion and understanding your red lines (in her case these were balancing a desire to stay in the tech industry but also be within a 5 mile radius of her children’s nursery). Zandra is passionate about networking and has built several networks herself, including Lean In Leeds, and the Young Directors’ Forum. Zandra’s opinion is that “your potential exists at the edge of your comfort zone”: she is a prime example of this, having trained to become a football coach without having kicked a football, so that she could set up a Girls Football team for her 9 year old daughter to continue playing grassroots football. Seven years later, hundreds of girls have benefitted from her coaching, learning lessons about teamwork and resilience that will last a lifetime.

Zandra’s top tip was to adopt a ‘networking mindset’: walk into a room knowing what you want, but also be prepared to give back. She recommends finding and being a role model, finding your peers, and giving without having an agenda – ultimately, the more you give, the more you get back.

The day ended with a pitch session. We heard from fantastic female founders: Rachel Flower from Active Orbit, Arshiya Gratiot from Eupnoos, Amanda Huxtable from GeoStories, Jo Gooding from Good to Wear, Michelle Veasy from Growth Engine, and Alison Roberts from Kopva. This was an opportunity to pitch for investment in a friendly and supportive environment, with some great questions from the judging panel.

Women are strong. Women are resilient. At WIDI2023, in amongst the stories of success, we also heard how women have overcome issues with their own mental and physical wellbeing; have faced up to illness and death of close family members; how they have creatively responded to the time and energy constraints that come with children; and how they have dealt with (literal) fire and destruction, theft of IP, Covid, discrimination, moving countries, and a whole host of other potential setbacks. And yet, despite all this, all of the speakers proved that women truly are unstoppable.