Collaboration And The Digital Diversity Agenda

Dealing with diversity with the founders of Women In Leeds Digital

If you want to improve diversity in digital, where do you start? In many ways, it’s a chicken and egg situation. Wider representation isn’t likely to happen without diversity initiatives, but diversity initiatives won’t be successful without likeminded people on side.

Two women with a passion for this cause are Sarah Tulip and Deb Hetherington, co founders of Women In Leeds Digital (WILD), who aim to improve diversity across the board in Leeds, beginning with greater representation of women in the technology industry. One year on from founding WILD, and Tulip and Hetherington have gone from success to success. Disruption North spoke to them to find out more.

Diversity at the Digital Festival

Hetherington, Innovation Facilitation Manager at Leeds Beckett University, and Tulip, Development Director – Digital at EY, found a common cause in the need for greater diversity at Leeds Digital Festival – a two week long events series celebrating the city’s digital economy.

With interest in improving diversity at the Digital Festival confirmed, they decided to do something about it, choosing gender diversity as an ideal place to start.

“A lot of organisations are thinking about gender diversity, already have initiatives around it and will invest time in it,” says Tulip. “So if you structure your approach from a gender diversity piece then you can address wider diversity from that.”

“We asked ourselves what are the key things that go on in this city? There’s a skill shortage, there are gender diversity issues within tech and digital, there’s a lack of women at senior level. So how could we address that?”

Hetherington and Tulip devised the WILD conference – split into two parts – to engage with students and those in the early stage of their careers, as well as professionals already working in industry. At its inaugural event in the Leeds Digital Festival in May this year, the conference attracted over 500 attendees.

Uniting stakeholders

As Hetherington notes, if anything is going to be effective in a city, it is necessary to pull together key stakeholders and decision makers. Before founding WILD, she and Tulip consulted representatives from the city of Leeds to really find out how they could make a difference.

“It was never just about us deciding ‘this is what the city needs,’” she says. “Instead we want to facilitate the city. So we got some really senior but proactive people within this space together – men and women – and asked them what they wanted.”

“There were people from FE/HE, the Council, not for profit, startups, SMEs, right up to large corporates,” Tulip adds. “The traditional organisations you would think of as tech and digital, but then again, ones that you wouldn’t – such as ITV, and Leeds City Council. We wanted to push the boundaries. Everything is digital, so we want our digital city to be inclusive, and for everyone to feel part of it.”

Women In Leeds Digital

Tulip and Hetherington’s aim in creating the WILD conference was to expose students and early stage professionals to the opportunities of a career in tech, and to profile female role models in industry from Leeds.

In doing so, they brought together various different Leeds-based groups tackling diversity issues such as She Does Digital, and Empowering Women with Tech.

“We wanted to actually pull all the great stuff in our city together and showcase it, to prove that as a woman in digital in Leeds, you can be all of these things,” says Tulip. “We also wanted to make it very inclusive, to build the ecosystem and network in the city, and unite the different groups together. To show female tech professionals what they can get involved in, and tell the stories of the women who have gone before them.”

Building an ecosystem

Facilitating the diversity agenda in Leeds in this way is one of WILD’s distinguishing features, according to Hetherington and Tulip. Another is their desire to bridge the gap between academia and industry, by advising universities on the skills and attributes employers are looking for in graduates, and by working with schools.

“We have just formalised an ambassadorship with Ahead Partnership,” says Tulip. “That involves reaching into primary and secondary schools, as we’d like to tackle education head on from the beginning. We’re also getting involved with the Tech Talent Charter who aim to improve diversity in the tech workforce.”

“This shows that we see our role as really being able to pull everything together as an ecosystem,” Tulip adds. “When people are doing an event we make sure we’re sharing it, if they’re short of people we will get them there, we will work out how we can support it. Then when we do events ourselves it’s again about bringing those groups together.”

What’s in a name?

After building a strategic board, and organising a conference with over 500 attendees, WILD’s sights are now firmly set on 2020. But does the name Women In Leeds Digital really reflect their drive to redress the balance in all forms of diversity?

“We put the name to democratic vote as part of a workshop,” says Tulip, “where we built the organisation in line with what people wanted to see. But that caps us in a way, because wider diversity is really important to us. However, we do see gender diversity as a way in. We want our board and our team to reflect that as we move forward.”

As for the Leeds part of WILD, Hetherington and Tulip can’t speak more highly of the city.

“I’ve lived all over the world and Leeds is by far my favourite place to be in terms of its size – and because of that – its ability to be collaborative,” says Hetherington. “There is openness and willingness here in every institution I speak to. Leeds is hugely collaborative which enables us to do things quite easily. You’ll find that people who are competitors will work together for a wider goal. We do care about the wider issues.”

Small businesses, big ambitions

Hetherington and Tulip characterise the Leeds business landscape as being SME-led – a fact which may contribute to the sense of community the city has within its technology industry.

“I was in Manchester a couple of weeks ago and everybody I spoke to wants to be part of WILD,” Hetherington says. “Because Manchester has scaled so much their community has fragmented as part of that growth.”

“This raises the question of how we scale our community,” Tulip adds. “We can help drive other people’s agendas through supporting their events, through building the network in the city and helping the women who are already in digital. But the big agenda is also around skills. That’s where we really see work that needs to be done. We say that unless we get to every pocket of our city we’re not going to have the skills to fill the digital industry.”

Both Tulip and Hetherington are also aware of the pitfalls of being overly Leeds-centric. Although it began in Leeds, theirs is an approach which has the potential to benefit the technology industries – and economies – of all major cities, particularly across the North. For WILD, Leeds is clearly just the beginning.

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