Did you enjoy school?
Yes and no. I was bored a lot in high school and really struggled in math and science. Most of the time I recall feeling incredibly frustrated that I had to spend so much time working to get good grades in the subjects I wasn’t good at, and that I couldn’t indulge more in the subjects that I loved and which came easy like Ancient and American History.
Being part of the first co-ed class at Columbia College, not only gave me a taste of what being a woman in tech would be like, it also fuelled my lifelong love of learning. In addition to jostling through dining halls crammed with ‘jocks,’ I recall vividly staring up at the classical lines of Low Library thinking ‘I just want to absorb all the knowledge those walls contain.’ I might not have fulfilled this dream but, luckily, Columbia’s famous Core Curriculum – Literature Humanities, Art Humanities, Music Humanities and Contemporary Civilisation – gave me the chance to give it a try!
Grad school at Oxford was even better as I was able to spend two years in a small class of 12 amazing brains from around the world studying International Politics and Theory, before undertaking a Doctorate on American Foreign Policy. Those years sitting up late ‘solving world problems’ with brainiacs were amongst the happiest of my life. The pubs may have closed earlier than the bars in NYC but the conversation flowed endlessly, and someone always seemed able to conjure up a bottle of cheap wine!
Some days, I’d give anything to go back in time and remind my younger self to cherish the time university life gives you to learn, grow and think.
What qualifications do you have?
A BA degree in American History and an MPhil. and DPhil. in International Relations.
As an aside, I think of my doctorate – Neo Conservative and US Foreign Policy 1930-1995: A Cultural History – quite often these days as I follow the current course of US political culture!
Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or both?
I’d have to say that it’s been somewhat ad-hoc, driven more by a lifelong interest in history, politics and public policy, and a desire to understand the wider world, than any one targeted career path or industry.
I started working in the mid-1990s running the United Airlines account for a major Public Affairs agency which was cool because it also teed me up for my eventual career in tech after an interest in politics drove me to pitch (despite having NO time to prepare) a small start-up – election.com – to run the world’s first internet election.
From there the rest, as they say is history. Accenture acquired election.com which brought me back to the UK to run the global arm of a new eDemocracy business unit, and eventually prompted me to start my own GovTech consultancy, 21c, where I had a ton of fun advising the UN, EU and innovative governments around the world on the way new tech trends were changing the world.
In retrospect, I can honestly say that I had no set career aspirations, no burning desire to get to the top of any one field or industry. Instead, I always just wanted to do what interested me most – be at the intersection of public policy and international relations. Through a combination of good luck and timing, tech became the lever for me to do this.
What is the best career advice you can give to others?
Follow your interests and your passions. Don’t worry about what comes next. Don’t think of your career in terms of linear progressions. Remember that more often than not, the further up you go in a conventional career path, the further you get away from what you love, and what you are good at.
Also always remember that we don’t live to work, we work to live, so do your best to get your work/life balance right. And never put off until tomorrow the simple act of connecting with a loved one today. I learned the hard way when my mother passed away this summer the high, high cost of doing so, and will never make that mistake again.
Pick one mentor with the biggest influence on you, who would it be?
I’ve never really had a work mentor until recently. But if I had to pick the one person who had the biggest influence on my life it was far and away my mother.
I still tear up to this day when I remember my mother picking me up at elementary school just after receiving one of my first report cards. It was apple picking season in New England – the kind of crisp Autumn day they usually feature in movies. Dressed in a starched white nurses uniform and cap and with face beaming, my mom handed me a McIntosh apple and vowed: ‘If you do your part and work hard, I promise I’ll work as hard as I can to take you as far as your brain can go.’
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My mother kept her word, giving the seven-year-old me a foundational belief in myself at a time in the early 1970s when it wasn’t a given for a young girl to shoot for the academic stars. She drove all over the East Coast to take me to college interviews and worked 12 hours a day across two jobs to help pay for my tuition. Looking back, I now realise that even more than all this, perhaps the most important thing my mon did for me was fuel a life-long ambition to make her as happy and proud as she was that long ago day during apple season. I hope and pray that in some small way I succeeded.
From where do you draw inspiration?
I am a New Englander. A Mainer. A wife, mother, skier, snowshoer, kayaker, and hiker. So first and foremost, I’d have to say that I draw my inspiration from being with my family, close to nature and in the mountains.
when it comes to the less healthy side of my life – work – I’ve always drawn my inspiration from driving digital impact across the public sector – seeing where technology can make the world a better place, taking government services to the next level and empowering change agents. I love nothing more than helping people with big, bold aspiration in the public sector overcome aversion to change, unlock innovation and drive change. Public sector change agents inspire me because they take risks and push boundaries on behalf of us all.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?
Leaving Accenture and going out on my own just two months before my son Alex was born was definitely tough. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the sleep deprivation (my son didn’t sleep through the night until he was four!) Nor forget the guilt and panic I used to feel in the early months as I dashed out of board rooms to feed my little guy. Afraid, on the one hand, that I’d be late and he’d be crying in hunger and worried, on the other, that the men in my meetings would think I was somehow weak or not ready for prime time.
All that said, I was lucky because I could afford a nanny and, running my own business, was usually able to take my son with me to meetings – so much so that he became know in digital government circles across Europe as the e-Baby, e-Toddler, e-Boy and eventually e-Teen.
But even here, it was not always smooth sailing. When my son was three, I learned – just days before I was set to fly to the UAE to chair a prestigious all-male awards panel – that my Nanny couldn’t take care of my son as planned. Imagine how quickly relief turned to horror after hastily arranged local childcare in the UAE failed to show, leaving me no choice but to oversee proceedings with a sun-screen slathered three year old in swim bubbles running up and down one of the largest conference tables I’ve ever seen!
Turns out I really shouldn’t have been all that worried as the sheer inanity of the situation seemed to bring a panel of strangers closer together. I appreciated the way my male colleagues would chuckle away at my son’s antics, and they seemed to appreciate seeing me call a meeting to order just moments after chasing Alex off the table.
What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?
Everyone is different but, for me, it all boils down to authenticity and empathy – making sure that your team knows you’re a real person, that you have their back and aren’t ever afraid to admit you’re wrong.
From a work viewpoint what has 2020 been like for you so far?
If I had to choose one word, it would be brutal. Taking over a new Worldwide Public Sector role in the midst of a pandemic was never going to be easy. But doing so with an ailing mother and a 14-year-old home from school in England was honestly brutal. I didn’t make enough effort to ring my mother throughout quarantine and didn’t appreciate enough just how isolating remote learning was for a social and athletic teenager like my son.
The truth is that under the pressure of the pandemic I lost sight of work-life balance and let down those who loved and needed me. The sense of loss I’ve felt after my mother passed away has been immense and has really reinforced for me the importance of always, always, always placing family first.
What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?
Digital technologies have played an increasing role through the years in helping government address pressing global challenges from managing migration and protecting the environment to helping citizens stay safe and protected. Without a doubt, however, one of the biggest – and I would argue most successful – tech-based challenges we’ve faced has been the need for tech to literally hold the fabric of civil society together in the face of the pandemic.
Innovation barriers came down at unthinkable rate when crisis first struck. Our CEO Satya Nadella said he’d witnessed more transformation in two months than in two years. Meanwhile, a teacher we work with observed that there was more transformation in 2020 than in 20 years. Under the cloud of crisis, the risk of doing nothing in the public sector outpaced the risk of doing something wrong, as we saw cloud, data and AI come together in new ways to enable governments to keep citizens informed, deploy first responders, empower healthcare workers and the list goes on.
In my opinion, the challenge now is for us all – tech giants, academia, SMEs, the third and public sectors – to work together to ensure that digital builds upon this inspiring work and establishes itself as a force for social good, not disruption and division.
Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.
My secret love in life is to end a hard workday curled up on the couch with a bowl of pasta watching Grey’s Anatomy. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t my addiction to the lives and loves of the doctors at Seattle Grace – and not GovTech – that eventually brought me out west to Microsoft.