Women in Digital: Alexa Greaves

Alexa Greaves is founder and CEO of fast-growing – and majority female-owned and managed – MSP AAG IT Services. Here she reveals, among other things, why setting up the business from scratch, with no outside funding, industry experience or technical capability turned out to be a strength.

Posted 5 September 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Yes I loved school, to the point where I would cry if I couldn’t go due to illness. This is a trait that my daughter has inherited. I was very sport-oriented and loved team sports. I wasn’t the biggest fan of drama, it made me feel physically sick as I was incredibly shy. I’m always grateful for the opportunities that school gave me and the extra-curricular activities were amazing.

What qualifications do you have?

I received my BSc (Hons) in Business Studies from the University of Bradford. I also achieved A-Levels in Economics & Public Affairs, Physics, Pure & Applied Mathematics, and Statistics.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

A combination of both. After leaving university I really had no clear idea of what I wanted to do but applied for a graduate role in business development at Chemical Bank and took their skills test as my first interview. I was immediately asked if I was interested in joining their first ever graduate rotation scheme for the trading room, and was the only female out of 40 graduates. I am sure at the time I just ticked a box, as they had no female representation on the scheme. However, on successful completion I joined the team as a corporate foreign exchange trader.

The trading environment was very male dominated, with stereotypes and gender bias that made it hard for women to break down the barriers. There were definitely a few rocky roads to navigate there. If I am honest, it is only looking back that I really appreciate just how difficult this was. I worked there from 1989 to 2003 and transitioned through three mergers to work for JP Morgan Chase. This was a huge challenge and an extremely stressful time in such a competitive environment.

The only real reason I left that career was that having had two children it was impossible to juggle a 60 hour working week with their needs and my maternal feelings of guilt.

I moved to Sheffield in 2003 and for a period of time worked in our family business, wearing a vast array of different hats – a significant contrast at every level to what I had been doing when working in London and challenges of a different kind.

In 2009, the IT company that was then looking after our IT needs went into administration and I, pretty much on a whim, decided to set up AAG.

It was certainly a rocky road. I set up the business from scratch, with no outside funding or experience in the industry, or technical capability. Certainly in the early years I felt extremely challenged by this. Now, in hindsight, I actually think this was one of our strengths. It forced us to think differently. We had to look outside our four walls for guidance and mentoring and built a strong team with a diverse skill set that looks at our industry in a different way. 

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

When I worked at Chemical Bank I was asked to hang the Christmas Cards up. Why? I was the only female and it was seen to be a job that a woman should do. We have come a long way since then but having worked in male dominated industries, I know that there are still a lot of barriers to success for women.

Stereotypes exist that create a barrier for girls at a young age. A positive message at a young age can help girls, who would not ordinarily think of a career in tech, to consider their options. We, as a generation, have a duty to communicate the possibilities that are out there, not only for girls but for all minority groups that are underrepresented.

The main reason I left my first career was that there was no flexibility to meet the demands of having a family and continue working. This should never have to be considered a barrier to success but sadly it is. The tech industry is no different.  Someone working part time is immediately seen to not have the same amount of commitment which puts a ceiling on their personal growth and development. Our culture at AAG IT Services actively supports the women and men who work in our team to get this balance right. This should be the norm.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Don’t overthink what you want to do and keep an open mind. I never had a clear vision of what I wanted to do but I definitely knew what I didn’t want. Think about what you like doing and why it inspires you.

Turn up and don’t expect every opportunity to be handed to you on a plate. I have always been ambitious and worked extremely hard. Every job I have done, I have done with passion and drive.

Be prepared to go outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to do what you think is not within your skillset.

If you had to pick one mentor that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

Whilst I have been growing and running my own business, I have had the pleasure of working with lots of different mentors. They have all offered different levels of support and guidance, which was incredibly helpful.

If I had to pick one individual who has had the biggest influence on my life it would be my mother. Even now at my age I often ask myself what she would do. She was an incredibly intelligent but empathetic individual who was there to give you rational advice and guidance but also to challenge your thinking. I probably didn’t appreciate it enough when I was younger.

From where do you draw inspiration?

Even though I loved school, I hated reading. Ironically, I now read more than ever and much of the daily inspiration I have is from recommended reading.

Two books which I highly recommend are Traction by Gino Wickman and The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. Both books talk about how to systemise your business to improve efficiency and grow.

Most of the books I read are downloaded on audible and I spend a lot of time walking a crazy spaniel. It gives me time to think, clear my mind and come back to the table with fresh ideas.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

As a business, one of the biggest challenges we have faced is attracting the right type of funding and as the leader of AAG it has also challenged me personally. Funding is always there when you don’t need it but difficult to acquire when you do. Lack of funding stifles investment and elongates the growth curve. Banks and everyday lenders struggle to understand the intricacies of our industry and the supply chain which limits the type of funding available. We have grown our business by making the right choices, working with the right people and by pure determination and personal sacrifice.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

A good leader is someone who is able to clearly see the direction of travel and communicate it effectively to the team so that they understand their purpose. They require good problem solving skills and be able to come up with solutions that resolve the problem efficiently and effectively. They are able to actively listen to their team, understand different personality types and guide them accordingly.

I believe it is essential to be humble, and to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge those. Admitting your own challenges is not a sign of weakness but a chance to demonstrate to others that this is acceptable and human.

Effective leaders lead by example and have the ability to motivate others.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 24 months been like?

Working in the technology industry has been very interesting over the last 24 months. There is always change and as a business we have grown, supporting our clients to change the way they work in difficult circumstances. With growth comes challenges so it has been a very intense period of reflection and change.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

Security of Information and the risk of a data breach are amongst the biggest challenges that organisations face today. Data, as a valuable commodity, entices attackers to exploit vulnerabilities for financial gain but although the increase in cyberattacks is well documented, organisations often underestimate the chance of it happening to them and are therefore reluctant or slow to take the necessary preventative measures that would minimise the risk. The stigma attached to a cyberattack and the impact that admitting this can have on a business makes it difficult to talk about specific examples and to therefore communicate the real issue.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

Culture is so important to drive the progress needed to support the career of women in tech. This cultural change needs to come from the top but be seen as positive change throughout the business that is not only communicated but acted upon. Ensuring the gender balance is correct not only at a high level but also departmentally is imperative to drive this message home. Companies need to commit to change and ensure that it is a priority when looking for new talent or elevating those within.

Offering re-training to women who may want to enter the industry would have an immediate impact. However, we also need to drive longer term change. Getting in at a base level where girls can see the opportunities available to them and removing the stereotypes that exist is paramount to a fundamental shift in the way girls think about the industry.

There are currently only 21 percent of women working in tech. AAG is a majority female-owned and managed business. This is unique in our industry and something that I am particularly proud of, although I never set out with this intention in mind.

AAG actively supports the women and men in the team fairly, providing balance in a male dominated industry. 

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know?

I captained the U18 Netball Team for St Albans Girls School at the All England Finals. We reached the Semi-Finals.