Women in Digital: Ash Finnegan

When starting her career in tech, VP GTM & transformation at Conga, Ash Finnegan, dealt with the stigma of being a first-time mum and single parent, working full time in a male-dominated industry. Here she explains how her experiences have informed her leadership style.

Posted 2 October 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I loved school. I was actually a dance teacher during my late teens and ran my own dance school. I just love learning and teamwork. Those skills are the ones I use today, when mentoring or training teams and speaking on stage and giving presentations – it all goes back to dance choreography and working with people. Learning those skills at an early age definitely made it easier when I got older.

What qualifications do you have?

I decided not to go to university, I wanted to learn through work. I personally learn through ‘doing’. I respect education but I think some people learn differently, and businesses should be mindful of this. It’s more important that young professionals have a deep willingness to learn and work hard; creativity also needs to be valued more. When I interview people now, I am more open to this, but I think the industry needs to accept people come from different backgrounds. It’s not just about grades or CVs, it’s about aptitude and learning through life experience and doing things.

Everyone should learn how they want to learn. I was lucky to work with great people who provided me with so many opportunities which led to where I am today. Companies should give everybody a chance. After all, the highest performers at Conga do not necessarily have a ‘degree’.

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

I started my career the same time I became a mother. Starting out as a marketing assistant at global business travel management company, Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), and it was here where I was first exposed to digital transformation. CWT needed to respond to the rise of online travel agents, such as Expedia, which were becoming a threat to its business model.

It was around this time when my partner sadly passed away and I hit a low point, having to juggle being a full-time single parent and work. It could have seriously impacted my career trajectory, but I managed to turn work into a positive thing. My son Nathan and my career are two constants in my life that that have kept me going. It was a survival mechanism that kept me focused and being in a positive work environment helped me establish a good home environment.

I then moved into the education sector, where I spent over ten years, including a brief period at Tes. I went on to start Connected in Education (CIE), building my own software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for teachers connecting them with other schools, transforming performance tables which could be shared amongst teaching professionals, whilst providing connections for students to gain real work experience within the technology sector. It was incredibly rewarding.

Finally, I returned to the tech sector, where I joined SmartFocus, (now acquired by Actito), a marketing automation company and a Conga customer. After working on a transformation project together, the senior leadership team at Conga invited me to join the company as its digital transformation officer. Now I work, directly with customers and partners on their transformation programmes and advise on Conga’s product marketing strategy.

My career wasn’t a smooth transition by any means. No one has a smooth road – career and life – if you think they are separate that’s unrealistic, you are an individual you’ve got different aspects to who you are, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, just focus on a goal and go for it.

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

When I started my career, I felt that I needed to hide the fact I was a single parent. When opportunities came up for travel, promotion or working late, I know it was questioned as to whether I could do this with a child. I always felt I had to fight harder than most and sometimes it felt quite lonely. But luckily, I did have a great leader who was supportive and mindful of this. He was a good role model for me, and now I know how to help someone in my situation.  

The industry is improving, there are far more flexible working options now. But I still think more needs to be done. Women need to be reassured that they are not alone and should be proud of the role they play in work and at home. There are also more stay-at-home dads now, and I have always been the higher earner in relationships, everyone’s situation is different, and people don’t necessarily expect that.

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

I think the best thing any young professional is to always be curious. I struggled to begin with, but I knew that I wanted to achieve great things and I loved technology. Be flexible and open to any opportunity that comes your way. Base your decisions on where you want to be, not your current situation.

Enquire about any job roles that pique your interest, especially cross-functional ones, as you might find that you enjoy another department, you have simply not been exposed to it or just have not tried it yet. Truly consider what it is that you want to do, and remember this is very much a learning process, it will not happen instantly, but the end goal is to try to find something you love. It’s also important to surround yourself with strong characters who are constantly driven to do good and achieve great things.

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

I genuinely can’t – there’s been six great leaders in my life that have had a huge impact on my career (and not in any particular order). It’s very sad, but I have only male mentors, but I have been very lucky to work with these gentlemen. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They are great examples of how male leaders should be.

  1. Noel Goggin, CEO at Conga – who always created opportunities for me that allowed me to be who I am and gave me advice on the areas I needed to work on most
  2. David Witham, my first boss – who gave me opportunities to learn develop and grow at a young age, without this, I would not be where I am today
  3. Dele Sikuade, CTO of Electric Word – taught me so much about technology and SaaS space and how to become a leader through hard work and dedication
  4. Grant Peterson – a fantastic mentor who taught me how to manage my career, and how to define a clear strategy for the business and always to push forward through regardless of any challenge
  5. Eric Salava, CRO at Conga – another fantastic mentor who gave me the platform to share my ideas
  6. Ben Allen, CMO of Go1 and former boss – who helped me to identify the type of role I should go for. Working with Ben was so much fun even in challenging times

From where do you draw inspiration?

For me, I draw inspiration through connecting with people, I also like the idea of creating things that might not exist today. I don’t see challenges; I see opportunities to make things better. Perhaps, another area would be setting an example for my son and daughter. I want them to make things better and set an example so they can do the same!

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

My biggest challenge will always be raising children and having a successful career; trying to keep up with all aspects of life. Finding the balance has always been a challenge, it’s never easy and I don’t think anybody gets it right. It just important that you put family first.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

A good sense of direction. You need to be able to inspire others but most importantly, understand people on an emotional level. A good leader needs to be able to pivot, pivot and pivot again. You need to love a challenge and be able to inspire others take on the challenge with you.

From a work viewpoint, what has the last 12 months been like?

I recently relocated to Denver for work. It’s been a fantastic learning experience. However, initially I found it overwhelming, so much so, that I needed the help of a counsellor – Bobby Dunhan – who helped me handle this transition. He made me realise that it’s important to take time to process everything.

“When there’s a major change in your life, it’s okay to ask for help. Taking care of your mental health is a priority, find someone to talk to. Too many people feel like they can’t open up or are too self-conscious to ask for help. Counselling is a phenomenal thing; I recommend it to when anyone feels overwhelmed. Bobby helped me to tackle both personal and professional challenges. Most importantly, he created a space for me to be vulnerable.

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

The economy is slowing. Normally, when the economy slows, most organisations freeze. Customers’ expectations are rising and there’s a lot of pressure to deliver more with less. Leaders need to respond carefully and invest money far more wisely.

Too often, businesses get caught up in new trends, like AI at the moment, but they need to establish how it will benefit their company and what they should be doing. This is where they need the help of transformation experts, to establish clear goals and make strategic decisions that are right for the company.

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

I think support networks are vital. Not only should more female leaders share their experiences, but the technology community should also support women at every step to drive the real cultural change that is needed. At Conga, I helped to launch its ‘Women in Tech’ group in EMEA, as a first step to drive more equality in the sector and acknowledge the benefits that young women or parents can bring to the workplace.

I am constantly trying to find new ways of promoting diversity and offering opportunities for those from different backgrounds, especially given my own experiences. I have started leading our internship programmes and encourage young people to share their ideas and establish themselves from an early age, but so much more can be done. I plan on going into schools in Denver to setup workshops and show why technology is a great career and what opportunities there are for young women.”

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

I am really passionate about music. I was part of a band and in my younger years, I did a short tour with Westlife (three gigs). I was a dancer and performed on stage in front of 76,000 people in Dublin.