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workingmums.co.uk talks to Suzy Dean, winner of an everywoman award for her commitment to building a successful IT business and overcoming bias.
Suzy Dean was just 28 when she founded her software product business, using her life savings of £26,000. What’s more, it was her second business. Within a short time she had won global contracts with the likes of WPP Group and AstraZeneca. Just seven years later, over 450,000 people in 136 countries use her products, which are becoming increasingly in demand in our new hybrid working world.
Yet Suzy has faced challenges as a CEO in the male-dominated tech sector. That hasn’t deterred her, however, and she is committed to improving the diversity of the industry. Indeed her workforce is over 50% BAME and 60% female, something she has achieved by consciously hiring and retraining from outside the industry to close the skills gap and gender stereotypes that she experienced.
That drive and commitment was recognised last month when she won the everywoman Athena award for the most inspirational woman running a business trading from six to nine years.
So how did she get to where she is now? Suzy’s background is not in IT. She graduated in the early 2000s with a degree in government and went into a sales job at a software company from where she worked her way up to account manager.
Suzy started her first business, EasySharePoint, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It was there that she developed the idea of a packaged intranet solution, EasyShare. Over the two years she learnt a lot about running a company, particularly about the importance of business partners having a shared vision of what they want to achieve.
In 2015 she founded AddIn365, whose products focus on the digital employee experience. She knew the first two years would be hard and that she would have to put everything she had into building the business. She worked from 6am to 10 or 11pm and landed major contracts. She was able to win work by being honest and transparent with potential clients, for instance, telling them when certain features like video were already part of their package, which was not generally something that her competitors did. “The business was born out of being really honest and explaining the shortfalls of what was available,” she says, adding that it sent a ripple through the industry when the company won the TSB contract from much longer established firms. “Our competitors thought they had it in the bag,” she says. “At that point things started to change for us.”
Suzy says one of the strengths of the business is its creativity, driven by their Chief Technology Officer, who comes up with inventive ideas that keep the company ahead of their competition.
But it has not been easy. Suzy has had to overcome the male bias in the tech sector. She mentions going to a CEO meeting where people complained that she did not deserve to be there. She tried to talk to people at events and they turned their backs to stop her joining conversations. She says many tech companies pay lip service to diversity and inclusion and that she is wary those who talk about their diversity policies until she knows what the lived experience is for women and others in that company.
One of the problems for women who are still generally the main carers in their families is that they often need flexible hours when they have children. That can be difficult for client-facing consultancy positions, says Suzy, but other roles can be more flexible, for instance, her marketing manager has three children and works school hours from home.
Suzy, who is based in Watford, herself has two children and her mum helps out with childcare. She returned to work three days after giving birth to her first child and her second was born in the Covid lockdown. During her maternity leave she managed to increase turnover by 47% and bring 16 new products to market, making her first million in profit. She says it was interesting comparing both experiences of pregnancy because in the lockdown the company was working remotely and none of her clients could see she was pregnant. The first time around she lost some contracts as a result, although she adds that the company was also in a better position with a larger number of staff and better infrastructure the second time around.
Suzy says the pandemic has been good for the company. It’s not just because more people are working from home, but because employers are investing more in good internal communications packages. She says having good internal systems is a positive for retention. “It shows that employers invest in their people. I think that will continue as different sectors are keen to hang onto their talent,” she says, adding that the company has diversified the products it sells. For instance, they have developed an Artificial Intelligence-driven bot which supports flexible workers, helping them to find the information they need to do their work and to manage the knowledge stored within the business better.
Given her own early experience of climbing up the career ladder, Suzy is a big advocate of bringing people in and training them up and says this is the best way of addressing the current skills shortage. For instance, she hired a former nurse on a salary of 25K and three years later, that salary has doubled due to career progression.
Suzy is very clear about mapping out how learning and progressing can impact her employees’ earning potential. “We are completely transparent,” she says, adding that progression is a key retention tool. She says the cost of living crisis means many people are highly motivated to increase their earnings. That can be a win win for employers, particularly of product-based companies like hers. So far it is working. She has retained everyone she wanted to retain and they can see what steps they need to take to get to the next level – this is true not just of sales roles, but also back office roles where the company also encourages learning and coaches people for progression. “We see potential in all our people,” says Suzy.
She has won a number of previous awards for herself before Covid as well as others that are more based on the company and its products. But, having doubled turnover in the last two years, she felt the time was right to enter the everywoman awards. Suzy found them very emotional and wasn’t expecting to win, given the strength of the competition. “I was shocked and weeping as the different women shortlisted told their stories,” she says, adding that she hopes the everywoman network will continue to help her and that she can return the favour. “I am very keen to help others who are in the early years of developing their businesses,”she says. “I know how hard it is at the start.”