On a mission to demystify technology

Holly Rafique has won an award for her inspiring work for #techmums. She speaks to workingmums.co.uk about the need for technology to be part of our everyday lives and the vital role mums can play in that.

 

Holly Rafique wants to ensure no-one is left behind by the technology revolution. That means reducing the stigma around it, particularly for women. She thinks that can be done by getting more technology into women’s everyday lives so that it is not something they are scared of or feel is not for them.

Holly Rafique is Head of Digital and Content at #techmums, which offers courses in a range of technology skills to mums. Her work has recently been recognised at the We Are the City Rising Star Awards.

She and her colleague Isabel Chapman, Head of Operations at #techmums, nominated each other for the awards and Holly won the Editor’s Choice category. She is keen to say, however, that she would never have got #techmums to where it is now without Isabel. That is in part because Holly is autistic – she was only diagnosed last year – and says she finds approaching new people difficult. Holly revised the content of the #techmums course, making it more up to date. Isabel built relationships with organisations whose mission meshed with that of #techmums.

Early interest in computers

Holly herself became interested in technology at an early age. Her father was very interested in technology. A motorbike racer and “a guy’s guy”, Holly says she was the son he never had. She spent her time tinkering about in his garage and when she was nine her bedroom became his office, complete with a computer. It was no surprise therefore that Holly started hanging around the computer lab at school.

She had planned to work in finance management after school, but did a gap year working for Accenture. “As soon as I saw the amazing things they were doing with technology I knew it was for me. The team I worked with had a lot of autonomy,” she says. She also managed to not only to identify a coding problem in one programme – and fixed it too. “I always had an understanding of computers and how they work,” she says. “They are very logical. My autism diagnosis has been a bit of a revelation as I have always tended to be very black and white and logical.”

After her gap year experience, Holly decided to switch to studying computer science and won a prize for her third-year dissertation. She went from university to consulting in the financial services sector, but got burned out because she would get so involved with what she was doing that she ended up working around the clock, something she says that wasn’t valued.

She has reassessed a lot of her career decisions in the light of her autism diagnosis. She says, for instance, after being passed over for a promotion early on in her career she threatened to leave and was then offered a promotion, but resigned anyway. She had burst into tears when she was told of the promotion over the phone and her husband commented that she should leave if she wasn’t happy. She took that comment literally and handed in her notice, even though she didn’t have any job to go to.

Holly says her career trajectory has been slightly circuitous and has included a stint back at her original employer as a contractor.

Career break

When she got pregnant with her first son, who is nine, she decided she would be a stay-at-home mum, but found the transition to parenthood quite terrifying since it was so completely new.  She had a second son, now aged six, and was looking to get back to work, but found it daunting to think how she would manage everything. She wanted to get her kids into technology and had noticed that kids needed their mums’ help to grow their computer skills, although many were themselves lacking fundamental skills. “They were bright women who had left the workplace before the tech explosion,” she says.

She told a friend of #techmums founder Sue Black’s that mums needed tech education since they tended to be the main carers. The friend put her in touch with Black and after doing some work for #techmums on a freelance basis, she was offered her current job.

Since she has been at #techmums Holly has overhauled and recreated its digital skills course to teach mums, who start with limited tech experience, a range of topics including blogging, app design, web design, Python coding. She also educates mums about keeping themselves and their families safe online. Holly has created the physical content, build an online portal to support and enhance learning and created educational videos for an accompanying online course.

Making a difference

She loves seeing the difference #techmums can make to individuals. She cites one woman in Leeds whose husband walked out on her and her four kids a month before the course began. She had no money and no job and she could have lost her house. Her confidence was at an all-time low. She was able to put bring her youngest child along while she was doing the #techmums programme and ended up speaking in front of 60 people at the graduation. Since they she has got a teaching assistant position and is now able to support her kids.

“I really like seeing the difference we make,” says Holly. “In fintech you are changing the infrastructure, but you never see the difference you make. You feel like you are supporting the status quo. At #techmums you can see the benefits not just for the mums but for their children. Mums are the missing link with regard to getting more women into technology. Bringing technology into mums’ lives can have a wider impact on families, particularly girls.”

She adds: “There is such a disparity in this country with regard to access to technology. We are really doing something to address the digital divide.”

Artificial intelligence

In addition to her work for #techmums, Holly, who has re-trained extensively in areas, including analytics, genetics, bioinformatics and artificial intelligence, works with her children to create videos to encourage children to explore technology and robotics and demystify technology.

Holly has also contributed to a manifesto by the Women Leading in AI group, recommending regulation and evaluation of algorithms that utilise artificial intelligence so that, for instance, they do not exclude certain groups of people. The manifesto, containing 10 regulatory recommendations, was presented at the House of Commons in February 2018. She would like to see ethics at the heart of all computer science courses.

In addition, Holly is setting up a diversity consultancy for women who are harder to reach, such as those on the autistic spectrum.  She is keen to ensure everyone is prepared for the jobs of the future through personalised learning and work experience. “We cannot maximise the benefits of technology unless we look at all the different ways it impacts our lives and all the different ways it could impact people in the future,” she says.



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