Jacqui Kennedy, Head of Networking and Collaboration at Telefónica Tech UK&I shares her experience of working in the tech sector, including her role as a STEM ambassador.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal story and how you have got to where you are today?
“I admit that at the beginning of my career, tech was not a sector I expected to find myself in. Before starting a family, I was a trained chef and worked in hotel management for many years before stepping away from this industry due to the unsociable hours. In 1994, after having my daughter, I re-entered the workforce and started a role within an IT company. When I first started this job, Microsoft Word was the height of technology! I had never worked in tech and I felt quite overwhelmed, but I was fortunate that one of the co-founders of the business identified my potential, mentored me, and encouraged me to take on new challenges.
“This was a real turning point for me. In my mentor I saw a professional woman carving out a place for herself in the tech sector and passionately leading a business, alongside her husband. From here I realised that I was more career-minded than I had ever thought. I was encouraged to do a degree and, at 40, enrolled at university, managing my studies alongside work and family commitments. After completing this degree, I went on to study for a Master’s in strategic management. In 2008 I became Operations Director of Network Defence, which went on to be acquired by Novosco, then CANCOM UK&I and then later became part of Telefónica Tech UK&I. I manage a technical team across diverse technological projects, reporting directly to the Managing Director.”
What has been your proudest career moment to date?
“A standout moment for me was when my mentor and co-founder of Network Defence decided to step back and she asked me to move up into her role within the business. At the time her husband, and the remaining founder, considered his only option was to sell the business, he was, however, convinced to continue with our new partnership and see what successes we could have. This then meant that I not only had to step up to my new role but also win him over!
When the offer first came my way, I felt completed unprepared for such a huge responsibility, but I trusted in myself, and the judgement of my mentor, that I was ready, even if I did not completely feel that way. I spend a lot of time saying how I have been ‘lucky’ with the opportunities I have received, but it was in this moment that I realised that instead of luck, it was hard work and perseverance that had got me to this place. It is a very female trait to undersell our own successes, but we should all be celebrating our achievements and jumping on hard-earned opportunities.
“I am also proud to be a STEM ambassador with InnovateHer – an organisation that encourages girls from under-privileged areas to consider careers in tech. I have been a voluntary mentor with InnovateHer since 2019; one of my proudest moments so far was with the ‘Tech for Good’ programme, where I worked with a Liverpool comprehensive school. As part of an after-school club, we were asked to come up with tech-based solutions to patient engagement in the local children’s hospital. From once-reluctant students came a range of creative ideas, encompassing coding and wireframing, which were eventually presented to the Mayor. As someone who was not aware of the opportunities in tech from a young age, I am passionate about educating young girls on the vast array of possibilities.”
What impact do you think COVID-19 has had on diversity in the sector?
“It has been a very difficult year, but I think it has been an important learning opportunity. I have spoken to incredibly capable members of my team who have struggled to juggle different responsibilities. From my experience, men have been more open about needing time for other duties such as childcare or home-schooling, while women have quietly struggled without asking for help. The concern is that these pressures will become too much, and we will lose a lot of talented women. Keeping an open dialogue has been essential and I hope that COVID has at least started these conversations and that the gender diversity progress we have made won’t unravel.”
Opportunities in the tech sector are growing as tech becomes more prominent in other industries, do you think this is helping gender diversity in the sector?
“There are definitely more opportunities in tech but there is still not enough visibility and awareness. The whole approach needs to change – we need to drop the assumptions that women are the receptionists and assistants. Progress is being made but it is slow and there is a significant hole to fill in the tech sector across the board.”
Why do you think gender diversity is so important in the tech industry – and what can be done to help improve it, especially by senior leaders/industry bodies?
“Women have so much to offer. They bring skills that are too often overlooked in business, such as soft skills and empathy, transferable management skills from family and household management, to name only a few. With the events of the past year, these skills have been invaluable for me as I lead a team dealing with many extra pressures. Too often women are expected to embody male traits because we have spent so much time assuming that this is the best way to do things; however, a mix of ways of thinking is very valuable. Businesses in the tech sector should identify the diversity of skills that comes with diversity of gender, and in turn they’ll unearth a whole host of untapped talent.”
Head of Networking and Collaboration at Telefónica Tech UK&I