STEM DAY: Sarah Friswell on diversifying the sector

Sarah Friswell, CEO of Red Ant, is encouraging more girls to join the STEM industry, while sharing they don’t need to ‘tick all the boxes’ to thrive

As Red Ant’s CEO, Sarah Friswell is responsible for driving and guiding the business, from ensuring the company is run in a sustainable and ethical way to heading up talent selection and bolstering our client partnerships. We sat down with Sarah to find out more about how she’s increasing the number of women at Red Ant, and why she thinks it’s important for others to follow suit. 

Hi Sarah! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your career so far.

My background is centred around relationships, my very first taste of work was my work experience at Boots, which was a great grounding for understanding the multifaceted challenges of a retailer. Later on, my client management focus opened up a great opportunity in Dubai to work with some super-talented peers who were pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity and tech, which really prepared me to lead a team who are leading the market in retail technology.

Why was it important for you to increase the number of women employed at Red Ant? 

Our industry is only now realising the vast wealth of talent that women can offer, to organisations and society. We need to turn talk into action and make our problem-solving diverse, make discriminatory hiring outdated and offer more young women access to rewarding careers in STEM. 

I’m passionate about diversity, equality and encouraging the progression of women and girls into science and technology roles. I have driven policies so that, unique among technology companies, Red Ant is an employee-owned business with a team that comprises:

  • 59% women across all roles from the boardroom to developers
  • A wide range of ages – some who have worked for the company for more than 10 years and others who have joined straight from education or as part of an apprenticeship, opening up opportunities for women without traditional work histories
  • Women returners to work and career changers who were actively recruited for their life skills as well as their work skills
  • A truly diverse group of people who are both neurotypical and non-neurotypical

And I’ve introduced working practices that specifically support women, including those with caring responsibilities:

  • Core hours are designed to enable parents and carers to spend time with their families when they need it most at the beginning and end of the day
  • Hybrid working patterns mean that the team spends at least some of the week working from home, which makes a significant difference to childcare arrangements and their cost as well as other responsibilities including caring for elderly relatives
  • Red Ant is always prepared to discuss and develop roles to support women’s lives outside work – for example, the business adapted a sales support role for a talented client-facing team member when she needed to adjust her work pattern to care for her children

Could you tell me about Red Ant’s PhilANThropy programme? What is the aim of the programme and what has it achieved so far? 

In just a few years, our volunteer initiative has evolved into an intrinsic part of our working culture. The PhilANThropy volunteering programme at Red Ant gives all staff three days’ paid time a year to play a part in making sure our business is a force for good and 98% of our Ants took part in at least one activity to support the community last year. From improving our community and the lives of people who live in it to fundraising for our chosen charitable causes, we provide this support around our client projects of course – but we fit it all in, because it’s important to us to make a positive difference.

With so many deserving causes needing support, it can be hard to know which ones to choose, so it’s worked best for us to have some focus. At the beginning of this year, we agreed that the core focus for 2022 was to be promoting quality local education, good health, and wellbeing, which includes children, the elderly and the vulnerable, and, most recently, supporting a fundraiser for Ukraine with matched giving. But we have the flexibility to ensure our year-round activities extend beyond these groups.

We hold bi-weekly planning meetings so everyone, either at home or in the office, can be involved and activities are very varied so there’s something for everyone in the office to participate in – from physically challenging individual pursuits such as the London to Brighton bike ride, to a friendly (and competitive) bake-off, to rubbish clearing in community spaces, to foodbank donations to the Southwark and Waterloo Food Banks, helping local people in crisis. Our work for four local schools and colleges has included supporting a tech-based project at Bosco College, giving three days of virtual work experience, and delivering a business studies GCSE project.

In addition, a number of the team attended a mental health first aid course, which means they are trained to be vigilant to notice and provide first support to those who may be struggling, within and outside our working spaces. It’s part of an ongoing process where we ensure that as a company we’re a supportive group of people.

Upon reflection, what has been your greatest success to date?

I would say it’s navigating the team through the last couple of years. We have onboarded some great clients and we’ve been awarded Great Place to Work status. We’ve won the Lord Mayor’s award for our work in the community and a National Technology Award for Retail Tech of the Year. The team has done a lot to become recognised by the outside within this relatively short and very challenging space of time. The fact that Red Ant comprises 59% women is a major achievement too, as we are championing diversity and inclusion in tech.

A key contributor to this is having the support of other people. In general, I have always had excellent support from my line managers. One of my first-ever managers in account management told me unapologetically: “This is what great service is”. Being given opportunities and being given space to shine is another major factor. You can’t carry on climbing without support from the people around you. 

Likewise, what challenges have you faced being a woman in a male-dominated sector? 

A lot of people are guilty of assumptions – a common one is assuming it’s your male colleague they should be talking to, now I find it easy to correct the course of the conversation but I’m not sure we are there yet in this being a rarity.

I do think it’s important to add that I work with amazing teams at Red Ant, with clients and partners and I see a lot of positive behaviours in trying to address the balance and championing the need to celebrate the women in their business.

What advice would you give young girls starting their careers in the tech industry? 

To have more courage. There’s the stat that most women tend only to apply for a job if they can already do 80% of the job description. Realising that you don’t have to tick all the boxes is really important, and that attitude can count more than experience. If you don’t throw your hat into the ring, you’re not giving yourself the chance. This relates to applying for different roles or pushing yourself forward. It’s having the courage to say: “I can do this, what’s the worst that can happen?”. I had a turning point in my late 20s where I realised: “I have great client management skills and the rest will come with experience”. If you have the courage and work hard, it will happen.

There is so much more depth to our businesses than sales, engineering, and QA - seek out people who can help navigate you through all the different career paths by talking you through their first-hand experience, as well as traditional progress through the ranks.  Try to find experience in lots of different types of tech businesses and, if your interests align, different role types. Most people, however busy, have time for a coffee - don’t underestimate the power of a 30-minute chat as a source of inspiration.

What would you say has been the secret to your success? 

The people around me. One of my favourite Ogilvy quotes is “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” This I think is the most powerful ethos a team can be built on and I’ve been lucky enough that everywhere I have worked I have been surrounded by pioneers and can see some developing in our current team which what makes you get out of bed in the morning!

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