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Meet the infocus ambassadors - Soraya Jones

Being chosen on merit not because you are female

When we started curating the agenda for Venturefest East 2016, one of the criticisms raised was the fact that there were more male than female speakers (ironically, one of the critics was a male steering board member).

I was adamant, however, that we chose speakers for their merits, expertise and experience, and not because they were ‘females’.

Certainly, when I was the founder CEO of the membership organisation Cambridge Wireless (CW), which was dominated by men in most of the activities in the first few years, I would have hoped that the board of CW did not appoint me as the CEO because I was a woman, an Asian and dark skinned (see, I tick all the boxes for most organisations in terms of equal opportunities!). I would have felt really undervalued and uninspired if that had been the case.

I believe that this is the dilemma of working in a male dominated sector where, as a woman, you are unsure of whether you are ever good enough as the men who are experts in their fields.

To make it worse, I did not have an in-depth engineering background as most of the board members had, and it was difficult to engage in deep technical discussions.

However, the board told me loudly and clearly, that they did not recruit me for my technical skills. They informed me that there were enough of them there to help me with this aspect if I need them, but that they hired me for my business acumen and marketing skills.

Working in a man’s world

Soraya Jones with some of the keynote speakers & chairs for Venturefest East, Woodhall Photography
Soraya Jones with some of the keynote speakers & chairs for Venturefest East, Woodhall Photography

My brief was to grow the cluster to become the premier networking organisation for the wireless and technology sector. No pressure indeed!

It was a challenging time in 2007 when the membership was only 70 companies and there were only five active industry Special Interest Groups (SIGs)…. And guess what? They were all championed by men too!

Other than my team, most of whom were females who helped me with the management and delivery of events, it was very much a male dominated sector. Nearly every event we organised and in many meetings that I attended, I was often one of the few females there, if not the only one!

Soraya Jones with steering board and delivery team for Venturefest East by Woodhall Photography
Soraya Jones with steering board and delivery team for Venturefest East by Woodhall Photography

Don’t think too much about the ‘gender’ issue

During my 8 years at CW, and viewed with hindsight, I have come to believe that:

 it was easier to work effectively and productively if you don’t think too much about the ‘gender’ issue, which I did not.

I did not have any hang-ups on being the only female at a board meeting or one of the few women attending events. If you are not too conscious of this, and just get on with your work and have an aspiration to grow the business, then:

when success takes place, people will respect you for what you are trying to achieve and you will find that folks, regardless of gender, will help you.

Sharing a common goal is most important

Many of the SIG champions in my early years at CW were men and I will always be indebted to them for volunteering their time as board members and SIG champions to help drive the cluster’s activities - we all shared a common goal for the industry.

I now genuinely believe that when you work hard enough and achieve several successes, people will respect you for what you do, and not say, ‘Wow, she is a woman who has done so well in a male dominated sector!

Not standing forward because of lack of confidence

That said, during my years with CW, I did have to cajole and persuade some female members to be more active and to step forward as SIG champions. I still remained puzzled as to why I had to do this, given that some of these female engineers were so clever, entrepreneurial and so forward looking, just like their male counterparts.

When I asked them about this, they informed me that it was because they did not have the confidence and there was always that little bit of fear of being ‘looked down’ or being ‘wrong’.

I sighed in exasperation when I heard this sentiment being voiced, and told them that:

if I could put a pound in a jar for all those ‘misjudgements’ made by their male counterparts, I would be a rich woman today!

It intrigued me why clever, young and ambitious women still feel they did not have the confidence of doing the same job as men.

50/50 Pledge: getting equal women to men at tech events

I am becoming a convert to the initiative of 50-50. Sandi MacPherson, the founder of the San Francisco-based social networking start-up Quibb, organises the 50/50 Pledge and aims to get an equal proportion of men and women on stage at tech events by connecting organisers with a directory of relevant female experts.

The idea is that:

if you look hard enough, you will find the equivalent female equivalent counterparts for a speaking role or for a board role.

Still a long way to go, but it’s a start!

I started this blog by talking about Venturefest East event, and I would like to think that we have made progress towards having more representation of women in innovation at that event.

Be that as it may, they were recruited based on their merits and expertise, and not because they were women. But we had to look harder to find those women, and when we looked hard enough, we not only found them but were very much inspired by their stories too!

It is still not a 50-50 representation and we have a long way to go for future years, but it is a start!


Ambassador for Innovate UK’s infocus Women in Innovation award.

Follow me on Twitter: @sorayajones12

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