Scotland is home to a flourishing technology sector, with a bustling startup scene, life sciences sector and a hub for financial services, the country’s global reputation is growing rapidly.
With an ever-expanding tech sector, however, challenges arise – particularly with regard to talent.
Traditionally, talent development and retention has been an area which Scotland’s tech sector has struggled with. Running parallel to this has been concerning cultural issues surrounding the gender deficit in STEM subjects.
Simply put, it seems we aren’t doing enough to encourage more young women and girls to pursue careers in science and technology.
While initiatives the length and breadth of the country, many supported by the Scottish Government, seek to address the issue, the reality is that the road to progress will be a long and arduous one.
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, DIGIT caught up with some of Scotland’s trailblazing women in tech and business.
From software development to ethical AI and skills development, Scotland has an enormous wealth of exceptional female role models pioneering in a range of fields.
In the first of our Q&A series today, we speak with Leah Hutcheon, CEO and Founder of Edinburgh-based tech firm, Appointedd.
Tell us a bit about yourself, Leah
I’m an ex magazine director and I’ve also worked in comedy and theatre production, I have a drama and theatre arts degree. I decided to start my own company when I was made redundant from my role as a magazine editor back in 2010, so during the last economic crash.
I’m originally from Blackpool and I moved up to Edinburgh for University and just never left – its an amazing place to live and to start a business from!
What inspired you to pursue a career in tech?
I can’t claim I was inspired to work in tech – it was more a case of spotting a gap in the market and wanting to fix it. It was through my own experience dealing with small businesses that I realised that there weren’t tools to really help them run their business and help them connect with their customers.
We started Appointed with a strong focus on the SME sector, and have since moved to a blended SME and enterprise offerings. We now work with all sorts of different businesses from very large enterprises down to very small, independent businesses.
The jumping-off point for me was the hair and beauty industry because personally, I just really struggled to book a hairdresser’s appointment out of hours. For me, being able to connect with different small businesses, browse their offerings and make a guaranteed booking was just compelling and there was nothing like that on the market when I started Appointed.
Have you entered the technology sector via a ‘traditional’ route?
I think we would have to say I took the less traditional route – having trained in drama and theatre arts, then going into comedy and theatre producing and then becoming a magazine editor for a homes and interiors publication.
I used to spend my days looking around amazing houses and staying in wonderful hotels so the bump back down to earth to a beans on toast diet as I funded my new startup with my overdraft and my credit card was…quite a bumpy one, but definitely worth it in the long run.
Is there a particular person – or group of people – that inspired or supported the path you have taken?
I have always been just so inspired by all of the other people running businesses around me. I think Scotland’s an amazing place and the startup community in Edinburgh specifically is fantastically supportive and even in lockdown, these relationships have grown.
A few names to mention would be Sara Stenhouse from Oodles and Becky Woodhouse from Pure Spa – I am in awe of both these women who are growing their businesses and really pushing boundaries to make things happen.
I feel so lucky to have many amazing female customers too (who you can read about here) as well as work with the talented women in Team Appointed.
Mind you, the women aren’t the only ones that deserve a shout-out. There is a great gender split across all roles at Appointed, even within the product team! I’m so pleased that we’ve been able to create a company where women can really thrive at every level – and are lucky to have so many talented, creative and passionate women, and lots of amazing men too.
Have you faced any significant barriers or hindrances to progression during your career journey?
I feel extremely lucky that I don’t feel a lot of barriers to progression in my career although it’s definitely taken a lot of resilience. The main thing is to believe in yourself and that you have surrounded yourself with the right people. You have to learn to listen to the bits that you want to listen to and tune out some of the bits that aren’t as helpful to your end goal.
For us, we have an amazing board and team around us. We’ve got very patient and understanding investors who are as excited about this opportunity as we are. Everybody’s pushing to the same goal and for me, that’s really important.
I have heard horror stories about other companies – specifically other female-led companies – coming up against huge challenges. But for me, I just feel incredibly lucky to have had people around me who see me as a founder who really wants to build a company that will make a difference and they have empowered and enabled that rather than making my gender an issue.
Are there any women currently in tech/business in Scotland who you admire?
I’m so inspired by all of the women who are building businesses alongside us here in Scotland.
People like Julie Grieve, who runs Criton, an amazing app that has really revolutionised the way the hospitality sector engages with customers in these challenging times.
The gender deficit in STEM subjects is a growing issue – what more can we do to inspire and support young women and girls to pursue careers in tech?
I think the stem gender deficit issue is a huge one. And I think it starts super early. My daughter, Hedy, is three and a half. And my husband and I are really keen to make sure that she has an interest in the STEM subjects nurtured from a really early age because there were some horrific statistics about how if you don’t nurture that kind of interest early on, it’s very typical that girls will go down a route like ballet while boys will go to Computer Club or chess club and those very early choices influence their whole life.
So I think jumping on that as quickly as possible and just really nurturing a love of the STEM subjects. I also think one of the things that we can do as a startup is to lead by example. I think, in Scotland, specifically, we create a lot of lawyers and accountants and those services are held in really high regard, as they should be but I think, that the startups that are now coming through offer great opportunities and exciting careers.
We’ve seen the likes of Skyscanner create millionaires amongst people who have just gotten stuck in an early-stage company and worked really hard and made things happen. So I think, while we don’t want to over glamorise facts, it’s super tough but we need to open people’s eyes to the potential that lies behind a stem career.
Why is International Women’s Day important to you, and how does it help to address some of the issues affecting women in tech?
International Women’s Day is so important because I think it really starts the conversation. I know for us as a team it’s prompted us to talk about the amazing women; who we work with, our amazing customers that we have and the businesses that are led by these strong, passionate women. It’s just a chance to really celebrate all the hard work that is being done.
The world has come a long way when you look at gender parity, but we’re still a long way away from having it. And the stat that always sticks in my mind is that 1% of VC funding goes to companies led by women. And of the other 99%; 10% of it goes to mixed-gender founding teams, but 89% of that, so 89 pence in every pound spent by or invested by VCs goes to male-led companies where one penny in every pound goes to female-led companies.
Until we are able to address big imbalances like that, it’s really important that this conversation is encouraged, and International Women’s Day does that really, really well.
What advice would you give to other women looking to enter tech?
I would say just do it. Start small and be creative, know that you’re going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. If you’re going to start a company, make sure it’s something that you feel very passionately about.
If you’re going to join a company make sure that your values are aligned and that it’s a company that you want to get all-in with. Working with people who will make sure that you feel as comfortable as possible is a really important one, I think, but yeah, just go for it.
I think, especially in the changing world that we live in currently, a career in tech is just about the most exciting place that you can be and we’re helping change the world.