In 2014, Katrina Roberts was nominated in the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. Despite being “astonished” to be put forward by her colleagues at American Express in the UK, she went on to win in the coveted Leader of the Year category – in recognition of her efforts to inspire and motivate her teams and encourage and support more women into and upwards through the male-dominated technology sector.
Now based out of American Express’ New York City office, she remains actively involved in the programme – nominating subsequent winners and taking on a role as judge and sponsor. Here, she shares her feelings around winning, the importance of diversity in technology, and how every hard-working woman should nominate themselves for an everywoman Award. Nominations have now closed for 2017 Awards but you can still get involved.
You joined American Express’ UK-based graduate training programme in 1991, and 25 years on you’re Vice President of Consumer and Commercial Lending Technology in New York. What factors have enabled you to go on such a fantastic journey and be so successful?
Thinking back to when I embarked on my career, I didn’t have a grand plan for how I wanted it to go. I was just determined – and still am – to be the best I can possibly be. The fact that I’ve been able to achieve so much has a huge amount to do with the support I’ve received from the most important people in my life. My parents, husband and son are the centre of my world and my ambition has always been linked to wanting to give my family a great life. Like many women, I found it challenging to juggle motherhood with my career – there’d be times when my son was needing attention while I was in the middle of a conference call - but having that support has enabled me to keep going and find a balance.
Then of course, there’s the support I’ve received from American Express, which feels very much like a second family. I have bad days like everyone else, but once I’m over the Monday morning blues, I feel so thankful to be part of such an amazing company. American Express has done so much for me and I have a strong desire to give back. I’m passionate about every new product we launch, becoming very un-British as I race around the office in excitement. And I’m equally passionate about ensuring others are as satisfied to work here and feel as able to succeed as I do. It’s the mark you leave on others – whether that’s coaching them towards a promotion or inspiring them to achieve their dreams – that’s the true mark of success.
You were named Leader of the Year at the 2014 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. How did that feel?
It was one of the three highlights of my life – absolutely up there with getting married and having my son. I will never forget that feeling of sitting in the room, wondering if my name would be called.
I had a real entourage – my parents, husband, son and best friends were there, as well as my boss and many of the women I’d mentored at American Express. It was incredibly nerve-wracking and I was convinced I wouldn’t win; it might come as a surprise but I don’t have enormous amounts of self-confidence and I know there were people in that room far cleverer than me. I’d turned up late to judging day with ruined hair thanks to bad traffic and pouring rain, and it was amazing that I even got through to the final. Then they started describing the winner and I thought, “This sounds a bit like me!” Next thing I know, my dad – who never cries - was sobbing on my shoulder. To be acknowledged by your peers in a roomful of talented women is just incredible.
Our Awards programmes often set winning women on a journey, giving them a platform to do even greater things. Was that the case for you?
Most definitely. Up until the Award, helping other women progress was something I’d naturally been drawn to alongside my day job. But being so publically acknowledged for that work drew this passion to the attention of the wider company. For example, recently I was asked to lead the diversity agenda across our Technology division.
The Award was also great for the company as a whole. What better way to show young girls and women that American Express – which has gone on to sponsor the Software Engineer of the Year category - is a place where they can have a great, varied and successful career in IT? In that sense, winning – and all the recognition and publicity that went with it – enabled me to give back to American Express for everything they’d done for me.
You went a step further in ‘giving back’ – nominating your colleague Vanessa Hackett for an Award in 2016…
I was so excited to be able to nominate her, and even more excited to see her win Team Leader of the Year. Vanessa had worked for me for a number of years and her journey is even more incredible than mine: starting out as an Executive Assistant and rising to Vice President in 18 years. She’s made some amazing changes for her team and everything she’s achieved has been through sheer hard work, determination and a willingness to take on new challenges. She’s a true role model. And of course, in 2015 another great American Express role model, Marit Thowsen, won Team Leader of the Year.
Being a senior leader and holding an everywoman Award comes with a big responsibility. Do you feel that in your day-to-day working life?
Absolutely. When you’re in a leadership position, people are watching you: what you say and do has a huge impact. I know just how much of an impact my leaders are capable of having on me, so I’m very conscious of how I influence how others can feel about their work and their careers.
The overwhelming sense I get from the people who work for me is that they want me to succeed. That’s a wonderful feeling, and I’m very conscious that I have to reflect that back. The people doing the real work – the engineers coding our systems – need the right environment to work in. When we get that right, the organisation succeeds, so it’s crucial I use my authority wisely and in a way that leaves people inspired and motivated.
What would you say to someone who’s having doubts about nominating themselves or a colleague for an everywoman Award?
You don’t have to be a genius to win one of these Awards. I come from a very ordinary background; I went to a very ordinary school. I was just lucky enough to meet someone inspirational who set me on a path to a great career in IT. If you’ve made a difference to your business, or to others along the journey, you should put yourself forward for an Award. Even if you don’t consider yourself a role model, others might. Nothing bad will come out of putting yourself out there, but potentially something really great could. You’ve nothing to lose.
You’re involved in many initiatives to encourage young girls into STEM subjects and careers. When you’re faced with a roomful of girls unsure about a career in technology, what do you say?
If someone had told me I’d spend my life having a wonderful career in IT, I’d have thought they were insane. At school, whilst I was good at Maths and Science, my real interest was in English and History. I had very little interest in computers, even though my dad made me have one. Yet as soon as I became involved in IT at American Express, I immediately felt at home.
Why was that? Well, there is an image that those in Technology work in isolation from others. But it’s not like that at all. If you like a challenge, if you enjoy being creative, if you want to solve problems in a team and interact with people on a daily basis, come and work in Technology. Don’t be put off by the thought of being one of the few girls in the room either – I have been, and I can promise that it absolutely does not mean you can’t progress or make a difference.
But perhaps the most important point of all is that the industry needs you. I’ve had teams working for me that are heavily male, others heavily female, and others – like the one I have now, that are mixed. I’ve seen the difference diversity makes to the breadth of thoughts and ideas; it’s in that mix that you get the best results.
Finally, for anyone who makes it through to the finals, what’s your hot tip for nailing their thank you speech?
Speak from the heart. That’s what I did. And enjoy it – it’s a glorious moment.