Technology and Innovation Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Sheridan Ash is the founder of the Tech She Can charter, an initiative to inspire more young women into tech careers. She joined us for an everywomanLeadership webinar to talk about ‘stepping beyond limitation’. It’s her career MO, and one that has made her a successful business woman, an everywomanAmbassador and a powerful diversity champion. Here are our six favourite takeaways from her inspirational story…
Determination can win over IQ
Having left school at 16 with dyslexia and no qualifications, Sheridan lacked confidence, but not ambition. ‘I’m a very determined person, and to me that’s more important than having the highest IQ,’ she says. She embarked on a successful modelling career and after becoming a single mother, decided to return to education, studying for a degree in psychological sciences. ‘I found some help for my dyslexia, and frankly, once I’d cracked how my brain worked, nothing held me back,’ she says.
Following her degree, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry, before returning again to the challenge of the education system to take an MBA at Imperial College Business School. It was another bold decision in a long line of choices to not let her dyslexia or other people’s opinions define her. ‘I hadn't even done O-Level maths let alone masters’ level maths, which is what I ended up having to do! I lobbied Imperial College to allow me on the course, because...there wasn’t a hope I was going to get a good score [on the entrance tests] with my dyslexia because I was so slow.’ She would go on to have a ‘fantastic’ MBA experience (though admits she ‘cried an awful lot’), and won an award for work conducted while on work experience for Tesco.
Once you’ve found your core talent, there’s no stopping you
Sheridan’s studies sparked her interest in technology and innovation and convinced her it was the career path she wanted to follow. But without relevant qualifications, she instead began a role at Accenture, which was leading a national programme for the UK’s National Health Service at the time, on account of her pharmaceutical background. She was then able to pivot into a technology role, again falling back on her innate strengths.
‘Because I wasn't naturally good at academic stuff when I was younger, and I wanted to be good at something, I really learned to listen to what people said and to see things from their perspective. I think that helped me to develop really good relationship-building skills, because if you really listen to what people are saying and always give others the opportunity to be, you get the insights. My relationship-building abilities and my ability to see complex situations and to be able to convert technology into business language easily and quickly so people could understand it helped me to be successful,” she says.
Build yourself a cheerleading squad – and be a cheerleader for others
Sponsors, who’ve appreciated her value and sponsored her far and wide, has been critical to Sheridan’s. ‘Both women and men need to cheerlead women and be ambassadors. The majority of cheerleaders I’ve had in my career have been men, which is not really a surprise as tech is a male-dominated industry. But these men have always tapped me on the shoulder and told me I'm better than I think I am and that I can do this.’
She would move to her current organisation, PwC after one of her supporters at Accenture was hired there and invited her to follow. When bosses and leaders praise us, we must cherish those words, says Sheridan: ‘[My present boss], he said to me, “Sheridan, you're capable of brilliance.” And I like to remind myself of that because it helps to give me confidence – and I still lack confidence sometimes now, as we all do.’
Get proactive in your drive for diversity
For Sheridan, ‘paying it forward’ is about being active in your support – going above and beyond the role of a mentor, and really working to create structures to help the next generation. As she rose to senior leadership at PwC she began to see clear diversity issues and looked for opportunities to challenge the status quo.
She went to her leadership team with ideas on how PwC could attract, retain and advance women in technology roles, eventually establishing the Women in Technology initiative which lead to the company doubling the number of women in tech roles over six years.
But Sheridan also had her eye on the wider, more systemic problems in technology. Only 3% of young women consider tech as their first career choice, and relatable female role models are thin on the ground in many corners of the industry. Research commissioned by Sheridan demonstrated that when girls think about subjects they want to take at school and university, it’s often connected to how they can use them to have a positive impact on society. Her passion and insights lead to the launch of the Tech She Can Charter in 2018, a commitment that has grown to include 158 organisations dedicated to inspiring girls to consider tech careers.
See your vulnerability as a strength
Sheridan shares her unconventional story with real pride. As a role model for ‘doing it your own way’ she inspires and galvanises young women to be honest and to find and value their own unique skills and contributions in the tech space and beyond. Reframing the challenges of her dyslexia, she created a formidable superpower. ‘My brain works in a unique way – and I learned to appreciate that, and still do because it allows me to see things differently,’ she says.
She believes that her willingness to show vulnerability is a mark of strength. ‘When I was younger, I would have hidden it or been anxiety-driven and put on an act,’ she says. ‘Now I’m vulnerable and I show it to my team, and I share – not every little thing, of course, but sharing things with your team and your family makes all the difference. By discussing it, I find we instantly and simply support each other.’
Everyone will have a career in technology
We need to expand our idea of what a career in technology is for the simple fact that technology will touch everyone’s career, says Sheridan. ‘Technology is completely shaping everything in our personal and private lives.’
And that doesn’t mean we’re all going to be coding or writing algorithms: ‘I hope [my story] highlights that anyone can have a career in technology. If somebody who left school with no qualifications and dyslexia and has never had formal technology training can learn how to be a technologist on the job as I did, anybody can do it.’
Get closer to female role models in business on more upcoming everywomanLeadership Series webinars on the everywomanNetwork.