Nadya Powell: Tech City’s one-woman whirlwind

Women make up pretty much half of the population and nearly half of the workforce, but they are still woefully under-represented in the tech world. I met up with Nadya Powell, MD of MRY UK, to hear what she and her peers are doing to redress the balance.

The highlight of Internet Week

It’s Friday morning, the last day of Internet Week, and Nadya Powell has just hosted an ‘Innovation Date’ event at BL-NK, a new social/digital space in Old Street sponsored by Hackney Council. She’s suffering from sleep deprivation following a non-stop week of events, but is keen to share her thoughts about the London tech community, women’s role in tech and ‘that horribly flabby word – innovation’.

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

“There’s a really nice vibe and sense of community to Internet Week,” she says. “My highlight was seeing a presentation by a small agency called Vitamins at the kick off event at Google Campus. They talked about their work designing mobile phones for the elderly. It was really delightful because they realised that older people don’t need big buttons or an SOS option, they just find it hard to work out how to use their phones. So they redesigned the packaging and made it simple for people to find out how to carry out typical tasks, like accessing their contacts.”

ADD and getting ahead in tech

MRY is long-established in the US, where it’s well known for its work for Coca Cola, Sony, Microsoft and the American Presidency. (It created – a site that encouraged Americans to vote for a President, not a party.)

The company has been in London for nine months, and has its headquarters in Brick Lane. As MD, Nadya takes care of a team of 25 people. “I’m the most senior person here,” she says, “and the buck stops with me. I’m responsible for products, clients and creative work.”

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

Nadya admits that she got into this career more by accident than design. “The only common theme throughout my career is I’ve always been really interested in technology and I love new things. I have ADD. When you go into the tech space, you find so many people just cannot stay engrossed in things if it’s not a bit shiny and new.  But what really got me interested was back in 2000 when I decided I wanted to move into the tech space. So I took myself off to college and taught myself to code. When I started to build little web sites – very badly – using Flash and Photoshop, I realised this was an industry I wanted to stay in forever.”

The importance of starting young

Like many women in tech, Nadya was lucky to be encouraged in her interest from a young age. She explains: “I was one of a group of children who were asked to trial educational computer games developed by the BBC. You had to follow the instructions using a mouse or a keyboard. I also had a computer from a young age, which was unusual, considering I’m quite old. I remember making my own drawings using Microsoft Paint software. So I definitely had more of a techy upbringing than many women of my age.”

300sec_large42Where have all the women gone?  

Although women make up almost equal numbers of the workforce (currently 46%), the number of senior women in the tech industry is vanishingly small. Nadya describes how she’s seen the male/female ratio change over time. “When I first started working in tech, the ratio was about 50:50 men to women. But when I came back after my first maternity leave at the age of 31, I thought, ‘Whoah! Where are all the women in their 30s?’ And as I start to get frighteningly close to 40, there are literally a handful of us in this space in a senior role.”

For Nadya, the main barriers that are stopping women from staying in the tech workforce are the long hours and demanding nature of the work, which make it difficult to integrate work with home and family. She admits to sometimes getting together with the handful of “six or seven” senior women she knows in similar jobs and saying, “Yes, juggling work, friends, families, husbands and interests is really hard.”

“It’s a real challenge to retain more women in the industry,” she says. “Because how can we build things for the entire population if we’re not involved with the 50% of the population that are women?”

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada's List network

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada’s List network

Three organisations helping women

“If you look at the top creative directors of tech companies and agencies, they’re all men,” says Nadya. Luckily for future female techies, Nadya and her peers are using their considerable energy and enthusiasm to support the next generation of women in tech. She recommends checking out these three networking / support organisations.

She Says – a networking, mentoring inspirational framework where women can meet each other. Founded by Laura Jordan Bambach, Creative Director at Dare marketing agency and President of D&AD.

300 Seconds – lightning fast talks by the digital community, encouraging women to have their say and improve their presentation skills.

Ada’s List – set up by Anjali Ramachandran at PHD, Ada’s List helps raise the profiles of women who work in and around the internet.

Misconceptions about gaming

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you're a gamer

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you’re a gamer

Talking to Nadya, it becomes clear that there are some huge misconceptions about the nature of gaming today. We may think that gaming is mostly the province of teenagers holed up in darkened rooms, but an increasing number of gamers are now women.

“Thanks to mobile devices and social gaming, gaming has really taken off,” says Nadya. “Now 81% of the population regularly game and the majority of social gamers are women. If you asked a woman who’d spent four hours that week playing Candy Crush if she’s a gamer, she’d say no. But she absolutely is!”

As women are now such an important part of the gaming marketplace, it makes it even more vital to involve more women in the industry.

The changing face of Old Street

MRY is based in Brick Lane, an area that’s become the nerve centre for the creative and tech industries in recent years. “There’s such a sense of vibrancy around the Tech City area,” says Nadya. “There are so many accelerators based here, looking after small start ups, that the whole atmosphere has changed hugely.”

“It’s also fantastic what Hackney Council have been doing to foster this atmosphere. Like the space we’re in now, BL-NK. This is a joint initiative between Hackney and various local businesses to create a space for start ups and creative people to just drop in. I’m not sure how many other councils would have such a forward-thinking way of looking at how you increase investment and business growth in an area.”

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

What’s wrong with ‘innovation’?

Despite being a fan of the new, Nadya has been outspoken about her dislike of the word ‘innovation’, which she calls a ‘horrible flabby word’. What’s she got against it?

“Innovation is just the latest buzz word and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon, having Innovation Directors and Heads of Innovation and declaring that they’re an innovative company. It’s a shame because the word has been used in so many terrible ways that it’s lost any meaning. We had a session on this during the opening session at Google Campus. Mel Exon from BBH Labs said that innovation is about constantly adapting to change and every now and then saying, ‘OK, we’re going to go out on a limb and try this, and it’s going to be pretty terrifying, but we’re going to invest in it.’ And so words like ‘adapting’ and ‘disrupting’ start to feel a lot more meaningful than flabby old ‘innovation’.”

Future aspirations: winning Strictly

There’s still plenty left for Nadya to achieve. “One aspiration is to be on Strictly Come Dancing. I’ve got to be on it before I’m 50 because no one wins when they’re over 50. Apart from that, I would love to keep working in this space, to see more women in it, and to keep on supporting young women in tech. I’d also love to see social media adding to people’s lives rather than polluting it. The way brands use Facebook is so horribly embarrassing. I’d like to see brands and people talking together in more interesting ways.”

And with that, Nadja foxtrots off the yellow sofa at BL-NK, ready for the next challenge.