Louise O’Sullivan: How to be a CEO, mother and one of the top 50 women in European technology

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We are pleased this week to talk to Louise O’Sullivan, CEO of ANAM Technologies Ltd, a proud mother of 4 who successfully manages parenthood and a great career, including being nominated as one of today’s top 50 most inspiring women in European technology!

We hear about Louise’s rich and interesting career, her experience, feelings and views on leading a company and the world of business, how equal opportunities and parity fit into this and her vision as CEO, the choices she had to make to get to the position she holds today, and how she combines this so successfully with motherhood.

Your success:

Where and how did your career begin?

I have been working since I left school because training in Hotel Management requires you to do it in a practical way as well at theoretically.

I started in Telecoms/tech in 1995 in a company called Aldiscon in Dublin and it was the halcyon days of tech start up and it was very exciting and fun. I started in marketing and worked through a number of departments in the company covering bid management, project and account management. I applied the same principles I had learnt in Hotels to get to understand how everything works. You ask questions and use your initiative to improve things or make things happen.

Everyone, including the industry was learning then so it was a good time to get into telecoms and tech for someone like me who had no technical qualification.

Was it an easy progression?

Easy is not an expression I would ever use to describe anything I have ever done. I have always pursued the more challenging road. The buzz and excitement of telecoms and tech was quite intoxicating at that time and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to move into it.

You trained originally at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, so quite a change – Why the fascination with IT/Tech?

I always wanted to be an engineer but wasn’t very enthusiastic about applying myself academically. I am more a worker than a student. I learn on the job.

When I was growing up I was the one in the house who always knew how all the technology worked (bearing in mind the limited availability at that point) but we had early computers (VIC 20 and Commodor 64) and I spent hours and hours on them figuring out how to make them do what I wanted. So technology was always in my sphere and it never fazed me and still doesn’t.

I see technology as an incredibly valuable tool that can benefit everyone especially women and children and that can therefore effect entire communities and societies.

Has the balance / imbalance between men and women affected you?

Not in the early days of my career because I don’t think I really noticed it and I am sure there were a lot more women (who were pre kids) in 1995 who had just come out of college and were being swept up by all the companies looking for an educated engineering workforce in Ireland at the time. There were definitely no women in decision making roles at that point. Telecoms and tech were that bastion of maleness on the business side, but it was kind of the Mad Men days of technology.

It was in coming back after having had my family and understanding the immense challenges that women face trying to get back into their chosen career whilst being a parent, and being valued, that I really started to take note and I realised how little had changed within those 20 years.

Tell us more about your company and how you turned it around?

I turned the company around over the last 3 years as part of an incredible team of committed and exceptional people both internally in the company but also through the support and guidance I received from my investors and mentors. So whilst I led the charge, the credit for the success is definitely shared amongst us all.

A lot of companies in Ireland, following the recession, in our space were struggling. We had all of the components but needed some leadership and strategic direction.

The reason I stuck with it was because of the amazing people involved. We have exceptional technology and expertise that deserved a platform and the market was just beginning to evolve itself so we could build on it.

Your opinion and your advice:

The Inspiring 50 is a wonderful initiative, congratulations on being one of the top 50 women in technology!  Do you believe this initiative and others like it will help improve acceptance of women at the top and relegate gender discrimination to the past?

I was so honoured to have been included in the Top 50 in Europe. What I particularly like about this initiative is it is pan European. I have travelled the world speaking to women and we all have the same issues professionally, it Is a borderless issue.

The objective is definitely to relegate gender discrimination to a thing of the past, the speed at which it happens is the question. You are talking about changing perceptions that are age old and that is not an easy thing to accomplish, but as I said at the beginning, I rarely do things because they are easy, but because I believe in them.

It is also important to recognise that it isn’t always men who discriminate against women, we are often our own worst enemies and I am often horrified by how some women fail to back their fellow woman or actively disrupt them.

So what would be your advice to women hoping to advance in their career?

Be clear in your objectives but be flexible in the route to them. Don’t look at other women (or men) and think they have it sussed. Chances are they are feeling as insecure as you, they just don’t look it (you look the same way to them ;))

Make sure if you have children that you have the support structures at home so that you are not crushed by the emotional intensity of homelife and the stress of work. DO NOT FEEL GUILTY that you work and DO NOT LET ANYONE ELSE make you feel guilty. Including your children and especially your partner (if there is one). Children seeing their mothers pursuing their ambitions and contributing to the workplace gives them a great instruction.

I have often been asked if my children like me working? My response is ‘no, but they don’t like going to school either, switching off the xbox, eating their greens, going to bed when when they should, brushing their teeth or washing their hands’, so I am often considered about my children’s ‘bah humbug’ approach to my career.

One more piece of advice, find an unemotional mentor or sponsor who you can talk to who will lift you when you need it (male or female, in or out of the industry).

What, for you, are the obstacles and prejudices that you might encounter as a working woman?

Biggest obstacles for working women are pay package and promotion.

It is incredible we still haven’t universally fixed this.

In the US women get 78% of what a man earns for the same role. The stats in relation to this across the globe are unending and alarming.

Many women still believe that if they stand up for themselves, it will backfire on them. What are your thoughts?

There is a truth in that, but what, as women, we don’t appreciate is that it often backfires for men also. They just don’t take it to heart the way we do. What we would often describe as bullying, most men accept it as a matter of course and wouldn’t analyse it in the way we do, they just move on.

This is one of the key issues for gender parity. The corporate model is designed for masculine behaviour (for clarity, masculine behaviour is not exclusive to men but is predominately observed in men). Most women don’t or do not want to be masculine in order to get ahead, so we are looking to change to foundation of corporate behaviour to welcome more feminized behaviour, which doesn’t happen over night (for clarity, feminized behaviour is not exclusive to women but is predominately observed in women)

Motherhood – and maternity leave etc – can throw a spanner in the works, though. Do you think employers still hesitate to hire women because of this?

For me, it is the crux of my objective in getting involved in the Womens agenda. Unless we change the attitude and behaviour around motherhood and maternity this is just a talking shop and it is a nettle I very rarely see grasped.

In discussing a fruitful and fulfilling career for women we have to acknowledge that the years during which one defines and optimises their future success on the career timeline is the 30/40’s. These years also coincide with when most women chose to tend to their biological clock because it has a finite tick (there is also a correlation between this time and the point at which the gender pay gap widens for women).

So the question for me, is how do we reframe womens careers so that they can still participate in one of the most defining features of many humans lives, that of being a parent, and still be a confident and valuable resource to the workplace and fulfil their own ambitions.

When women leave tech/telecoms for the corridors of motherhood, it is widely accepted that they can’t take too long out or they are no longer current or relevant to the industry. If they do return they invariably have to do a full time job on a part time package (because there is no such thing as a part time job, just a full time job condensed into half the time for less pay, so we are penalised for efficiency) and the anecdotal evidence of women being passed over for promotion at that point is striking.

If we can address this, and see parenthood as an asset on a CV I believe the workplace will become richer for the workforce that is attracted back.

The future and changes in attitude:

What differences exist for the younger generation and their opportunities for the future?

I think this debate will make a difference. The suffragette movement was in place for a very long time before women got the vote. I also have a firmly held view that one of the most substantial changes that will effect the next generation is fathers being more proactive and positive and confident as parents.

I know it sounds like an odd correlation but we teach our children through our example, and in my home our children see my husband responsible for the house as much as I am and me being as much responsible for the family bills as he is. This is what parity is, a balance. Not just of gender but of responsibilities and breaking down the received wisdom of the last generation.

To be clear, we don’t have it completely right in our homelife, but we strive for it

Ireland seems to be a very progressive country, open and supportive to parity/equal opportunities, would you agree with this?

It is and per capita it has a great representation but similar problems exist as elsewhere in the world. However I think Irish women are incredibly industrious and whilst sexism is rife the Irish women in industry that I know never let it taint their ambition for success.

Have you noticed a big difference in attitude between different countries and cultures on this topic?

Not really. It seems to be the same in Asia, Europe, Africa everywhere. Women are desperately underrepresented at all levels but especially decision making levels and women are terrified of the motherhood/maternity discussion because it weakens their position.

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Louise started her career in telecoms in Aldiscon in 1995, working across the business to help deploy its, then, ground-breaking SMSC technology in Europe and Asia. When the company was bought by Logica in 1997, Louise led the service delivery business in the UK market. In 1999, Louise left Logica to found Anam with the goal of developing a business based on intelligent enterprise SMS technology, and quickly raised €2m in seed capital. Louise left Anam in 2003 to start her family and in 2012 she returned to lead a major restructuring of the company. In the years out of Telecoms Louise also set up and ran a restaurant, a music business and a media company.  Louise gained her initial training in business from the internationally recognised Shannon School of Hotel Management in Ireland, to which she owes her commitment to high standards, hard work and customer service.

You can contact Louise on:

twitter:  @ANAM_tech

LinkedIn: Anam Technologies Ltd

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