Girls Talk London: Diversifying the telco pipeline
Natalie Bannerman talks to Girls Talk London CEO Vanessa Sanyauke on the organisation’s new Step UP accelerator and the challenges of diversity and inclusion global telcos face
This January saw BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media O2 and HSBC UK partner with Girls Talk London, an organisation dedicated to addressing the under-representation of women in the workplace, in launching a technology talent accelerator called Step UP.
Founded in 2013, Girls Talk London (GTL) has quickly become a name that that should be familiar to those working to bridge the gender divide across the telecoms and technology sector. Today it is a global community of more than 40,000 that has helped more than 5,400 women advance in their careers through its programmes and events.
GTL’s founder and CEO, Vanessa Sanyauke, says the organisation started out as a project, born out of a need that has grown and expanded over time.
While she says she developed her career with the help of “friend-tors” – other women, usually peers, who she saw as inspiring and successful, that she could turn to for advice or help with problems regarding work – she never had the black female mentor she always wanted. She believes they had to put so much effort into “trying to navigate their own challenges of being the only female in the boardroom”, they were unable to help others.
Sanyauke says that is changing now, as her generation is more open and more able to support other women coming up the career ladder. “We’re more transparent about salaries and negotiations and sharing jobs, and opportunities,” she says. But a few short years ago, working in the City was unappealing for young women.
“I was working in the City for an NGO, and we were working with young people and City businesses. I saw that when we tried to encourage young women to look at jobs in finance they were opting out, saying, ‘There’s no place for me, there’s no women here’.”
Many of these women turned to careers in industries such as healthcare, hospitality or beauty instead, believing they were a better fit for them.
“I felt like this was a really big problem, because careers in the financial services, were really going to be great for women, but they were opting out,” Sanyauke says.
So Sanyauke began reaching out to some female managing directors and CEOs to talk to some young girls. This grew into quarterly meetups, regular Q&A panels, all the way to the various talent programmes and global events that GTL now provides, including the recently announced 2022 Black Girls Tech Summit taking place in November.
“Over the years, we’ve had companies come to us and ask us to help them recruit more women to engage more females with their content. So GTL grew from just seeing a gap and the problem that needed addressing,” says Sanyauke.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone gets it when it comes to GTL. Sanyauke says that while some of the organisation’s long-term clients “truly believe in what we’re doing”, others take a while to really understand what GTL does, before coming on board and being willing to invest in it. But primarily, they don’t see the issue of women not entering the tech industry as a business challenge.
“Some people think of GTL as just a ‘nice thing to do’ or ‘let’s just help the girls’, but actually it’s going to hit their bottom line,” says Sanyauke. “This is a business challenge. This is not a charity. They are really going to be impacted if they don’t make sure that their pipeline is diverse.”
Sanyauke says the best way to deal with this issue is to focus on the companies that do get what GTL is doing, rather than the ones that don’t. Such likeminded companies include BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media O2 and HSBC UK, which are participating in the Step UP accelerator programme.
Step UP is a virtual six-month programme taking place between January and June this year, aimed at female university students in the UK and Ghana who are pursuing a career in technology.
The scheme will provide 88 women with access to professionals and skills development training to support their career goals.
Kerry Small, commercial and digital sales director of Vodafone Business, is one of Step UP’s champions. She described the programme as “a fantastic development opportunity to support and motivate young women to pursue their ambitions of working in technology”.
Similarly, BT’s digital enablement director, Sara Heaven said that Step Up was a “brilliant initiative” that builds on BT’s “ongoing partnership” with GTL.
Meanwhile, Jeanie York, chief technology officer at Virgin Media O2 cited the adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” as the reason her company is supporting the accelerator.
According to Sanyauke, Step UP came out of Step into STEM, a seven-month mentoring programme for young women in their first year of sixth form and studying STEM subjects.
This initiative was funded by O2, BT, Vodafone and Ericsson. It provided mentors for 186 girls, some of whom went onto further education at global institutions such as MIT and Oxford University, or took on roles at Virgin Media O2 and BT.
Following this, GTL wanted to create a programme that targeted young women who were at a critical stage in their career: preparing to apply for graduate jobs to enter the workplace.
“We started to work on this with our long-term partners Vodafone, Virgin Media O2 and BT. Just having conversations with them about how to fill this gap, we realised the best way to do this is to work with university students,” Sanyauke says.
As well as supporting young women to get STEM-based jobs, Step UP also aims to help them “step up” their skills and networks, to improve their chances of getting a position with a telcos sponsoring the programme or others in the space.
The decision to include Ghana in Step UP came from two Black Girls Tech Summit events receiving overwhelming responses from young women in the sub-Saharan country and Vodafone’s extensive presence there.
Skills and culture gaps
With her years of experience working with and within the telecoms sector, Sanyauke has seen the challenges telcos face as they attempt to follow their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies.
“One of biggest challenges is around the competition for talent,” she says. “You’ve got a lot of these household ‘sexy’ brands, such as Amazon, Meta or Google, that a lot of Generation Z gravitate to.
“Tech in general is really emerging now, so you’ve also got a lot of financial services companies building out massive global tech functions. And they’re all trying to compete for talent.”
The competition for talent is driven by a skills gap that means young people at college level who are pursuing STEM careers are hot commodities. But to attract them, companies must understand them. And many do not.
“Generation Z’s values are very different to those of the Baby Boomers who are at C-suite level,” Sanyauke says. “So companies have to ensure they can compete in attracting talent from this small pool, while also encouraging more young people to study STEM subjects, so that in 20 to 30 years’ time we’ll have enough talent for this major sector.”
As for the race and gender aspects of D&I, Sanyauke says that although women only make up 26.7% of all jobs in the technology sector, black women only hold 1% of such jobs in the UK. In the US the figure is roughly 1.5%. She says the solution to this lies in employers raising awareness of their brand so potential employees know who they and what they do, but also why they are important in the space.
“What some of the telcos have as a big advantage is their global footprint. Take Vodafone: if you’re a Gen-Zer who wants to travel, they’ve got a massive presence in Europe and in Africa,” Sanyauke says. “So telcos can sell interest on the love for travel some Gen Z’s have, saying that ‘we’re not sexy tech companies that have donut rooms in their offices, but we’ve got global footprints, so you can travel and work in different markets’.”
Global opportunities combined with early engagement, working with new and innovative tech, and the stability and longevity that most telcos enjoy, could be the winning formula that attracts and retains graduates.
During the next 12 months, GTL
aims to grow its team significantly, the number of corporates it works with, and expand internationally.
Sanyauke says it will also be developing products that use tech as an enabler.
“We were pretty much London-centric,” she says, but the pandemic saw GTL go “global overnight in terms of our reach. Now that we’ve got women in 37 countries who can access our services, we’ve been thinking about how to use tech to reach more women.”
Sanyauke says that doing this requires raising investment, to enable GTL to “build up products that will enable us to provide a really good service to our talent, community and corporate partners”.