Female Technology Leaders: Sophie Cunningham

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In the fast-paced world of digital transformation, female leaders are setting new standards and inspiring future generations. Our content manager, Sanjana Aggarwal, had the opportunity to speak with Sophie Cunningham, Head of Digital Transformation at Fortnum and Mason. Sophie shared her career journey, her passion for technology, and her thoughts on promoting diversity in the tech industry.

 

Sanjana Aggarwal: Sophie, could you start by telling us about your role at Fortnum and Mason?

Sophie Cunningham: Certainly! I'm based in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, just outside London. At Fortnum and Mason, I look after digital transformation, particularly anything related to backend systems. This includes supply chain, commercial systems like buying, ranging, and pricing, as well as essential services such as finance, HR, IT, and cybersecurity. I've been with Fortnum and Mason for about 18 months now. Before that, I worked at Ocado for five years, initially focusing on demand management in the UK business and later on international solutions.

 

What drew you to a career in technology?

I've always loved science and maths. The hands-on aspect of science, where you're solving real problems both theoretically and practically, fascinated me. That's why I got into chemistry initially. However, as I progressed, I realised the potential of technology to solve complex, real-world problems. I found the combination of data and tangible outcomes particularly appealing, which led me towards tech roles where I could apply my problem-solving skills.

 

Is there a specific area within technology that you particularly enjoy?

I really enjoyed working in manufacturing because it's fast-paced and you can see the impact of your changes almost immediately. One of my early jobs involved optimising the PLC code for bagging satsumas. The amount of precision and effort that goes into such processes is fascinating. It’s about understanding the physical world and using data to make it more efficient.

 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in technology, and how have you overcome them?

Generally, my experience as a woman in tech has been positive. However, in some of the more traditionally male-dominated areas, like hard manufacturing, there were moments of initial scepticism from male colleagues. Proving my competence quickly dispelled these doubts. It's about gently reminding people of your capabilities and not letting unconscious biases deter you.

 

What has been your biggest achievement in your career so far?

Building a diverse and high-performing team at Ocado was a significant achievement. The team included people from various backgrounds and expertise. Turning this diverse group into a cohesive, efficient team was immensely rewarding. Seeing team members grow and advance in their careers, some even taking over my previous roles, is something I'm very proud of.

 

Do you have any diversity and inclusion (DE&I) strategies that you could share?

Encouraging a culture that is blind to biases is crucial. Anonymising CVs and carefully reviewing job descriptions to eliminate unintentional biases are good practices. Physical disability is an area where we still face challenges and need to focus more efforts. Ensuring that our workplaces are truly inclusive and accessible for everyone is essential.

 

Who has been a mentor to you, and how have they influenced your career?

I've had fantastic mentors. One is Coletta, a family friend who worked in the mining industry and now consults in HR. Another is Duncan Kendall, who ran large supply chain operations. Both have been instrumental in my career, offering straightforward advice and grounding me with their vast experience.

 

Could you tell us about the major projects you are working on at the moment?

 

One major project is around forecasting. We're implementing an advanced forecasting and supply chain integrated stock system to transform our buying and merchandising processes. Another exciting project is our international strategy, expanding Fortnum and Mason's presence in the EU and other markets. We're enhancing our international proposition to offer a better shopping experience globally.

 

How do you stay on top of industry trends?

Staying curious is key. I listen to podcasts, read industry magazines, and set my internet startup tabs to relevant news websites. This keeps me informed about the latest developments and trends in the industry.

 

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Having a fulfilling life outside of work is crucial. Engaging with family, hobbies, and social activities helps me maintain balance. I also believe in trusting my team and delegating effectively. Observing that the most successful people in business don't necessarily work around the clock reinforces the importance of a balanced approach.

 

What advice would you give to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM?

Making science and technology fun and accessible from a young age is vital. Parents and educators should encourage girls to explore STEM subjects and protect them from negative stereotypes. Highlighting the exciting and rewarding aspects of STEM careers can inspire more young women to pursue these fields.

 

To women I’d say, embrace being the odd one out. It's a strength. There are amazing role models for women in tech. Stand out, prove yourself, and use your unique perspective to your advantage. The tech industry needs diverse voices and talents.

 

Read more about our STEM pledge here

 

As our recruitment partner, how can we better support Fortnum and Mason in bridging the gap for women in tech?

Focus on boosting the confidence of female candidates during interviews. Many women, especially those returning from a career break, tend to be overly apologetic about their circumstances. Encouraging them to feel confident about their capabilities and life choices is crucial. Also, creating a supportive and understanding work environment that values diverse experiences is important.

Through her journey and insights, Sophie Cunningham exemplifies the impact and importance of female technology leaders. Her dedication to fostering diversity and innovation continues to inspire and shape the tech industry.

 

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