Posted on January 13 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is the fantastic Nicki Sprinz: mother, Business Director at award-winning digital product studio ustwo, and co-founder of Ada's List, an international community support group for women in tech. Here's her story:
Newnham: What were you like growing up?
Sprinz: I was the eldest of three – makes you feel like the guinea pig at times, but also responsible in a funny way. I was terrible at music despite attempting to learn the piano and the flute, but I did discover a love of art and particularly sculpture and ended up working as an assistant pottery teacher as a teenager. We didn’t really watch TV as kids, my parents weren’t fans, and I remember having to make a case to watch Neighbours so that I wasn’t socially excluded in senior school, as I had no idea what anyone was talking about!
Newnham: What do you do now?
Sprinz: I’ve had a varied career via journalism, and health information in NHS, before landing in product development. Currently I work at ustwo, – a digital product studio that is based in New York, Malmo, Sydney and also London. I’m the Business Director there, which means I get to help clients solve business challenges and support teams in bringing new products to market. ustwo is an amazing company, and I feel lucky every morning that I get to go into work there.
Most recently I’ve been working with a brilliant team to create a mental health app, called Moodnotes, to support people in managing their emotional well-being. It’s incredibly rewarding to get user feedback and know that you’re making a positive difference to people's everyday lives.
Newnham: As one of the Ada’s List founders, what’s your mission, and goals for 2016?
Sprinz: Ada’s List has been an incredible journey for us all. Merici, Anjali, Rosa and I all shared a desire to create a community that could offer support and advice to women working in technology but we never imagined it would grow so quickly or attract such a diverse and talented group of women from across the globe.
Two years later we’re focussing on being more than just supportive – we want to make a real dent in the under-representation of women at all levels within the technology industry. We’re asking all members to commit to changing their workplaces to make them work for everyone — irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, parental status, or any disability. Essentially, we’re asking our members to sign up to being agitators who really want to change the status quo. (There’s more information about what we’re doing on the Ada’s List Agenda here.)
Newnham: Last year, you wrote about why design and tech needs more women. How do you think we achieve this?
Sprinz: I don’t think there’s a simple answer. If I did, I’d definitely be tweeting it every day and putting it on posters all over town. Most industries are a long way from achieving gender parity, or an environment in which women don’t feel secondary to the men. There’s a wonderful piece written by Siri Husvedt on what it’s like being a female writer in what is still essentially a man’s literary world.
But I digress. One of the many reasons we founded Ada’s List was to create a network of role models for women starting early in their career – it’s hard to aspire to be a leader in an industry (design and technology) where role models are few and far between. I do think networks for women are a great start at chipping away at the problem, and women should avail themselves of every opportunity to meet new people.
Ultimately it’s about what organisations can do to change the situation, as well as what individuals can do to improve opportunities for themselves. I strongly believe business owners and directors have to acknowledge there’s an industry-wide problem and start a conversation about it within their workplace.
And sometimes that means answering uncomfortable questions: Are there clear paths for progression for women in your company? Are women represented at senior levels in your company? Do women have the opportunity to influence the direction of your company? Do women have voting rights on your board, or equity in your company? (Although your question was about women, I’d hope that founders and company directors would apply these questions to people of ethnic and other minorities also.) If the answer to one, if not all, of these questions is no, then investing time (and external expertise) to change the status quo is a no-brainer. Ultimately it doesn’t make business sense not to have women represented in teams and at a board level because it has been proven, time and time again, that businesses with a diverse workforce, and women on boards, perform better. So there’s a clear financial imperative for companies, even if they’re willing to ignore the moral one.
For individuals, I think it’s much harder – a lot of the time we’re grappling with ingrained unconscious biases. It’s not always as simple as leaning in, as appealing as the mantra sounds. Sure, you have to roll up your sleeves, get in there, be brave, and ask for what you want or need. I definitely subscribe to the philosophy of don’t ask permission – just do it, and beg for forgiveness later if you need to. But I also think it’s OK to say, "It’s not working out here for me, I’m going to leave." There will be others who recognise your value. I’ve definitely had times in my career where I felt sidelined because of my gender, and times where I’ve felt really frustrated about my inability to improve the situation. You do your best to change the situation, but if the love is gone, I think it’s OK to move on.
Finding a good mentor, and a sponsor can really help women. The first being someone who can act as your guide and coach in your chosen career, and the second, someone who is invested in you, the individual, and will point out opportunities and even nominate you for roles or speaking opportunities. I was lucky to have two incredible female bosses early in my career ~ Nicola Jeal who was then Associate Editor of the Observer, and Sally McPherson, Web Manager for NHS Health Scotland. They both gave me the freedom to discover and fail on my own, and I recognise it was invaluable. Women should look for companies where you can see women’s careers have blossomed and there’s evidence of female leadership – it’s definitely easier to flourish when the cards aren’t stacked against you.
Finally, I think if you’re lucky enough to progress in an industry where women leaders are rare, then you have to hold the door open for those on the way up. Women need other women to help change the situation on their behalf. Make the time to mentor, have coffee, offer advice, reply to tweets, be empathetic to other women, insist on interviewing and recruiting talented women, and remember how hard you had to fight to get there. And keep talking about the issue – in the end, others will listen, and hopefully be inspired to support a change.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice, if any, would you offer a younger Nicki?
- Perfectionism is overrated – sometimes just good enough is all you need.
- Learn to negotiate better – if you don’t know how to value yourself, how will others?
- Be kinder to yourself, we’re all our own worst critics.
- Enjoy the journey, and be good to those you meet on the way.
Nicki on Twitter / Ada's List / Moodnotes / Ada's List in Fortune