F equals for women on the rise

Zoe Cunningham

DANIELLE NEWNHAM

Posted on April 26 2017

This week, we talked to Zoe Cunningham ~ actress, presenter and MD of tech company Softwire ~ about how she got interested in tech, how she marries the different facets of her career, and why creativity is so important.

Newnham: What were you like as a kid? How your friends and family describe you?
Cunningham: I was very quiet as a child, and shy. I read an awful lot and would definitely have been described as bookish. When I went to senior school, I would read all the way to and from school, including walking to the station. I loved learning all kinds of new things - I remember once standing in the garden pretending to be a bush so that the butterflies would land on me.

Newnham: When did you first get excited about tech?
Cunningham: When my dad bought us a rubber keyed ZX Spectrum! My sister and I would patiently load up the games from the cassette player, listening to the weird squeaks. Then I discovered how to type programs in BASIC. I copied some in from computer magazines, but my proudest moment was making my own game completely from scratch using custom characters - you had to go round a maze and collect flowers, while avoiding the poisonous toadstools. Each level, the number of toadstools increased.

Newnham: Your career has followed both acting and tech - can you tell me more about your career to date and how you have managed the two different paths?
Cunningham: Although I loved drama and music as a child, I focused on maths and science in the sixth form and at university, and I let all my creative pursuits slide. After uni, I got a job as a programmer in a tech startup and worked my way up over 12 years to become MD. Then three years ago I read the fantastic book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and recovered my lost passion for acting. I went part-time in my tech job to study and work in theatre and film productions. Managing two very full-on careers is difficult, but worthwhile!

Newnham: As MD of a tech company, what excites/worries you about the way tech is going? 
Cunningham: My biggest learning from my career in tech is that everything is about people. The news is always saying that tech is changing this or doing that, but underneath it, people don't change and it's people that are important.

My biggest worry is that we have such plenty in the West and yet people are increasingly trapped into lives and lifestyles that don't really make them happy. Tech can help with this and hinder it. I'm a big fan of encouraging people to pursue their creative dreams and work part-time. As I explore my own creativity, I am coming to see that being creative is the most rewarding thing you can do in life, not acquiring possessions or status or eating in fancy restaurants (although I am partial to a fancy restaurant!).

Newnham: What advice have you got for other women starting/running businesses in tech?
Cunningham: Believe in yourself. Actually I don't think it's possible to just decide to believe in yourself so... Build a support network of people who believe in you and have done it before. There are loads of fantastic groups in London for tech and startups.

Set hard goals and metrics and face up to what it means if you don't hit them - a stitch in time saves nine and all that. Having said that, it's even more important to celebrate the positives. As human beings we tend to set our sights on a goal that we feel is barely achievable, and then we have developed and progressed so much by the time that we get there that it feels normal to have hit it, perhaps even unavoidable. Remember all the times you achieved something that amazed you, because you can use that as fuel to set your next goal even higher.

Newnham: What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career?
Cunningham: Be proactive. The school system in the UK instilled a kind of passiveness in me, where I expected to just get bumped up to the next level and so I focused on how I could do that while expending the least energy. You get out what you put in, and if you don't shape the direction of your life, you won't get what you want from it.

I had a personal revelation about this important of pro-activity while I was working remotely in Australia. I had been relying on my colleagues to solve my problems for me and suddenly they were all asleep! I had to invest the time to solve my own problems, but by doing so I learnt that I had the power within me to overcome them and this unleashed a whole new potential when I came back to the UK.

Newnham: If you could go back to the start of your career, what one piece of advice would you offer a younger Zoe?
Cunningham: Try things. Leap. Fall over more. Pick yourself up and look after yourself when it goes wrong, but don't stop jumping.

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