Lopa Patel is a digital entrepreneur with significant experience of creating start-ups and transforming businesses through technology. The founder of two ventures – in online media and a data-driven marketing consultancy – she is also the Chair of equality and inclusion think tank Diversity UK, a Trustee of The Science Museum Group and a Non-Executive Director of the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
She is an ambassador for entrepreneurship, innovation and technology and has been recognised with many accolades including an MBE for services to the creative industries, the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion and an Honorary Doctorate by The Open University.
She talks to PAWA about why girls should study STEM subjects, what she learned from launching her businesses, and how the lockdown is going to change the way we work
What sparked your passion for STEM?
I have always been interested in knowing how things work and my siblings and I often made up simple chemistry or physics experiments at home to keep ourselves occupied.
I enjoyed the chemistry experiments that we were allowed to do at school and trips to the Royal Institution for the Christmas Lectures and the Science Museum in London were a bonus. I loved the Science Museum so much that I took up a part time job there and now I have the privilege of being a Trustee. It is a special thrill to walk through the museum and see Alexander Fleming’s slide of penicillin and Watson and Crick’s model of DNA. I think everyone should allow themselves the joy of just wondering about things and how they work
What would you say to girls wondering if they should study STEM subjects, given that the statistics for female representation in these fields are not very hopeful?
Female representation in STEM subjects has been historically low, and where girls do take up sciences it is often to pursue careers in medicine, dentistry or pharmacy. Subjects like physics, maths, engineering and computer science have always been less attractive to girls, but I am pleased to say that things are changing.
I could not have pursued a career in tech entrepreneurship without my BTec in Computer Science which I took after my A Levels. It involved learning about computer hardware and software and programming, which is now neatly termed “ coding ”. Even if girls don’t want to pursue a career in science, acquiring coding skills demystifies much of the technology we use today and it looks good on the CV too. Coding is really about logical thinking rather than mathematics and many girls will find they are surprisingly good at it. Critics say that you can drive a car
without knowing how it works, and by the same token you can cook without knowing about ingredients, but if you want to really want your cooking to be superlative, it helps to know a lot about ingredients and how they work together. Coding is more like cooking than car mechanics, I guess.
Teachers at school often tell you to follow your passions, but, if like me you are passionate about a great many subjects, I do think you need to think about your future employment prospects. All jobs in the future will require technical skills, even those in Arts & Humanities, so I would recommend considering STEM subjects or opting for additional modules in design and technology within arts courses.
You have successfully launched tech companies – what two things would you say are the biggest takeaways from these experiences?
Learning coding helped me when I launched my first business, a direct marketing company. I had to develop an inventory management system; a customer loyalty software package and numerous databases for clients. It would have been daunting and hugely expensive if I didn’t know how to build computer applications. In the end, I hired a number of software developers and just did the specification, beta testing and implementation, but the first rule for any entrepreneur is that you must be prepared to get your hands dirty!
My first digital business which was a lifestyle portal for the South Asian community, that I launched in 2001, came about because I was searching for Asian news and information online and there was very little available at that time. Now, there are quite a few competing platforms and many of the traditional newspapers and magazines offer online content too, so the second rule for tech entrepreneurship is that you must be prepared to pivot and change your business plan. You have to continuously learn and adapt in business.
This lockdown period has resulted in technology being used in myriad and creative ways. Do you see an upside to this in terms of opportunities for women?
The lockdown period has accelerated the take up online connectivity – who hasn’t participated in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting lately? For many companies that have been dragging their feet on offering remote working flexibility, it has also accelerated their adoption of new technologies.
People have found that they are equally productive at home and nobody misses the daily commute to work. For women, who often bear the greater share of caring duties, this has meant that they have been able to work and fulfil other caring duties, which is an upside. Men too have found that they prefer this style of working, which is a double upside.
The downside is that I think companies will begin to assess whether they need big offices at all and many of the gains of recent years; flexible working, maternity pay packages, shared parental leave, workplace creches etc will suffer as a result. The cost will be defrayed to the employee and just factored into the pay and benefits package.
Productivity of working from home (WFH) will become a big issue as there will be pressure on WFH employees to produce greater return, and consequently put in more hours than they might otherwise have to do. We cannot transform from a “presenteeism” (being seen at work) culture to a “working from home” culture overnight.
PAWA supports teenage girls in Asia who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. What words of advice do you have for these girls?
Disadvantage is a challenge, but, when you can rise to the challenges, the rewards are all the more sweeter because you know that you have earned them. Don’t feel guilty about your success or your failure. I mention failure because there is a great pressure on girls to not fail, only succeed. This is a form of discrimination because boys seem to have a chance to fail at many things – sports, making things, communicating – and yet girls are meant to be good at everything. Learn from failure because that will guide you towards your strengths.
Men are often brought up to believe that they are “entitled” to everything; more food, more attention; best education; best jobs, success. Women are often brought up to be supporters, carers, those who put others before themselves. Although there is nothing wrong with being empathetic: in business and in life, you will have difficult decisions to make and you should be able to put yourself first at times. Don’t defer decisions, such as your education, job prospects orbusiness opportunities to mollify others. As long as it’s not hurting anyone, be a little selfish to pursue your dreams.