Ahead of the Booking.com Technology Playmaker Awards 2019, I spoke with Eileen Burbidge, HM Treasury’s Fintech Envoy, Partner at Passion Capital, Chair of Tech Nation and Non-Executive Director at Dixons Carphone about what makes a ‘technology playmaker,’ how to celebrate women in technology and growing up as a Chinese girl in the midwest of the United States.
Now in its second year, the Technology Playmaker Awards recognize women across the global technology scene who are trailblazing new paths, creating innovative products and experiences and positively impacting communities by inspiring future generations. In conversation with Burbidge, she highlighted how the phrase ‘technology playmaker’ reminded her of team sports and how being categorized as a team player usually suggests that you’re the one behind the scenes, “hustling and getting stuff done.”
She added that celebrating the ‘playmakers’ is out of the ordinary because you’re not just rewarding the ‘winners.’ These awards celebrate the people who “move the team across the line and get them closer to a goal in collaboration with the rest of the team. In the greater context of technology, I think it’s great that we’re thinking about this sector specifically and shining a light on those who are making a difference.”
With those who are behind the scenes being awarded for their successes, it questions whether the technology sector has truly experienced a shift and in turn, if women in business are being welcomed and recognised for the value they bring to the companies that they work for, or if we are still in a phase of ‘raising awareness.’
However, Burbidge stated: “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think we’re still in the early days and there’s a lot of work to do, but events and awards like these help tremendously. It keeps the conversation going, highlights people who are making an impact, gives them the credit that they’re due, helps establish role models for other people and brings out people who might be overlooked in other ways.
“I think there has been a lot of great change over the last few years. I’ve been in London now for 15 years and have been working in technology for 25 years; it’s so different and so much better than it has ever been. The progress that has been made must be commended, because we wouldn’t have had awards like these 10 years ago.”
While progress has been made on a small scale, for this to continue, Burbidge said that much more could be done at every level of education to encourage both girls and boys to pursue a career in technology. “I think behaviour and self-consciousness starts at a young age and it’s really at primary school level that schoolchildren are influenced to choose the subjects that they’re interested in and others that they’re not.”
I then took the opportunity to ask Burbidge about her thoughts on diversity in the fintech sector, being so close to the industry and how this compares to inclusion in traditional financial services. “There’s a big difference between fintech and financial services traditionally. I think innovators in financial services who start to branch out to fintech are more open-minded and looking for diversity because those individuals are most probably outliers in their own organisations, otherwise they would probably still be in traditional financial services.
“Looking at fintech and tech, I think they are more comparable because the larger tech industry is generally more inclusive and open about diversity, but I think tech and fintech are probably similarly aligned.” She went on to discuss her own experience in the fintech industry and spoke about being an influential voice, but also a minority figure in the space.
“I think it’s really interesting because when I was welcomed into the fintech space, I was joining the U.K. ecosystem from the technology sector. I think of fintech in the U.K. as a collaboration of ecosystems, including the existing financial services institutions and I really don’t think we would have such a thriving fintech sector if we didn’t have so many strong traditional players in London.
“Growing up in midwestern part of the States – suburban America – I was certainly much, much more conscious about being Chinese than being female and I remember being in school and thinking that if I was Caucasian, surely it would be easier than being Chinese. I thought Caucasian girls must have it so easy, so it didn’t even dawn on me that if I was a Caucasian girl, I would think I was disadvantaged in any way to a boy.
“I was conscious about being so visibly different and that made a big difference for me because growing up, I thought that was what I had to overcome, and I never thought about my gender being any kind of limiting factor. Being a woman never really crossed my mind until I was in the workplace and when I was asked about it.”
Burbidge then revealed that her parents encouraged her to study computer science at university – the other choices being law or medicine. However, she realizes now that they were right and it “gave me a foundation to be part of a conversation. Having a computer science degree helped because if there were any doubters, if I had imposter syndrome or I was worried about being in a tech setting, that very quickly dissipated because I had the same training as everyone else around me.”
She also said that being an American in the U.K. from Silicon Valley “seems to give me a little more latitude than if I was a British person talking about tech. But that’s the funny thing, some things that we may see as limiting factors to overcome, they may become things that we end up getting credit for.”
As a final note, Eileen Burbidge explores how her ignorance about being a woman and not being so preoccupied with her gender allowed her to not think of herself through different lens or labels. Her advice: “Try not to think of oneself as a woman in tech, business or whatever it is, think of yourself as just in tech or in business.
“Just by being in tech, you have a right to be there. You are not a woman in tech, a Chinese person in tech or an American in tech. You have all the opportunity to make the most of being a playmaker in your industry, so make the most of it and try not to think about how it would be framed on a demographic level.”