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Leading a growing company is difficult enough without having to deal with preconceptions held by your peers.

Samantha Rutter-Bryant had to deal with several. After founding family business Open Study College with her father Mark in 2007, she helped build the distance learning institution up, first as centre director.

“I think the biggest challenge that I have faced are some of the preconceptions people may have about me, due to my age and gender,” she tells TechBlast. “People would often assume they were meeting a man when they heard my name is Sam – that could sometimes be tough. 

“Walking into a meeting with men a lot older than me, and often more experienced, also used to be intimidating.

“As Open Study College grew and developed, my role began to encompass more external events and activities. It became increasingly clear at the time that, in many professional situations, it felt like a man’s world. 

“Whether sitting on judging panels for industry awards, or attending important meetings, I often found myself the only woman in the room and feeling like I had something to prove.”

Rutter-Bryant became COO of the Solihull company – funded in the early days by the sale of the family home – in 2015. She took over as CEO in 2018, aged 29, something she described as her “biggest achievement”.

“I have worked hard to prove myself as a businesswoman and CEO in my own right,” she continues. “And while I am thankful to my dad for the opportunity of going into business with him, I have always strived to not be seen solely as ‘Mark’s daughter’.

“I think becoming CEO proved to a lot of people that I wasn’t just working for my dad at Open Study College, but that we were building a really successful business together. Now, running the entire company on my own, I feel extremely accomplished and motivated, and I hope to inspire others too.”

She says the experience has taught her that you’re never too old to seek advice from those closest to you.

“They have been in your shoes and know exactly what you’re going through. I think there is generally a lack of young female CEOs, but I have learnt so much from people around me, especially my dad.

“We [still] often talk through decisions or situations with each other to make sure we have a balanced view. I always find it really helpful to see things from his perspective. 

“This extends to our leadership team today too, which we’re proud to say consists of an equal number of men and women, often making for some interesting conversations around the table!

“The truth is, as a young woman, you often feel you have to work extra hard to be taken seriously, listened to, and respected in the workplace, especially when confronted by a group of older male professionals. 

“I have since learnt that none of this truly matters; it’s the way you position yourself to do your job effectively that matters. Hard work is always respected and valued.”

Closing the £600bn gender investment gap

Her sister Shawna is a director of the company, which has helped more than 110,000 students complete one of hundreds of distance learning courses, from accounting and bookkeeping to counselling and writing. It offers online access to GCSEs, A-Levels and many other qualifications, which learners can take on at their own pace.

“We change people’s lives. Our ambition was and still is to support people to achieve their goals, and in doing so, improve the nation’s mental health through learning,” says Rutter-Bryant.

“Many of our learners come to us because they aren’t fulfilled in their current job, or have personal reasons which impact how they can study. We feel fortunate to have helped a lot of people through some really dark times in their lives by giving them something else to focus on. 

“That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning; it really is all about our learners.”

Open Study College increased turnover from £5 million to nearly £6.5m last year while in 2021 it opened a second office in Coleshil. 

“We have only scratched the surface of our international offering to date, but with a growing group of learners across Europe and the Middle East, we have started to strengthen our offering in those areas and explore opportunities in the US,” says the CEO. 

“With UK qualifications held in very high regard around the world, we have developed specific growth plans to support the needs of learners in these regions.”

She adds: “As a UK-based business, driving growth internationally presents cultural challenges. Understanding the way that we need to do business across different regions and time zones, and managing resources on the ground is tough, but a strong team here in the UK continues to strengthen our position across the world.”

So what would she say to those wanting to make the leap into business?

“Just do it! You will have times where your confidence will be knocked, and you’ll think ‘is this for me?’ just as I have. 

“But push through, and you’ll be so much happier for it. Having confidence in yourself to succeed, especially if you are a woman, is so important if you want to prove you can do it.”

‘Don’t let gender stop you from starting a business’