If someone told you to change the way you speak, would you follow their advice?
Emma O’Brien is the successful entrepreneur behind growing digital transformation business Embridge Consulting, which serves public sector organisations plus the likes of Brunel University and AutoTrader.
Stereotypes no longer bother her – but that was not always the case. “People tend to make a lot of assumptions about me, but at this stage in my career, it no longer makes a difference,” she tells TechBlast. “It certainly did impact me earlier on: particularly as a young woman from a working-class background, I was regularly faced with a lot of scepticism.
“One particular instance from my early 20s really stuck with me. I was working at a large organisation, and my mentor at the time commented on my broad cockney accent. I remember him telling me: ‘Emma, we need to address the way you talk if you’re going to progress in your career.’
“I respected his opinion, and for nearly two weeks after being told this, I tried to change the way I spoke. This ended up with me sounding ridiculously forced, until I finally gave up and thought that if the way I spoke was going to limit my career, I’d just accept that.”
O’Brien, who says working in McDonalds aged 16 taught her how to deal with situations under pressure, adds: “I’ve encountered a lot of similar instances throughout my career, but my approach has always been to demonstrate through experience and prove through my actions and behaviour that I can deliver.
“In that respect, my professionalism has always been the best defence to pushback or scepticism I’ve received.”
O’Brien was made redundant in 2009 while on maternity leave with her second child. Realising there were simply no senior level corporate part-time positions in the tech sector, she decided to found her own company.
“I was at a crossroads – I loved the job, and I enjoyed working at that senior position – but I also loved being a mum,” she explains. “Financially, I couldn’t stop working… I wanted to provide for my family but also give myself a good work/life balance.”
With a dedication to empowering traditionally marginalised groups in corporate tech – such as working mothers – she won the LDC Rising Star Award in 2022 and says Embridge Consulting proves businesses can be successful while putting employee wellbeing at their core.
“One of my motivations is challenging those out-dated corporate perceptions of working mums, and changing the conversation around motherhood in the working world,” says O’Brien. “Although it’s gotten better, the corporate world is still an issue for working mums – and I’m fighting that.
“My youngest has significant disabilities, at times making things quite turbulent, and I think that really fuels me to demonstrate that people can excel despite personal challenges. Having said that, it is hard to balance work and motherhood, especially with owning and growing a business. I made the decision in the very early stages of Embridge to set strict boundaries with myself, and to not compromise those boundaries.
“I’ve never missed any of my children’s important milestones, and that was part of the reason why I started the business to begin with. Do you have to be agile and flexible? Yes, and I might put the kids to bed and work through the evening, but overall I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve throughout the years.”
O’Brien says simple things like embracing flexibility for employees and understanding the personal challenges of people are important to her: “I try to go the extra mile to create an environment that is nurturing, but also embraces innovation and grasps opportunities with both hands. I do my best to live these values myself, and I think they’ve delivered huge benefits for us as a team.”
Digital transformation journey
Asked for one key piece of advice to businesses looking to begin their own digital transformation journey, she answers: “Start early!
“If digital transformation is going to be successful, it requires addressing the entire culture of the business. Are you change ready? Are you clear on what you want to achieve with the project and why?
“These are the questions that should be addressed early on, and oftentimes, a company will need to work with an external provider with the correct expertise to really narrow in on these answers.
“However the question of adopting a change-ready culture is approached, you want to be planning large-scale digital transformation projects years in advance, ideally. If external factors like end-of-life technologies are driving your decision for change, you’re already on the backfoot, and this is what will force you into a technology-led transformation.”