TO CELEBRATE WOMEN IN BUSINESS WE INTERVIEWED LISE THORNE, DF FOUNDER.
Lise founded DF in 2005. She lives in East Sheen, SW14 with her 3 children, her husband, two dogs, 3 guinea pigs and countless chickens.
What did you want to be at school?
I had no idea at all. I got great GCSE grades but completely messed up my A-levels. I’d been at the same all girls boarding school since I was 8 and I think I had had enough so I just wanted to leave. I chose to do Modern European Studies at university because it seemed current and I didn’t know what else to do.
(With my D grade maths and languages A-levels!)
Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
I have had lots at different times. One would have to be the cleverest man I know, my first boss, and now husband! He taught me so much about technology and immigration but he always supported me wholeheartedly in what I chose to do, even to the point of leaving the company to set up DF. One of his favourite lines, 'There are no other grown ups...we are the grown ups'.
What's been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome in order to be successful in business?
My own limiting beliefs. It has taken me a long time to believe in myself. I think for too long I worried what people would think about me and it definitely held me back from speaking up. I suffered from imposter syndrome. I was 28 when we set up DF and I was either speaking to older and much more experienced technical consultants or sales channels. Mostly men. At the time I had a younger male business partner and he didn't seem to be bothered about it at all. If truth be told I am still sometimes nervous when calling somebody new. I'm now 44 so I am not sure that feeling ever entirely goes away.
What are your aspirations for your three children...Bea, Harry and George?
That they be unashamedly themselves. That they are kind, resilient and follow their own paths whatever that might be. All 3 of my children are dyslexic so conventional schooling is tough for them and it has lead me to seriously question the UK school system. That’s why in 2018 we took a year out to go travelling. The most amazing education they could ever get...and very timely.
How do you balance being a successful business woman with raising a family?
I find the words ‘successful business woman’ very odd and would never use those words...and maybe that is a big difference between men and women. I feel incredibly grateful. We have an incredible head office team, Sophie and Veronica have been with DF for over 10 years and Arjun was here, for 5 years, left and came back in 2019. Not only that the rest of the team are all very much part of the DF family and we have a fabulous team. What I’m saying is I get a lot of flexibility to choose how I divide up my time and a team who don’t need (or want) me looking over their shoulder.
Have you ever felt discriminated against for being female in business?
I’m not sure to be honest. I’m currently reading the book ‘Why men win at work’ and it talks about how our condition is to not see the subtle discrimination. I do remember one meeting in a boardroom with 6 men from the city. I could not get my opinion across and kept trying to interject. When I was finally allowed to speak it turned out I was able to translate for both sides of the negotiation. Women do have the ability to read the more subtle signs in a room. Intuition and empathy can be our super power but also means we can be more aware of our audience's reaction to us and this can make us more conscious when speaking.
What led you to the world of consulting in the tech arena?
Technology has always been an interesting area with so much opportunity. It’s an ever moving landscape that never stays still. It makes it exciting for business.
What do you think the main reasons are for the lack of women in tech currently?
There's definitely a lack of women, but it's hard to pinpoint one exact cause. One line of thought is about gender stereotyping of toys from a young age. This follows through to less take up of STEM subjects and ultimately as a result of that there are less role models in the industry and what some describe as a 'bro culture'. I also read up about the last year during Covid and often domestic tasks housekeeping or childcare/teaching fell more on the shoulders of women.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Certainly not. But once you start your own business I’m not sure you could ever go back!
What led you to taking that first step and setting up your own business?
Knowing I could do things better. I was employed (by my now husband!) and I saw all the holes in the company from an employee perspective. He was one of many board members but my overall criticism was they didn't treat the staff well enough on the whole...and that wasn't even my department. It was quite a top heavy company too at the time. The truth is I soon learned there were a lot of holes in my own plans and how little I actually knew about the other areas of the business...I had an awful lot to learn!
If any, what challenges have you experienced as a women in business during your overall career?
To begin with, balance. Especially when I had my first child. At that point I was completely overwhelmed. I tried to do too much and when my daughter was little I would come to work and put her under my desk to sleep in a holdall type baby carrier whilst I worked. When she needed her nappy changing I had to change her on the floor of the disabled loo. It was so stressful. I should have slowed down and stepped back more. I now know slowing down is key and in the end far more productive. Too often I think women (particularly) deprioritise self-care. It somehow seems selfish. I now believe it is selfish not to look after number 1 because everyone around you will suffer.
What have been some make or break moments in your career?
This is such a tough question. I don't see anything as make or break in my career but I do for DF. I had one job and then there was DF. DF specialises in delivering niche projects and as such we rely on people with rare skills. A large part of our workforce are Indian nationals who need a skilled migrant visa (used to be tier 2). In 2017 we had an unannounced audit from the Home Office. This was nothing unusual and as always we were prepared, however they suspended our licence pending answers to some questions. We responded quickly but it took over two months to get our licence back.
It was a very worrying time for us but it was even more worrying for our consultants. They have so much faith in us and their livelihoods in the UK depended on it. Looking after our employees is my number one priority, always is and always will be. I won't promise we always get it right but we do try. After all it's why I left my old job in the first place.
Once we had our sponsorship licence reinstated we became a premium sponsor, this means we have a named account manager at the Home Office (currently the lovely Laura!). It doesn't guarantee anything but it does at least mean there is someone to speak to at the other end of the phone and if anything is ambiguous or seems like a grey area, we can ask the question in advance, rather than run with our interpretation and see if they agree after the event.
Why is gender balance and having a more diverse workforce important, especially in senior management teams?
Because it works better. The more balance you have and points of view the better decisions you can make. Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses. The truth is that we compliment each other in the work place.
What one piece of advice would you give any aspiring female business leaders reading this?
Be yourself. The negative self talk in your brain helps no one least of all you, so do your best to silence it. Be honest and speak up. There’s no point in worrying what others will think.
What’s been your favourite mistake and what did you learn?
Trying to control everything. Step back and let people do what they are good at.
How does DF support women at work? Do you offer mentoring and or training specifically for women in tech / business?
We are a company who truly want to support every person no matter what gender/non gender, race, colour, creed. We have always been diverse at our base. In the last few months though we have started to discuss how we can support women specifically. From my own experience I know it is very tough to get back in to the work place after having children. You lose your mind and your confidence, or I did for a while at any rate.
I also recently spoke to Deepti, a former consultant who joined head office last year having returned from maternity leave. Originally from India, we discussed how difficult it was not knowing many people here with new babies and learning the ropes both with a new born and childcare in the UK. It was then scary getting back in to work. For this reason we want to implement KIT (Keep In Touch) days for women to come back into the office and get back to work training/help/advice/support. I would also like to expand on this with specific training that encourages more women to become leaders in the industry! More female leaders, more role models, more females in tech!
We have always supported return to work mothers. In Head Office, it is easy, because it is my call. Getting the message to clients is more difficult, but it will come in time. For lots of reasons. Mothers have to multitask, and have to get things done efficiently. 20 hours a week produces a lot more than half a full time person, and that's not just due to great ideas coming in 'non work' time. Of course, the same is probably true of men, though we are conditioned to expect them to soldier on working long hours while their wives look after the children (even when the wife has a career of her own). Do they want to be Victorian fathers, strangers to their children? Not from what I have seen.
Part time, and output-based working, rather than being seen to commute and put in 8.30-6.00 at the office is what most people need, at least once they become parents. Boardrooms dominated by men have had 50+ years in which they failed to tackle this point but I really hope this is changing across the board and I hope the change in work patterns caused by Covid will in some way further this too.
What does the future of DF hold in terms of women in tech?
Tech is usually about solving problems. And, if you want to solve a problem, you need to look at it from different angles, and bring a range of experience to bear on it. We want women to join us, because they will help us, and help our clients, solve problems. The challenge for us is to create the right environment where the talent we need will flourish. I know that DF is up to the challenge.