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Inspirational woman: Sarah Friswell, CEO

WeAreTheCity talked to CEO Sarah Friswell about how she has driven Red Ant to become the successful business it is today, her passion for diversity, and her drive to see more women entering the tech industry across the board

After beginning her career in account management, Sarah Friswell followed the client relationship ladder all the way to the emerging digital landscape in Dubai, where she led major projects for leading global brands including IBM and Volvo.

On her return to the UK, Sarah joined Red Ant where she applied her extensive experience of networked and independent tech-based businesses to drive the company forward in its pioneering work with high-profile brands such as Charlotte Tilbury, Furniture Village and Chalhoub Group. As Red Ant's CEO, she is responsible for driving and guiding the business, from ensuring the company is run in a sustainable and ethical way to heading up talent selection and overseeing project progress and delivery to clients. She is particularly passionate about diversity, equality and encouraging the progression of women in what can be a tough industry, and has been instrumental in ensuring positive measures are part of Red Ant’s policies.  

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

From early on in my career I felt I was a natural at working with people, and I was always driven to support myself and make a difference. From being behind the scenes in my first job in a café, I knew it was front of house where I wanted to be. During my study of history at university, I became fascinated as to why things occurred as they did, people and cycles, for instance studying the history of women in Islam. It was a broad history degree and there was a module about how Madonna had made a difference for women in the 90s in American Studies, which developed in me a deep interest in people and change, which fits quite nicely with what drives the business at Red Ant.

I’ve worked in a mixture of independently owned and large network agencies, and have also worked in Dubai, spending a few years in the agency world at Ogilvy. I experienced that traditional business ethos of needing to graft, to apply myself with a sense of purpose to get somewhere. Being inspired by the people I met and the sense of paying it forward was instilled in me from a young age in business, which again is now important at Red Ant.

I’m responsible for running the day-to-day business and setting the strategy. What’s important to me is that, while we have a great product and driving the expansion of the business is a major focus, it’s also essential that 50% of the key pillars of our business plan are also developed to focus on people and the community we’re in. You can’t complete your mission on your own, and you can’t take for granted the space that allows you to do that. It’s important for the growth of our team to be able to have that release to give something back and give opportunities for team bonding, especially when you’re moving at pace.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

At the outset, I truly believed I was destined to work in sales. I was offered a sales job as a key account manager, selling FMCG products, but then someone introduced me to account management, which was more about nurturing client relationships. As soon as I joined the agency world, I realised they had a great pathway for progression, a ladder for ambition, which gave me something to aspire to. I enjoy leadership, but I didn’t ever imagine I’d be leading back at the age of 18, and there weren’t really any role models out there at the time. It just shows that putting yourself forward can set you on a path to success.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is probably that ‘labelling’ element. When I was in Dubai, I was told by a couple of people I was ‘too operational’ and there’s a negative belief in business that you’re either operational or you’re strategic. If you’re a good do-er you end up saying yes to everything, you don’t get the opportunity to be strategic. I believe that the strategic element really comes from experience. There’s nothing wrong with being operational but I did internalise and believe what people told me for a long time. The challenge is finding a balance between taking that direction from people and not carrying a label.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved this year at Red Ant so I would say it’s navigating the team through the last 18 months. We have onboarded some great clients, we’ve been awarded Great Place to Work status. We’ve scored enough to be certified as B Corp, won the Lord Mayor’s award and a National Technology Award for our RetailOS Platform. The team has done a lot to become recognised by the outside within this relatively short and very challenging space of time. The fact that Red Ant comprises 59% women is a major achievement too, as we are championing diversity and inclusion in tech.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The support of other people. In general, I have always had excellent support from my line managers. One of my first ever managers in account management told me unapologetically, “This is what great service is”. Being given opportunities and being given space to shine is another major factor, which is particularly true at Red Ant. Dan (Mortimer, founder of Red Ant) has fantastic foresight, he recognises people’s strengths and gives you the tools to succeed. He’s pragmatic and he’s a great person to bounce your thoughts off. You can’t carry on climbing without support from the people around you.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I haven’t been in an official mentoring capacity, but ex-colleagues and friends regularly come to me to bounce ideas around and to problem solve work issues; I’m good at that. In fact, that’s something that should be addressed – how do we create a larger network, that’s more accessible. In London particularly we’ve got a series of initiatives doing great jobs in particular skillsets, but what we need is something more universal, across schools for instance. Wearethecity.com does a great job of lifting people up through its Rising Stars programme and through Vanessa herself, helping the industry to take this to the next level.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

It would involve starting at grass roots. I would encourage more exposure for that critical age, 16- to 18-year-olds. We need to communicate that there is more to tech than coding, and that we need full participation in the entire ecosystem of the tech world. With its broad spectrum of roles, that can be anything from operational, product and client management, sales, PR and marketing, to software development and testing, data science and coding.

When I look at so many of my talented female friends, who have struggled to make the hard decision between family and surviving in this type of industry, I’m disappointed that an industry based on innovation hasn’t made faster strides to change. So many people love the industry, but they can’t find the balance and perhaps the pandemic has done something to change that. It’s about trying to give more and finding flexible working solutions for women in technology. And it’s about accepting that you might not get the pattern right to begin with, but after a few tries – adapting work patterns after maternity leave for example – you get there, and you realise that the wealth of talent they bring to the business is worth working to accommodate.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

To have more courage. There’s the stat that most women tend only to apply for a job if they can already do 80% of the job description. In this sense, I’ve probably been too hard on myself over the years. Realising that you don’t have to tick all the boxes is really important, and that attitude can count more than experience. If you don’t throw your hat into the ring, you’re not giving yourself the chance. This relates to applying for different roles or pushing yourself forward. It’s having the courage to say, “I can do this, what’s the worst that can happen?” I had a turning point in my late 20s where I realised “I have great client management skills and I can learn the rest”. If you have the courage and work hard, it will happen.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The biggest challenge now is scaling the business in this hybrid model. We’re feeling comfortable, and making it work, but at the rate we’re growing, it’s challenging. It’s important for us to understand our people and support them, making sure they get the true Red Ant experience. Our evolution from a London-based workforce to a hybrid model has been a real transition and making sure that people feel that they belong is critical. We’re always looking to do more to give support, as our people are our biggest asset. It’s a major responsibility for me to ensure it works for each and every one of them. It can’t just be those first few days of onboarding; it takes everyone to make this work. Red Ant has a unique way of listening to our Ants (colleagues) and our clients, and sharing the Red Ant journey together, and along with the company’s significant female representation, I’d like to see us being considered an ideal working format for a hybrid-based business in the tech industry.

This article first appeared in WeAreTheCity

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Red Ant, 23rd February 2022