A STEM success story every daughter should hear
More than half of new doctors are women and it’s around the same for lawyers, but women only make up around twenty percent of the STEM workforce (science, technology, engineering and maths). This is a very big deal because STEM career opportunities are forecast to boom as AI and other new technologies take off.
As a mother of a 12 year-old daughter it concerns me that all too often girls are put off STEM, closing the door on the opportunity to have a great career and a say in shaping the world through technology. With this in mind I was delighted to meet a woman who has not only steered her way to the very top of the US tech industry, but she’s also committed herself to ‘pay it forward’ as she puts it, by encouraging women and girls to get started in tech.
Sarah Friar grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland into a family where education was highly valued. She applied to Arthur Andersen (then one of the Big Five accounting firms), and earned a scholarship there that helped pay for her journey to Oxford University, where she studied metallurgy, economics and management - the science and technology of metals. Oxford opened doors for Sarah. She expanded her horizons and soon after graduating headed to the US to gain her MBA at Stanford and begin her career in finance and technology. In her early career Sarah never shirked responsibility nor skipped on an interesting challenge. An early job assignment with McKinsey took her to a mine in South Africa where she lived and worked in a remote and very male environment. Conditions were tough and the ‘ginormous insects’ terrified her but was she phased by this? ‘No, it was mind-blowing!’ she says.
After gaining valuable leadership experience at Goldman Sachs and Salesforce.com Sarah took on the role of Chief Financial Officer of Square.com, a new payment processing startup company co-founded by Jack Dorsey - who is also CEO and co-founder of Twitter. She steered the company through a stock market listing in 2015 and nurtured its growth to an amazing 60 billion dollars of processing volume in 2017.
As if the day job and being a parent wasn’t enough, Sarah still finds time to inspire and help women and girls access careers in technology. She instigated Square’s pioneering Code Camp - an 'immersion programme developed to ignite and inspire future female engineers and further their pursuit of a career in computer science'.
Sarah has also got behind Ladies Who Launch, a network that provides community, education, and inspiration for female business founders. I caught up with her recently when she hosted a ‘Ladies who Launch’ on her home Irish turf and asked her a few questions:
Sarah Frier Q&A
How would you describe your job to a child?
I get to help people do a lot of fun experimenting in order to build things that help businesses start, run and grow. For example, if you were to start your own business eg a lemonade stand, or raise money for your local Guides or Scouts group, you’d need a way to let people pay with their credit card (if they didn’t have any cash on them). Because people can do that with their phone and some of Square’s tools, we make sure they never miss a sale. My job is to make sure people’s ideas at Square get enough investment to come to life. I also get to champion those people to be amazing. Just like your teachers in school push you to get better at english or maths.
What advice can you give to girls and young women who are considering a career in a male dominated field of technology such as coding?
There are a few things that I’ve used to guide my decisions through the years. One of the first things I thought about was what gives me energy and sparks creativity. For example, I love to travel, I love interacting with people and building teams, and I really enjoy analysing problems – the more mathematical the better. There wasn’t necessarily a single job that checked all those boxes, but it helped guide me toward types of careers, and types of companies that I thought would enable me to mould a job into a passion. I feel particularly passionate at Square with our purpose of Economic Empowerment. It’s very fulfilling to feel that what I do every day at work is having an impact out in the world – if even with a single merchant.
It was also very important to me to be in control of my career. I always look for ways to create 'spikes'. It’s better to have one or two things you’re an A+ at, rather than 10 things you’re a B at. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a female mentor was to find a career where the outcomes could be measured quantitatively. This helps remove some of the systemic or perception biases that can hold women back: it doesn’t matter who you know, or how many sports games you’ve attended with them – it’s about strong, measurable results. A career in tech lends itself to that because it’s an industry that embraces data and logic.
Finally, just do it! Don’t over think, or listen too closely to the people who say you can’t. At work I’m always compelled to find the ways to say ‘yes’, never just ‘no’.
The industry you’re in didn’t exist when you were growing up - have you any personal predictions for what the opportunities for the coming generations of girls might look like?
When I was at school everyone wanted to steer me towards jobs that already existed - to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher. All very worthwhile careers, but I didn’t feel passionate about any of them. I actually went into a hospital and shadowed a surgeon - it seems crazy today but they let me watch a knee operation. My friend who did it with me fainted - oddly, she’s now the doctor!
I didn’t know what my 'calling' was, but I did know what I liked - problem solving, getting an adrenaline rush, getting to travel. I found it best to be open minded and always in search of learning. In fact, I recommend the book Mindset to everyone! Who knows where the world of artificial intelligence will take us - self driving cars are already on the streets of San Francisco. I do know there will always be a place for curious, creative people who can logically problem solve even in situations they have no experience of. So that’s what I keep training myself to do, with still so much to learn and grow from.
And finally - San Francisco sourdough or Irish soda bread?
Definitely soda bread, with a full Irish breakfast on the side and a warm cup of tea. And some Cadbury’s chocolate to finish.
I’m Jane, co-founder of Komodo and TV documentary maker. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah at the impressive Square HQ in San Francisco and the Ladies who Launch event in Belfast. She’s a inspiration to all girls and women, not just for her stellar achievements in business, but for the energy she puts into 'paying it forward'.
Komodo is an EdTech startup company with a mission to help young children master maths. Designed for 5 to 11 year olds to use in the home, Komodo uses a little and often approach to learning maths (15 minutes, three to five times per week) that fits into the busy family routine. Komodo helps users develop fluency and confidence in maths - without keeping them at the screen for long periods.