Inspirefest's Ann O'Dea on being an introvert and a good leader

Ann O’Dea’s career took various twists and turns before she became CEO of Silicon Republic. She tells Meg Walker there’s no perfect formula.

Silicon Republic began in 2001 – we’ve been bringing science, technology and innovation news to readers worldwide for 17 years. I’d like to think we’ve got our working environment right. We have a team of 18, about 60/40 women to men. When recruiting, we have a mixed panel, so if there are two of us, there’s one male and one female, because our own biases, even if unconscious, will kick in. We’re not hierarchical – myself and my co-founder Darren McAuliffe are the bosses, but for a small company, we have senior people who take a lot of accountability and responsibility. My biggest fear is that I’d have someone who dreads coming into work – I think you do your worst work when you’re like that, so everybody loses.

For me, being a good leader means making sure people feel inspired and rewarded by their career. Kindness and empathy are the most underestimated tools of leadership. You get much better return from your team; they’ll produce better, more innovative work if they’re treated with respect.

Some of the brightest people I know are introverts. A lot of people you see on stage had to dig deep to get up there. I’m an introvert, and used to get guest MCs for events, and then I was becoming active in making sure we saw women on stage and was going, “I can’t tell everyone they have to be up on stage and then be like, ‘well, I’m not getting up there.’” The advice I give to young women is, even if you don’t do it for you, do it for the young women coming up behind you, because if they don’t see you, they’re not going to aspire to be like you. It’s hard at the beginning, but gets easier. Ask for help – find someone who’ll give you advice and support; you don’t need expensive media training – find someone you trust who’ll be honest with you and who you can bounce ideas off.

It’s never too late to change your mind. I went to college, did a master’s in theatre studies, and said, “That’s not what I want to do.” I love writing and fell into journalism while in France.?I returned to Ireland during the pre-dot-com bubble and got into technology journalism. Technology was moving away from being a corporate thing to something that affects us all. You could feel the possibilities were everything from medicine to the arts, and it just absorbed me. The turning point was meeting Darren. I’d have come across sexism over the years, and suddenly there was this guy and we got on like a house on fire professionally and it wasn’t an issue. We set up IT News & Media. The first design of Silicon Republic looked like the front page of a newspaper. We now have 300,000 unique visitors each month; 60 per cent of readers are overseas. You don’t have to stick to exactly what you qualify in – do whatever you’re studying really well and you can always diverge. I’d encourage young people to consider all careers, not just STEM. Inform yourself, try things out, go to workshops, and discover what’s right for you.

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We’re believers of business being values-led, so while we don’t talk so much about corporate social responsibility, it’s almost in our blood stream. Darren and I are not social entrepreneurs, but we believe you can make a profit and do good at the same time. In our minds, the only real model of success is if you’re doing great stuff, but have a happy team and are giving back in some way.

This year, I signed up to the Debra Ireland Arctic Challenge, a six-day trek 150km north of the Arctic Circle. Last year, Judith Gilsenan, head of fundraising at Debra, asked if I would come to a dinner about the trek; I went thinking I might sign somebody else up. Then Liz Collins, whose daughter Claudia has EB butterfly skin, and Emma Fogarty, who, in her thirties, is the oldest person in Ireland with EB, spoke, and I just signed up immediately. There were 20 women on the trip, plus the guides from Adventure.ie. The lodge had no running water, no electricity, a compost loo and we had to go down every evening and crack the ice on the stream to bring up buckets of water and collect firewood and keep all the stoves going. Then we’d trek for about seven or eight hours every day. We learned cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The big night was the camp-out – in those temperatures, it’s pretty challenging. I’m not a camper, so it could have been the first time I’ve ever set up a tent. The experience was really tough, but I like the idea of pushing myself beyond my limits. We all had to dig really deep to get through it. I’ve slept out for Focus Ireland before, and things like that, but I had never taken on anything as big as this before. I spent a year preparing for it training, trekking the Mourne Mountains in the snow… It was the most incredible experience. The night we arrived we got a display of The Northern Lights, so that felt like a bit of Debra magic dust somehow.

Ann O’Dea and team on this year’s Debra Ireland Arctic Challenge

 

This is our fourth year of Inspirefest. We’d been working on getting more diversity and inclusion into our sectors. We launched Women Invent, a campaign to ensure at least weekly we had an interview of a remarkable woman, leading in science, technology or innovation. It kept journalists on their toes, thinking about how we need to make sure we’re always interviewing people from different backgrounds, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age. Inspirefest was born out of that – one flagship event that’s about fascinating sciences and technologies, with diversity and inclusion at its heart.

There are a few exciting speakers this year. One thing we try to do every year is pull in the arts and design; some events tend to be very dry, whereas technology is really exciting. We’re huge believers in getting the artist and the technologist and the scientist together. One thing I’m particularly excited about is this beatboxer called Reeps One – he’s worked with academia on the study of the brain because beatboxing contradicts what you’re supposed to be able to do with your voice and mouth and brain, to make three noises at once – and he’s going to be beatboxing with his artificial intelligence twin. There are people like Sheree Atcheson – she’s the head of Women Who Code in the UK, but she’s also working on encouraging women into science and technology in Sri Lanka; Maha Al Balushi, MD of Oman Technology Fund; Heather Massie, who’ll do a short one-woman play on Hedy Lamarr, the actress who was also an inventor and sort of invented the protocols for what we call WiFi today; Noeline Kavanagh, CEO and artistic director of Macnas; Dr Easkey Britton, who works in environmental science in NUIG and is also the woman who taught women in Iran how to surf… she does so many fascinating things, she’s also involved in mental health and wellbeing as associated with the environment; Taylor Denise Richardson – she’s 14 and got involved with Lottie Dolls, age-appropriate dolls that are astronauts, scientists, and inventors; then we have one of this year’s European Digital Girls of the Year, Aoibheann Mangan – we always do a next generation panel of remarkable young people and she would have been in the audience the last two years with her mum (we allow people to bring along under 18s who’d be interested in STEM for free, but they have to be accompanied) – and I love that idea of the progression from the audience to the stage. They’d be just some of the people I’d be very excited about this year.

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Inspirefest runs June 21-22 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, inspirefest.com.

For more on Debra Ireland’s Arctic Challenge, see debraireland.org.

Check out Debra Ireland's 2018 Arctic Challenge video below. 

 

Photograph by Nathalie Marquez Courtney

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