SPOTLIGHT: Meet Marissa Ellis - Maths, Martha Lane Fox and the journey to Diversily
"After studying Maths at university, my very first role was business development for lastminute.com at the height of the .com boom. It started with a phone call out of the blue from none other than Martha Lane Fox and turned into an incredible introduction to the power technology has to disrupt markets.
I went on a world tour & when I returned my mum became very ill, so I put everything else on hold to look after her. Family always comes first! It was a very emotional time and after she passed away, I had missed the boat for the graduate programme route.
I ended up getting thrown in at the deep end as a Systems Integration Consultant for Reuters. I didn’t have some of the softeners the ‘graduates’ had but I loved the experience & the challenge of the steep learning curve really motivated me.
I went on to work for several software companies in services and product roles. Financial crime compliance has always been a strong thread in my career, which has enabled me to work internationally. I gravitated toward the Head of Product role, which I loved and took on in a couple of different scale ups — Skinkers who were creating enterprise communication tech and S-Cool who were creating school tech.
In 2009 I established my own digital innovation consulting practice where I help companies with strategy, product and delivery. In 2018 I founded Diversily, created The Change Canvas and have been on a mission to help others drive positive change ever since. I have worked for global blue-chip players such as Barclays, SWIFT, ING and many scale ups and start-ups. I co-authored a book, speak at events, do a lot of mentoring and advisory work and was also the COO and mentor in residence for a web incubator. Today my work covers aspects of leadership, culture and strategy and my focus now is on helping leaders build high performing, inclusive teams that deliver results.
The biggest challenge for me personally was being made redundant when I was three months pregnant with my first child. My life was about to be turned upside down. I had no idea what was coming. I knew it was going to be a girl, but trust me I had no clue about much else. Next thing I know I didn’t even have a job. I really couldn’t see how I could compete in a competitive job market knowing I was about to take some time out.
This prompted me to set up my consulting business. At the time I felt it was my only really viable option as I was lucky enough to have built my network and reputation. I haven’t looked back since.
I have had to learn some hard lessons about the reality of being a working parent. I saw my male friends being promoted while my female friends struggled with self-confidence and finding balance. My experience has opened my eyes to the challenges so many people face, the reasons we have such a lack of diversity in the workplace and was undoubtably part of my inspiration for starting Diversily."
What would you have done differently?
"I wish I would have realised that we need more diversity in tech sooner. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that as a minority female in tech, I had a responsibility to be a role model to others that might follow in my footsteps. I knew I was a leader, a manager, a mentor but somehow, I missed the memo about being a role model. I was too busy getting on with my own career to step back and think about the wider industry trends.
I realised the industry was limiting itself by the sheer dominance of middle class, straight, white men. Tech is a growth market, yet we have a huge talent shortfall and we need diverse perspectives to create solutions that work for everyone. So, we still need all of these wonderful men, but we also need to diversify our talent and our thinking.
I set up www.diversily.com to do my bit to drive change. The way I think has been totally transformed and through Diversily and I am working to change mindsets across the industry and beyond."
Key lessons & tips?
"If I boil it all down, success comes down to one thing and one thing only. That is self-belief. Belief that you are really good at what you do. Belief that you can always continue to get better. Belief that it ok to be different. Belief that it's ok to be you. Belief that you have what it takes to do an incredible job. This means holding yourself to account, never stop pushing yourself and being willing to put the work in to make it happen.
The reality is that we don’t live in a meritocracy. If you lack certain privileges or come from a minority group, self-belief becomes even more important because systemic biases will mean you have even more hurdles to overcome.
It is easy to say but much harder to put into practice but the most important thing you can do is believe in yourself! This doesn’t mean being arrogance or delusional about what you can achieve. Stop waiting for someone else’s permission or acceptance. You need to give yourself permission to be you, decide on your direction and surround yourself with the people who will appreciate and support you to make it happen."
What do you love most about your job?
"My real passion is around using tech to help people to solve complex problems. What I have loved about the various roles I have had has been the variety — going from strategy to detail, going from solving a complex tech problem to inspiring a group of people to work together to make something happen. In the early days when I got my first job as a product manager, I led the design of a fraud detection system. It was a bit like the best cake I had ever baked. I had taken eggs (customer insights), flour (market research) butter (internal feedback) and sugar (my analysis) and whipped it up into something much greater than the constitute parts — a solution that could analyse transactional behaviour and detect financial crime.
In more recent years as a consultant my greatest joy comes from making a meaningful difference to a person’s life or a measurable impact on a business.
Through Diversily I created a visual framework called The Change Canvas to help teams and individuals drive meaningful positive change. A real highlight of my career has been observing the different ways my vision has been realised and the positive change it is supporting around the world. From helping individuals figure out what to do with their lives, transforming the way teams work and driving meaningful actions that will create more workplace diversity and inclusion. It is a great feeling to know you have created something bigger than yourself."
How do you define success?
"The book that changed my perspective on success is Robert Holden’s ‘Success Intelligence’. Essentially success is all about how you define it. If you define it to be how much money you earn than you will always be chasing your next pay rise. For me success is about happiness and fulfilment. Change your perspective on what you are looking for and you are more likely to find success. The book talks about the three P’s of success; purpose, passion and power. The key is finding your perfect balance of all three."
Who inspires you?
"People working hard to make the world a better place."
If you could choose anyone as a mentor, who would you choose?
"My mum. I am glass half full kind of a person, so I consider myself lucky for the time we did have together. However, there is no one I would I love to talk to more right now than her."
What’s the last book you read and what’s it about?
"Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Not being racist is not enough. We need to be anti-racist. This book gives a fundamental grounding in why this is."
What’s your favourite food?
"Biltong, mango and peppermint crisp! Not necessarily the best food in the world but they have the best memories for me. I was born in South Africa and emigrated to England as a child. Food that reminds me of South Africa will always have a fond place in my heart."
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