Louise McCarthy on 35+ years of digital transformation success and supporting female founders

Louise McCarthy, Managing Director of Female Entrepreneurship at Evrensel Capital Partners, dives into the valuable work she does to support female founders, improving the dire reality that only 2% of females get investment vs. their male counterparts. Louise shares a wealth of advice from her time directing digital transformations largely in the finance sector, and gives heartfelt advice for women aspiring to leadership roles.

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Podcast transcription

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Emma: Greetings listeners, it’s my absolute pleasure to talk with Louise McCarthy, a digital transformation director with decades of experience in C-level roles, largely in finance. Louise is an absolute driving force for women founders as a Managing Director of female entrepreneurship firm Evrensel Capital Partners. On LinkedIn I counted a total of 11 current positions, so it’s impossible to capture your day-to-day in just a line or two!

Louise, you’ve directed numerous huge complex and successful digital transformations largely for the financial sector. At HMRC, the tax authority in the UK, you were a key contributor in reducing IT costs from over 1 billion to 7 million per annum. At HSBC you created a strategy and you delivered on that transformation which resulted in saving 170 million per annum. Astounding results. We’ve been so lucky to have you as a Tricentis Growth Advisory Board member since 2008.

Towards the end of last year you took up two pretty significant roles to advance the careers of female entrepreneurs in finance and beyond, and when you announced one of these roles at your company Athena Ventures, you shared that a major incentive was knowing just how hard it can be for female founders to get that investment.

Can you share some of your experience that inspired you to start Athena Ventures, and how you are helping female founders?

Louise: I’m actually really lucky being at this point of my career. I’ve been in business now for over 35 years and in that time I’ve been a lonesome female in many senior roles; I know how difficult it is for females to get their voice heard.

I’ve come to the end of my career and I wanted to take a portfolio role rather than being in corporate, and wanted to do something to give something back to females. After having spent quite a bit of time in my role mentoring and supporting females in the last 35 years, I thought: what can I do that’s going to give back to females? I realized how difficult it is for incredible females with great ideas to get investment.

I met this incredible guy, Anthony Moore, the founder of Evrensel Capital Partners who is ex Goldman Sachs, and I was just telling him my story and he said: let’s partner together. Together we’ve created Athena Ventures. It’s all about giving back, so it’s not a VC or an angel investment; it’s about taking females with the great ideas and making them a success. It’s not giving them a bit of money, it’s giving them all the money they need, wrapping our arms around them, and providing them with mentorships, support, coaching, and everything they need to make their business a success.

“I wake up every morning and it feels like I’m in a big dream. I’m doing something wonderful, and incredible that I absolutely love, and hopefully it’s going to make a difference. Only 2% of females get investment, that means 98% of the money goes to men and it’s just so sad in 2022. It’s not getting any better; it’s getting worse. Last year it was 2.7% and now it’s only 2%, so I am so lucky and so proud we have this opportunity to make a difference.”

Emma: That’s phenomenal. You have a gut feeling about these things when you know that females are set back—at 2% and decreasing with the likes of the pandemic meaning that male counterparts are further ahead—so it’s great to see you doing this. It’s quite a U-turn for you to go from the more corporate space to like this; not just providing a money channel but the whole support network, emotional and financial. It’s quite early on in this venture, and I’m so excited to see the stories that come out of this.

You’ve been mentoring supporting females prior to this, for instance as part of the Microsoft startup Growth X program.

What keeps you coming back to mentoring different women and individuals that you know across the industry?

Louise: It’s my own personal experience.

I’ve had 35 years really struggling to actually get my voice heard, so I want to do something to help more females. I’m a facts-based person, and the facts say 63% of females make better CEOs than males, but only 2% get investment. I’ve seen all the way through my career why it’s so hard and how difficult it is for females to get a step on the ladder, so I want to do something to give back to make that happen.

I’ve been doing some research and asking the question: why is it that these stats are so bad, but females make such good founders or CEOs? One conclusion many have come to is that females aren’t necessarily as confident as males, meaning when females apply for a job, if there’s one thing on a job spec they can’t do, they won’t apply for it. If a man applies for a job, if there’s one thing on the spec they can do, they will apply for it. I think it’s just about confidence.

“If I can bring together a community of like-minded females that have been in corporate like myself, that have been around the houses for a while at lots of companies—and also bring together groups of females all going through the same thing or have startup companies, provide a network, plus be giving them support—I really believe that we can make a difference.“

One of our top areas is supporting African female founders and that’s probably one of the worst areas in the world for investment for females, but they’re the ones that have got the ideas. For example, we’ve got a business in Evrensel Capital Partners focused on wastewater, and it’s the females in Africa who are carrying the water around on their shoulders or that have the great ideas in terms of how technology can improve the world, but they don’t get their investment.

If we can give that lucky break to an incredible female with an incredible idea, maybe we can actually change that 2% and make the world a better place.

Emma: A lot of what you say is really relatable as a woman in the same space. You mentioned Africa; I spent some time in Zambia working at a woman-led SME—a PR agency—and it was such an incredible experience. What you say in terms of women maybe being less able to see the horizon and seeing ‘if this isn’t something that I have now that I can aspire to be that way’ is worth noting. As you said, providing that camaraderie between women is super important, and the more examples we have of women taking the charge and getting that backing, then those figures should increase.

It’s interesting to note too that you are obviously very data-driven, so you’ve come away from that corporate world applying this same skillset there.

Louise: I think what’s so good about Athena is that we’ve got 38 female founders from all over the globe at the moment, at various stages of their lifecycle. We’ve got WhatsApp groups running and weekly drop-ins, and we have guest speakers. For example, we had Alex, the CEO of Secret Escapes with us last week, which was absolutely incredible.

Every week we bring people in who are actually telling their stories, both females and males. You hear stories, founders are asking questions, and they’re networking with each other and sharing ideas and templates. That’s why a lot of people want to come to Athena because you’re getting more than just the money.

Emma: That support network is phenomenal.

Now, it would be remiss not to talk about your experience with digital transformation. You’ve had resounding success across the board as a transformation director across a lot of big-name companies: HSBC, Specsavers, Aviva, the list goes on.

Do you have any [digital transformation] common practices that you’ve applied to achieve consistently at these places at scale, especially as a woman in this male-dominated field?

Louise: I’ve been lucky with 35 years of experience, back to my first ever role when I was 17. I didn’t go to university unfortunately; I came from a poor background and I had to push myself through the ranks. I was doing digital transformation even 35 years ago. You won’t believe it but that was in the early days of SAP when computers first came in.

“One thing that was in my foundations back then which I still carry in my toolkit when I’m doing a digital transformation, is what I call process mapping. That is looking at the 9-box grid, which is all of the processes across the whole organization—front office, middle office, and back office—taking those and mapping the as-is and to-be processes, and then identifying the pain points in those processes.“

Louise: A key thing here is bringing in the process owners; the people that run those processes on a daily basis. Often they’re the people that are at transactional level and never really get their voice heard. They never speak up. They’re the ones that ‘just run the processes’, but they are closest to the processes and so are aware of things that are going wrong. I was doing digital transformation even 35 years ago. You won’t believe it but that was in the early days of SAP when computers first came in.

Once you’ve identified the pain points, it’s key to understand how you would automate those processes, and what technology would you use to automate them. They’re the common things that I’ve always taken along with me. It’s about identifying the pain points as a measure of success.

“One more common thing that I’ve introduced the last few digital transformations is adding an ESG agenda in those processes. What’s the carbon footprint? How is diversity considered? What’s the societal impact of what you’re doing? So, not just measuring the process improvements in terms of cost savings or revenue generation or KPI improvements, but actually then overlay other ESG factors. That’s one thing that I think lots of digital transformations can learn from today, is adding those layers.“

They’re the key things in my kit bag, and across 35 years I’m still using them.

Emma: There we go tried and tested and haven’t failed you.

In the DevOps Unbound session you participated in on how to lead a DevOps transformation, and you mentioned addressing the pain points, and that if process owners run through their pain points and you find a solution, then you get somewhere; if you just focus on that higher tier level and that C-level suite or director level buy in, you’re not going to get that complete landscape overview.

You once shared a story with our Tricentis founder Wolfgang Platz, during your time at the HMRC in the UK when you met with the prime minister from England. Can you share that?

Louise: Yes, I was really lucky. It was a few years ago when online self-assessment was coming into the UK but the uptake wasn’t grand. I was brought in to lead the charge into improving the digital transformation, but it was the same time as austerity measures were hitting so we had to cut the cost by 25% at the same time. So, trying to weigh up how to digitalize a big government department which had been running for a long time when costs were quite high—and they needed to be brought down at the same time—I came up with a strategy where most of the IT services were outsourced.

“It was about being able to find a way to change the landscape from the way things had operated in HMRC for such a long time, and it was very much the common agenda on: how can we automate the processes? What technology can we bring in, and how can we reduce the costs? Key to all of that was: how can we innovate and continuously improve at the same time?“

Louise: The blocker was an outsourcing contract that the government had, which was publicly announced afterwards. I came up with a strategy on how we could reduce cost and digitalize more, but it meant removing or changing the outsourcing supplier that we had, and I was quite a young; 15 years younger than I am now, and I was shaking with my papers going into the prime minister’s office sharing my strategy thinking ‘is he going to believe in me or not?’.

“It was because I had piles of data and facts to support my argument, and he loved my idea and my proposal so agreed to it. It was a huge success and it was in the public domain; it was announced that we’d actually managed to reduce the cost significantly and digitalize more and created a continuous improvement innovation function.“

Louise: One thing to have in your kit bag: clean up what you have. Come up with a new automated look and feel, but avoid getting to that stagnant state that you had been for many years, because you need to always build in innovation, and that’s not just a word that’s used. It’s part of the DNA and culture of any organization, and I think that’s where we ended with HMRC and many of the digital transformations I’ve undertaken: having employees, partners, customers,suppliers, everybody involved in the innovation of generating new ideas. Then bringing those ideas forward continuously, improving the organization but making sure you’ve got no restrictions on enabling the organization to actually implement those innovations.

Unfortunately HMRC was rigid and fixed with its outsourcer supplier, but now what I’m doing with Athena Ventures is having the ideation from the founders. The great thing for me is that I’ve built up an incredible network with large corporates where we actually become the innovation and ideation. I can bring in the female founders that’ve got this great innovative technology, and take them into these organizations and let them see the exciting stuff that’s being developed outside of their organization.

“It’s about staying alive, continuously innovating all the time, and making sure it’s a part of the company’s DNA. And then even better: doing so with females so that you score against your ESG agenda or corporate alignment.“

Emma: There we go, winning on all accounts! With the HMRC project you were pitching that right way back when digital transformation was still in its infancy. For many years you were dealing with the legacy architecture of a lot of these companies. I like the analogy that it’s like trying to move deck chairs around the Titanic, and by removing some of the obstacles you get—whether that’s an iceberg or you’re up against a lot of challenges—you can inject innovation that has sustainable impact and longevity.

That innovation would feed to delivering on quality, and we always talk about the role that quality plays in these transformations. It’s important for the end user, the customer, that they’re interacting with a quality product. We’ve definitely reached this tipping point where executives are now recognizing that a sound testing strategy is critical for delivering that innovation but also at speed.

What role have you seen quality play in the transformations you’ve led?

Louise: First of all, you’ve got to measure it, and then you can improve it, but quality hasgot to be measured. If you can take away the manual transactional side of things you’re removing bad quality.

My number one topic is data. It’s about having good quality data. Remove the transactional element where mistakes can happen and automate as much as possible, then use data and facts to actually measure the success. That’s where I love Tricentis so much; I came across Tricentis many years ago in their very early days when I was a user of their product many years ago in one of my transformations, and if you don’t test things then you can end up going around the houses before you get it right.

It’s about a transformation, and getting things right as quickly as possible: implementing change and low cost as quickly and low cost as possible, and making sure it’s reliable. The only way you’re going to do that is by including automated testing and taking away the manual testing, because the amount of time used in manual testing is just such a waste.

You want your users value-adding, so you want your applications and systems doing all the automated testing. Then only on exception do you need to have human intervention. That’s the only way you get the quality in a transformation.

“I’ve seen transformations fail a number of times because companies struggle at the testing stage or even forget the testing stage. It goes straight into live and the end users say that the whole program was a complete disaster because somebody forgot to do the testing. If you’ve got the Tricentis product in there from the early days you won’t ever miss that step. If you’re a CIO or a transformation lead, your own reputation is on the line if you put something key in live without doing proper testing or manual testing that’s not done properly. Quality is key.“

Emma: Great! Thank you for the kind of words on Tricentis, it is a really cool company to be a part of in terms of its automation. As you say, moving away from manual testing which is such labor-intensive stuff opens up more time and head space for innovation. With automation we’re in this continually evolving space with no code/low code. AI also continues to be exciting for our industry.

In 10 words or less I’d love to hear what your best piece for advice is for women aspiring to technology leadership roles?

Louise: It’s about building yourself a really great network, whether that’s a network of females or people in various functions, or people in C-suite and different industry sectors. I’ve been lucky in my journey to have built up a really good network. I’ve got 33,000 people on LinkedIn now, and with every single one of them I’m sure if I reached out, I’d get a really positive response.

“That leads me to number two: don’t be afraid to ask. So many people think ‘oh no I couldn’t possibly ask that person that question’. Why not? People love helping each other and if you’re in a similar sector, or you’re a female—gentlemen also love helping people—don’t ever be afraid to ask. Whatever it is, I’m sure there’s somebody out there that would love to be able to answer and help. People generally are kind and they love helping. Also: have confidence. If you’ve got a great idea, have confidence and take it forward.“

Louise: Never give up. Unfortunately my Dad passed away a couple of years ago, and he was my absolute God; he was wonderful. He used to say to me ‘don’t ever give up’. Even if you haven’t got money or what have you, just don’t give up if you’re passionate enough about something and you’ve got a dream. Never give up and keep going. I’ve heard people say ‘I wish I hadn’t given up’ many times.

Another thing: if you’ve got an idea, try it. I’ve seen so many people in my career say you can’t do it. I call them mood hoovers or doubters, as they have all the reasons why you can’t do it. But if you passionately believe in something enough, just go for it.

Emma: Great!

If you could change one thing about how the application development world operates, what would that be?

Louise: Do things faster. I’ve been told by people ‘you’ve got to own the IP of something because it enhances value.’ But I think the world has changed dramatically, and I don’t think you have to own the IP for your whole end-to-end platform.

There are so many really great smart technologies out there. It’s about a Lego block design; it’s microservices in a word. If you’ve got a microservice build of applications that join together with APIs, it takes you away from big legacy-built applications, which is where I’ve come from historically in financial services. You can never change these because they’re the Titanic scenario.

If you build your platforms with applications that are glued together with API, if technology changes or you want to enhance a new product, it’s just a Lego block: plug it in, plug it out. That’s one thing I can change. You change people’s mindset now so that you don’t have to build the whole thing like a legacy application. Then overlaying it with the automation and the automation testing, and different things that can be put in there.

So: think microservices, don’t think big legacy applications. That’s where innovation and continuous improvement continually happens faster, cheaper, and change happens quicker.

Hear more from Louise in a webinar alongside other women leaders, championing women in tech and their achievements in driving digital transformations.

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