Anna Brailsford headshot To meet Anna Brailsford is to meet a woman who absolutely radiates energy and determination. Sure, she’s got a detailed mastery of her brief – statistics and insights flow forth at will – but it’s how she uses them which is her defining feature.

This approach, honed from the boardrooms of Silicon Valley and shaped by her lifelong competitiveness and willingness to embrace life outside her comfort zone, has powered her meteoric career ascent and is now being deployed as chief executive of Code First Girls (CFG), a social enterprise that is the largest provider of free coding courses for women across the UK.

Unlike many other organisations which aim to persuade more girls to take STEM subjects at school, CFG is laser focused on helping women in later life.

“We focus on employable women because our research tells us that women tend to make the decision to go into tech after they’ve picked their degree subject, or after they have joined a profession and want to switch careers,” she explains. “Every woman has the right to change their mind and every woman has the right to be supported through this process. You don’t need to be written off just because you didn’t study a STEM-based subject at university – you just need the support to be able to do it slightly later on in life.”

Not only is this proving highly successful – CFG has delivered over £40 million worth of free technology education and has taught more than 70,000 women to code – it also reflects Brailsford’s own background, which is made up of a rich patchwork of diverse experiences.
 
 
Learning to work
If you Google “Anna Brailsford” there’s no shortage of results. This huge number of different articles and references are a testament to not only her career success, but also her ability to provide incisive commentary around issues relating to leadership, gender diversity and much else besides. It’s probably appropriate, though, that the first search result is her LinkedIn profile.

It was while she was serving as commercial director of Lynda.com – a leading online learning company – that LinkedIn swooped in and bought it for $1.5 billion, which at the time was the largest acquisition in education technology (edtech) history. As you’d expect, this event features prominently in any of her potted biographies, but Brailsford says that she’s experienced her fair share of downs, as well as ups.

“When people read up on you the successes are what’s published,” she admits. “But I’ve heard the word ‘no’ hundreds of times in my life. I think you’ve actually got to learn to love being told ‘no’ as it’s through failures that you learn. In life, you’re going to be told that lots of times but if you push yourself out of your comfort zone and take risks then you will probably get a once in a lifetime opportunity – and that’s what happened to me with Lynda.”

The role at Lynda, however, was not her first taste of edtech – anything but. “My mum was an entrepreneur and she had a very early edtech business,” she reveals, explaining how it proved to be a highly fertile training ground. “I suppose I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I helped out during the summer when home from university I was actually learning  about business, learning about products, and learning about profit and loss.”

Nonetheless, upon graduation, her immediate priorities were more geographic than corporate. “I ended up joining an education company because it enabled me to travel all over the world and, to be honest, at the time that was my priority in life,” she says. And it was from there, having worked with big global companies to help deliver educational strategies, that she was headhunted for the corporate director role at Lynda.
 
 
“Every woman has the right to change their mind and every woman has the right to be supported through this process. You don’t need to be written off just because you didn’t study a STEM-based subject at university – you just need the support to be able to do it slightly later on in life” Anna Brailsford, CEO of Code First Girls
 
Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable

Client Conversation: Meet the Changemaker - Comfortable icon The move, while a success, was not without its challenges – particularly in the early days. “I was the youngest director there and was also the only woman, which was a big shock,” she admits. “I remember entering the boardroom on my first day, looking around and thinking ‘when are they going to tell me to leave, because they’ll realise I’m not good enough’. But some competitive urges were brewing inside me and I told myself I would be ok.”
 
Brailsford, you see, is not one to shy away from a challenge. It’s a habit borne of her childhood when she would often seek to compete with her brother, five years her senior. “Anything he would do I would try and match,” she recalls. “This included, at the age of five, going down a 400 foot drop in a kind of death slide. Just because my brother did it I insisted on doing it too; my mum never got over that one!”

It was these experiences, though, which helped her dig deep at Lynda and it soon began to feel more like home. “I told myself that I was just going down a death slide again and it’s ok to feel like the underdog,” she says. 

“So I was deliberately doing things to make myself uncomfortable every single day. If you are feeling uncomfortable, what you’re actually doing is putting yourself in a situation you wouldn’t normally be in. You risk being vulnerable and getting the word ‘no’, but I took the thing I used to do to compete with my brother and then applied it professionally.” 

And slowly but surely, it all started to fall into place. “When Lynda was acquired by LinkedIn it really put edtech on the map because it previously hadn’t been taken very seriously by Silicon Valley,” she says. “That all changed after the acquisition.” 

Following the purchase, Brailsford continued as commercial director at LinkedIn, a role she embraced with gusto but, at the same time, her compass was starting to point in a new direction. “I noticed that when it came to things like tech hiring in particular, a lot of the candidates looked and sounded exactly the same,” she recalls. 

“I decided that if I ever came across a company that could produce a dataset that was diverse enough to be able to identify emerging tech talent then that would be my future play. I wanted to find something like that because there was such a lack of women in that space, both commercially, from a business perspective, and also in terms of the raw technical skills like software and data. And so when I came across CFG I realised that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for."
 
 
“Over the next five years we want to provide one million opportunities for women to get into coding education, and over one billion pounds worth of economic opportunities for women to take their first job in technology” Anna Brailsford, CEO of Code First Girls
Cracking the code
Client Conversation: Meet the Changemaker - Code icon CFG’s publicly proclaimed mission is to reduce the gender diversity gap in tech globally by giving more women the opportunity to learn new skills and pursue careers in tech. Brailsford, though, is keen to stress that there are a range of different objectives afoot.

“To the outside world it is about training women up for free, supporting local communities, looking for untapped talent and placing those women into fantastic jobs,” she explains. “But we are quite a sophisticated data operation as well – understanding how to look at data around untapped talent, and helping companies retain that talent through our data driven approach.”

After her arrival in 2019, she wasted little time in making her mark, with a new business model, a new product and new brand all following in short order. “We relaunched the company in November 2020 and the company 10 x’d in the space of 18 months; in the entrepreneurial world we regard that as ‘finding product market fit’ and it is very hard to do.”

Brailsford – never one for the quiet life – is now busy setting her sights even higher. “It’s been so crazily successful we are now scaling very dramatically,” she says. “We’re already in seven different countries and we’ve just taken on investment to scale even more. Over the next five years we want to provide one million opportunities for women to get into coding education, and over one billion pounds worth of economic opportunities for women to take their first job in technology. These are our audacious goals and so far it is going incredibly well.”

Asked to identify the key turning point in this growth journey, Brailsford pinpoints the fact that under her leadership CFG has become more focused, moving away from its previous ambition to ‘educate the world’.  
“I flipped it to getting as many women as possible in employment and understanding the educational journey it is going to take to get to that employment,” she explains. “What we were really looking at was focused investment in our clients but also the community of women that we are building, otherwise what you become is a really nice fluffy D&I initiative that has no outcome.”

In other words, she was all about action. “The way we do it is very simply getting more women into jobs, partnering with companies like BAE Systems, understanding that this change has to be tangible and invested in, and they have to provide the support to bring women on board. When you reset your core purpose and align every possible part of the business around it, all of a sudden your clients are aligned around it and your company is working to deliver a single goal – it becomes far easier to implement change.”

She’s quite right. Speaking from my own experience, you can have hundreds of fantastic D&I conversations and meetings, but you can often walk out the room finding yourself questioning what the key action or takeaway was in order to deliver change. It was absolutely the right move to step back from wanting to change the world and instead recalibrating around changing a portion of the world, and focusing on doing it well. 
 
 
“My advice is to always pay it forward and make sure you’re giving back to women who are coming through the ranks – and you can only do that by taking a risk and being brave” Anna Brailsford, CEO of Code First Girls
Much done, more to do
Client Conversation: Meet the Changemaker - More to do icon Nonetheless, despite this progress, there is little doubt that much more needs to be done. Statistics from Tech Nation suggest only 19 per cent of the tech workforce are women, with Black and Hispanic women at just 3 per cent and Asian women only 5 per cent. Talk about deflating. Even Brailsford admits that it’s all too easy to get frustrated.

“All this talking about issues which are already well documented and well known,” she sighs. “Fast forward 20 years and I’d love to say we’re going to reach gender parity, but unfortunately the statistics are telling us that relying on higher education alone won’t be enough to get there. CFG can move the needle dramatically, but even then it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.”

So, what’s to be done? Brailsford believes that only a combination of approaches and organisations working collectively will be effective. “My worry is we need to be 100-xing CFG to make sure we address just how big this problem is,” she says.

“I don’t want to sound scary, but we are in a position where there are so few women in this space that we really are looking at one of the most unique supply and demand issues that I personally have ever seen. If CFG can get 26,000 women into tech jobs, I think that will be absolutely massive, but the industry needs to change in general and I think governments need to come on board too. One organisation can’t do it alone.”

But it’s not just about the numbers – it’s also about creating the next generation of leaders. “My advice is to always pay it forward and make sure you’re giving back to women who are coming through the ranks – and you can only do that by taking a risk and being brave,” she says.

Brailsford describes herself as “practically a walking hashtag for women in tech”. She was joking but there’s more than a kernel of truth in that description. She just needs to add in role model, pioneer and trailblazer – less catchy, true, but far more accurate.

I can’t wait to see what she does next.
 
 

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About the author

Theresa Palmer is Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

theresa.palmer@baesystems.com


 

Further reading
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  • How companies can drive inclusion . Organisations have overcome all manner of challenges over the last couple of years but why is gender equity proving so problematic? Theresa Palmer says it’s time to move from talk to action

  • From Boot Camp to BAE Systems . Jen Openshaw is not your average software engineer. She tells Victoria Knight about switching careers, the benefits of a coding boot camp and leading the charge for more women in the tech sector

  • Break the Bias:  International Women’s  Day 2022 . As we mark International Women’s Day, women leaders from across BAE Systems Digital Intelligence suggest how to #BreakTheBias and help forge a gender-balanced world.

  • Still ambitious – don't count me out! How should women approach the “third quarter” of their lives when it comes to their career and the tech industry? Rebecca Peagram says you’re never too old to turn towards tech