Ursula Dolton, CTO of the British Heart Foundation, grew up in Sri Lanka, in a household where traditional gender roles firmly held sway. Whilst Dolton was allowed to help out in her fathers' business, the familial expectation was that this should be the limit of her ambition.
"In Sri Lanka, twenty or thirty years ago women didn't really have careers. It wasn't the norm, and it wasn't encouraged. Young ladies don't work."
Dolton was, in her own words, "the rebel of the family," and decided to leave Sri Lanka for the UK to pursue her education. It didn't go down well with her family.
Nonetheless, come to the UK she did to finish her technology degree in Birmingham. It is only after we have finished speaking that I find myself reflecting on the immense strength of character that would have been necessary for such a young woman to leave behind the safety and security of family - and some of their values - to fly to the other side of the world to finish her education.
Dolton achieved so highly that the University of Central England offered her a scholarship to enable her to complete an MBA. It was during this time, whilst also working for Cadbury, that she won a hotly contested place on the Jaguar Land Rover graduate scheme.
"I was there for ten years and I still say I'm a product of Jaguar Land Rover because they really looked after me and sponsored me to do a PhD and to become a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt."
By the time Dolton left Jaguar Land Rover she had worked her way up to become a Senior Programme Manager and then packed up her bags once more to move to London to take up another programme management role at Citibank. This time she had some company, in the form of her 18-month-old daughter after her marriage became another casualty of the recession in 2010. I put it to her that I consider this a brave move.
"It didn't feel like that at the time," she laughs.
First CTO for British Heart Foundation
Dolton stayed at Citibank for two and a half years, then took on another transformation project at the University of East London. She was headhunted by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) five years ago to take up the role of Head of Technology and Business Change. Within 18 months Dolton was running the whole IT function but faced challenges from the lack of IT presence at the executive table. However, it didn't take her long to sell her vision of how technology could power the transition of the BHF into a much more flexible and digital entity.
"When I actually took on the department, based on the work I was doing and me really showing the importance of technology and bringing the whole digital segment to the forefront, the BHF decided that for us to move forward as an organisation they needed the voice of technology at the executive table."
In 2019 Dolton was subsequently appointed the BHF's first CTO, and she is rightly proud of the way that a charity which has a long tradition of dependence on its high street presence of 700 UK stores and physical fundraising activities has adapted to digital realities.
"When I became the CTO, I really worked on defining our vision as an organisation and considering what success looks like for us and that's a continual process. In the pre COVID world success looked like majority of our fundraising opportunities being focused on those physical shops and people walking into those shops. We were focused on generating income through physical fundraising activities. My technology vision was to make sure that my team provides all the capabilities for the rest of the organisation so we can provide the digital services that our external customers and donors need."
When COVID-19 hit, the charity was well placed to adapt when shops and offices were shuttered. Dolton had taken the shrewd decision to deploy O365 and Microsoft Teams back in 2019, so employees could easily work from their homes. BHF quickly began to reach out to individual fundraisers to organise fund raising activities which could be run individually. Dolton also turned the enforced closure of into an opportunity to accelerate the pace of the huge retail transformation program.
"We were implementing new network infrastructure and Wi-Fi in stores plus a whole new EPOS system. We've been running this programme for about three years now, partnering with Microsoft and it all came to a head during the first lockdown. Unfortunately, our implementation partner actually went into administration right in the middle of it, just as we were getting ready to go live. "
Not keeping going at this point was not an option given the millions of pounds that had been invested in the programme to date, and a new partner was found to finish the rollout and the programme went live last December. When BHF shops reopen next month, staffers will be sporting new tablets and familiarising themselves with their newly connected systems.
Mentoring and advice
By any measure Dolton has built an immensely successful career - rendered even more impressive by the fact that English is her third language. She is keen to extend opportunities to other young people - particularly women and girls - and takes part in a number of mentoring groups.
"From a recruitment perspective we do a lot of things. We are a member of the Tech Talent Charter (a non-profit organisation aiming to increase diversity and inclusion within the UK Tech sector.) I'm in the Dell Technologies mentoring programme and I also work with AWS to mentor youngsters in school. "
Dolton also takes part in a number of other mentoring groups and has some words of advice for women struggling to balance parenting and their careers.
"I took part in this session last week where there were 27 young women in middle management across three or four different countries and part of my advice was to stop trying to compartmentalise your different roles. I was always so conscious that in my career I somehow couldn't or shouldn't show that I was combining it with my personal life and being a mum. One of the biggest lessons I've learned is actually to acknowledge your whole self, bring your whole self to work, be yourself. You are and you will always be a mum and you will always be a career woman. You don't switch off from one or the other, at a given time. So just do the best you can.
"When we went into lockdown, that was one of the biggest messages I sent everybody. Don't try to fight the two roles, don't try to separate them because it will only stress you out and make you really frustrated with trying to juggle the two. Let's just embrace it, and let's just, you know, make sure we, we just pick out a way to make it work."
Ursula Dolton is a judge for this year's Women in Tech Excellence Awards.
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