The Strategy Sessions – Sheree Atcheson

When Morrisey sang, we hate it when our friends are successful, he was probably thinking about Sheree Atcheson. Because Sheree is the sort of person you just want to hate!

She’s 26. She works for Deloitte as a Technical Business consultant. She runs Women Who Code (WWC) in the UK and Ireland. She’s just been named as one of the 35 most influential women in tech in the UK. She’s about to launch an amazing new project to inspire Sri Lanka women (more on that later). She’s been a viral internet hit. Twice. She’s a former model. She’s happily married. She’s got a cute dog (one of her viral hits). Yes, you heard, she’s got a cute dog. Look.

alfie the ring bearer

But, even if you try as hard as you can, you just can’t hate Sheree. Sitting with her to talk is fun, enjoyable, enlightening and inspirational. Sheree talks with a passion for her subject that’s hard to top and is ridiculously smart to boot.

Women Who Code

I first met Sheree about 4 years ago when she was just getting going with WWC.

“WWC is a global non-profit that I brought to Belfast just after I graduated. I wanted to make a difference to women regardless of their employment status, their financial stature, regardless of any personal circumstance, I just wanted to provide a place for them to come together to nurture their digital competencies and develop their skill set.”

I’ve written before about the lack of diversity in the tech industry and it seems to me that WWC and organisations like them are essential. Well, certainly essential in places like the UK where girls don’t get involved in tech from an early age like they do in other countries.

It’s a personal opinion, backed by no evidence, that I believe that coding and embracing digital is crucial for cities like Belfast and my home town of Bradford.

The industries that powered the development of the great northern cities of the UK – flax, wool, coal etc – have long gone, often replaced with low value call centre type jobs. Digital offers the chance to be part of the next wave of change, with the potential of new jobs without the ‘satanic mills’.

And to take take full advantage of that, we don’t want just half the population learning the skills. When only 16% of computer science grads are female, we’ve got work to do.

Sheree brought WWC to Belfast from San Francisco, while she worked at Kainos, a leading local tech firm. It settled in well and was a hit locally, which caused a change in strategy.

“We first branched to Belfast and then over to London after we received a lot of media coverage”, Sheree said, “then Bristol and Edinburgh and now we have a branch in the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.”

Sheree’s original plan was to bed Belfast in and make it “sturdy, so it could stand on its own two legs” but the media changed all of that.

“We were covered in The Guardian, Computer Weekly and Wired. We then had a host of companies wanting to work with us, we had all the attention and people looking at us and I had to make the leap to expand months before I had planned.”

Ah, the great strategic paradox: Should you stick with the strategy or flex when an opportunity presents itself?

You have a plan for growth and development of the organisation, then external forces start to effect you and your plan needs revisiting.

And the impact of external forces aren’t always positive. Mike Tyson (that well known marketing strategist!) captured it best when he said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Quite. But he has a point – if the external forces ‘smack you in the face’, do you stick to the plan or twist to something new?

mike tyson quotes

Pic courtesy of FTW by USA Today

In Sheree’s case, for WWC, it was time to twist. “I thought if we don’t hop now, it will be a waste of an opportunity. We can’t sit on our hands for another few months.”

And what a decision it was. There are now more 6,000 members of WWC across the UK and Ireland, with programme directors and leadership teams running each location.

Sheree is now the UK Expansion Director of WWC, a job that sees her away from the day to day nitty-gritty of running WWC and being the public face and figurehead of the organisation in the UK and Ireland. Wow.

Tyrone’s Lion

It’s clear to see that when Sheree sets her mind to something, great things happen. She’s focused on continuing to raise the profile of WWC, but also has something else in her sights. Sri Lanka.

“I’m someone of Sri Lankan origin and I wanted to make a difference in the country that in originally from” Sheree said.

The brief details are that Sheree was a adopted by a couple from Ireland when she was tiny and brought up in Tyrone. This only causes her small issues when she’s in Sri Lanka because no one understands her Irish accent… Which is understandable as people from County Down can’t understand people from Tyrone! Her full story, which is worth reading, is covered in more detail here or in her interview with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan.

As part of Sheree’s search for her birth mother, she has gained a lot of coverage in Sri Lanka, which has captured the local mood.

marketing strategy

Sheree continues, “after the media coverage, I’ve received hundreds, if not thousands of messages from women in Sri Lanka, saying that I’ve inspired them. They’ve seen something that they didn’t know Sri Lankan women could do.”

“I’m starting my own social responsibility programme to try and give something back. I’m going to be working with local and global Sri Lankan role models. People who are still in those areas, people who have left – like me – people who are working as global leaders to highlight what is possible.”

It’s an amazing idea. Sheree said some people have described her story as Lion Part 2, in reference to the Hollywood film starring Dev Patel as the Indian boy who gets lost and adopted before rediscovering his birth family as an adult. That film brought a tear to my eye and Sheree’s story has a similar effect, because it’s so inspiring.

Sheree added, “I want people in Sri Lanka to know that regardless of your circumstances or where you’re from, you are these people who are doing amazing things and we are Sri Lanka.”

Shoot for the stars 

It’s often easy to forget that Sheree has a day job with one of the Big 4 firms. While running WWC. And launching a global social responsibility programme. I find myself wondering if she ever sleeps!

Jim Collins called it a BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal. Others call it shooting for the stars. However you decide to phrase it, make sure your marketing strategy focuses on achieving something brilliant. You might not get there, but set those ambitions high and you might shock yourself with that you can achieve.

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