Gapsquare’s goal is to beat the time frame of 217 years that the World Economic Forum has to close the income gaps between women and men. Gapsquare’s mission is to knock out two centuries of inequality and close the gender pay gap by 2034. It really is time for change.
If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Zara: I am funny, and a learner. And I am a do-er. At first, I was going to say “ninja” because that is what it says on our website about me. But I had a conversation last week and the first question was “Are you a real ninja?” Since I have no connection to martial arts, I said no. The gentleman who had asked me was rather disappointed and during our conversation we didn’t really click after that.
But there must be a reason why you say it on your website? How would you translate being a Ninja, if it has nothing to do with martial arts?
Sian: She is a multitasker. She juggles so many different things at the same time. Most people who meet Zara for the first time are wondering: How does she get all the things done that she gets done? And that is why we call her a Ninja. It’s because she has got so much energy, she gets through so much and takes on so many different things – not only in her working life but also her private life. For example, she is chair of the governors at her school, she mentors two teenagers and that is just two of the many projects she is doing outside of Gapsquare and raising her two children.
How did you come up with the idea for Gapsquare?
Zara: My background is in human rights and social justice. And I have been focussing specifically on women’s rights and did a lot of work in preventing trafficking of human beings using prevention methods. A lot of my work was around building information campaigns for women: “Be informed, that there is a possibility of being trafficked.” But being informed would not put bread on their table and feed their children. Ultimately, it always kept on coming back to women’s economic rights and the fact that there can be many conversations about empowering women through knowledge. But as long as women don’t have equal rights to the economy and they cannot participate fully in the economy, things are not going to shift much. And we can invest millions in those information campaigns, women are still going to be trafficked and still going to end up in exploitative roles.
And this is what I have been thinking about the past few years actually: Where is the link to the economy? Where is the link to the way the world operates in terms of corporates, in terms of work and in terms of money? That’s why I have always wanted to run my own business. And it had to be a business, not a charity because firstly, I am entitled to run a business as a woman and secondly, I didn’t want people to feel they had to give me money for charity reasons thinking “Oh, I feel for her and want to support her with some money.”
Don’t get me wrong: Charity is good, and it has an important role to play in this world. But I wanted it to be part of the economy because it operates as a business and I also wanted to change the economy because it gives women a bigger role within that economy.
Sian: It has a lot to do with changing people’s mindsets. A charity is something we all ought to do but we wanted to make sure that people value women’s work through our own work.
How did you then actually start building the company? What were the first steps?
Zara: I was doing a lot of work in Bristol with a lot of large companies in the Tech-Sector around gender and diversity. And every time it came down to the fact that people thought gender and diversity within a company is this unmeasurable “wishy-washy” thing. Most of them also thought that by doing some trainings and workshops or writing some policies to tick off certain boxes it is done. But when it came to measure the impact of those activities and actually looking at your companies’ numbers in terms of “How many women do you have in your company?” and “What kind of roles do these women have in your company?” or questions like “What’s the return of investment in departments where you have more women in comparison to departments where you have almost no women – what role does this play within your company?” There was fairly any link between gender and diversity and the actual operations of a company.
One day, I was having a conversation on how technology is disrupting the way we travel, the way we learn about different things around the world, the way we communicate with people in other countries and I got to thinking that maybe technology could also play a role in how we do diversity and inclusion. It doesn’t have to be that “ticking boxes” around trainings and policies – yes, they have a role to play, but they haven’t been shifting the gender pay gap over the past few years. It’s been staying static for about 4 years now.
And we also had a lot of conversations around artificial intelligence and how AI is changing the ways in job automation and is changing the way decisions are made in the business and I thought about linking those: If we connect technology, artificial intelligence and new tech developments with diversity and inclusion and actually use that technology to shift the way companies manage their diversity and help them build more inclusive teams, we could increase their revenues because they get a more diverse and more productive workforce.
What was a first challenge as a female founder you encountered?
Zara: Going to events, networking events, and being asked to clean the table. I am not joking, this happened to me at least twice.
The first time was in the building that we work. There is a very nice café downstairs. Since we work in a tech incubator, I have to say it is a very male dominated environment. And as I was walking past a table a man stopped me and asked if I wanted “to get these”. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he was offering me his table and I remember thinking how kind that was as there were never enough tables available. I looked at him saying “excuse me?” and he asked if I wanted to get the cups. You can imagine my consternation and I asked him why he thought I was going to clean his table. He simply answered that he though I worked at the café. He caught me so much by surprise that I didn’t even tell him that I ran a Tech-Company – I just told him I didn’t work at the café and walked on.
The only thing I could think of was that “it had happened” to me. I heard from so many women in the business sector talking about being mistaken for waitresses when going to events and now it had happened to me. It makes it so much more real than just hearing about it. And I always thought that it couldn’t be true. But apparently it is.
The other situation was even worse, I think. I was at an event where companies were pitching for investors. Before the pitches there was some time for networking. I was the only women in the room and most of the men were standing in groups looking at the amazing view the venue had: It was overlooking the London skyline and beautiful. When I was approaching the groups of men chatting they looked at me saying “Oh you must be so used to this view working here.” And the next thing I knew was that someone asked me “Is the wine ready, can we get a glass of wine?”
Do these incidents make you value what you do even more?
Zara: It does. It makes me feel it is more important and it also makes me realize that we are not as advanced as I thought we were. As I was starting my business I thought I was starting it from a certain point and we are going to change the world from step A to step B. Actually, I have to take a step back because the reality is way behind of where I thought we were. We need to first take a step to reach step A and then move on to step B. The road is going to take longer which makes our work even more important.
What was a highlight in the Gapsquare (hi)story so far?
Zara: I think there are a lot of moments where we are amazed that we are actually doing this. Every day. But I think a big stepping stone was when I took Sian on because it was like we were going to “double-do” this now. She has got as much energy as I do and she is bringing on a lot of determination and more organizational skills than I have. This was when I knew, we could really do this.
Sian: I’ve got two other things. We applied for the MIT Solve-Program this spring and one day – we were in the office, had lots of work to do – suddenly, there was this email coming in saying: “We want you to come to New York.” We made it into the finals of the Program. This was an amazing moment I will not forget. For us it was a validation that what we do was right and people are recognizing our work and the impact that we can possibly make.
And, of course, we had also applied for F-Lane and put a lot of effort into the application and we also got the call to Berlin about the same time as the invitation to New York – I think they both came within two weeks. And this is amazing for us.
Zara is the founder and she had the idea for Gapsquare. But what made you, Sian, want to join the team?
Sian: I have known Zara for years. We first met about five years ago and we volunteered together in a social enterprise where we looked at changing attitudes towards women through a local business magazine in Bristol. We worked together, and Zara was like an unofficial mentor for me in the past five years. She helped me to get my previous job which was a women’s rights charity. We stayed in touch and then I started doing more and more freelance work for Zara over the past year around diversity, looking at women in business. I really saw value in what she was doing.
Then my sister had a baby girl last year and I realized that one of the key messages of Gapsquare is how long it will take for the gender pay gap to close. Zara always said that it will not happen for her children and I thought it will not happen for my niece either. But with the technology Gapsquare is developing, Zara’s aim is to close the gap in the next 17 years and that will be around the time my niece turns 18. That would be amazing if we could achieve that in the next 17 years. That was very powerful for me and I do think we work very well as a team.
If you, Zara, had to describe Sian in three words, what would they be?
Zara: Determined. Fun. It’s all about the fun. Dedicated.
What’s next for Gapsquare? What are the next steps?
Zara: We always knew we want to take our software outside of the UK. Mostly because we believe there is going to be little value if we only stay in the UK. For that step to happen we thought F-Lane would be an amazing step to explore the German market and see how the mindset is here. Are there any opportunities here? Can we identify partners and build relationships in Germany?
When we arrived here in Berlin something interesting happened: F-Lane is meant to be the “fast lane” and we have been on the fast lane for basically every day in the past six months, this program is actually a little bit of a slow lane for us, but it is a good kind of slow lane. It is helping us to actually take a moment and pause all the running around and re-think why we started this business. Are we on the right track? Is there space to re-consider some of our messages? To change our strategies of how we are going to take our business outside of the UK? It is giving us a reflection space, so we can then hop back on the fast lane and propel it beyond the UK.
And what I have also learned during the past 18 months is that if you really work on something hard, you will get there. It might not be the way you thought you were going to get there and you might have to take detours, but you will still end up where you wanted to go in the first place.
Sian: She said it so nicely, I just want to add that we actually signed our first US client this week which is going to get us into the very big American market. This is very exciting for us and again shows that people value what we do. But yes, basically, it is about eliminating the gender pay gap all around the world for women.
How important are mentors or role models for women?
Zara: Very important. I look at my two young children and the role models that they see around them. Then I realize that for them – especially when it comes to the tech-sector – it gets difficult to understand the business and what kind of roles there are in this business and what kind of skills these roles require – they don’t really see themselves in this industry.
I was doing a talk for seven-year olds of a school last year about the gender pay gap and we were talking about gender and different types of jobs. The children were trying to convince me that women should not work in construction because it is too dangerous, as a brick could fall on their head. And then they could die. So, men want to protect women from dying on the construction site which is why women shouldn’t be there. When I reversed the question, and asked whether it was ok for a man to die on a construction site it was interesting to see their reactions – because of the role models they see around them and the types of jobs these role models have, these seven-year olds have already a pre-constructed idea of what they will or will not do when they grow up.
What would be a message from you, Zara, to younger women – especially women who are thinking about founding a company and maybe don’t have the courage?
Zara: My key message would be “Stop being the good girl!” I see it in myself so many times – we are conditioned to be the good girl and please everybody, be nice and quiet and accepting of everything. It is about time we stop being the good girls and start being ourselves and embrace ourselves the way we are. I think that is the key thing you can do.
Sian: I can actually add something that Zara said the other day to a group of girls that were visiting out Tech-Incubator. She turned around and said: “Don’t think you cannot achieve what you want. Because you can.” And she then told them she was running a Tech-Company even though she has no particular tech-background but still, she is CEO of a tech-company that provides a solution to improve women’s economic situation.
The interview was conducted by Christina Richter from FIELFALT, the community and blogazine for female empowerment. FIELFALT wants to encourage women to leave their comfort zones to dare something and to achieve their goals and realize their dreams.