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“Being a person of colour in Ireland shapes how you view yourself – I was always different”

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Listed as one of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech and recognised on the NI 40under40, Sheree Atcheson is a 27 year old, working as a Tech Business Consultant at Deloitte, Founder of I Am Lanka, Board-Appointed Global Ambassador for Women Who Code and a Contributor for Forbes.

As a passionate advocate for gaining and retaining women in the tech industry, she launched and led the award-winning U.K. expansion of Women Who Code. Now, she has a global role with the non-profit showcasing their work and impact across the world, helping tech companies with their Diversity & Inclusion strategies and being a thought leader in this space.

If all of that wasn’t inspirational enough, Sheree has also made an impact in her personal life, when she enlisted the help of a Sri Lankan news outlet to help find her birth mother. We talk to Sheree about motivation, balance, and the importance of relatable role models.

 

What time do you usually get up and how do you start your day? 

7.05am, which gives me exactly 40 minutes to get ready and catch the bus to work in Belfast City Centre. I don’t have an overly exciting morning routine – it’s streamlined and efficient – no “dilly dallying”!

 

Take us on a jaunt through your career to date… what was your route to consulting? 

My career path feels very unique to me. I began as a Software Engineer & pivoted into consulting because I liked working with clients face to face. When I started out, I never imagined I’d be doing what I do now.

I have thrown myself into a lot of scary situations in my career, but that has given me the “fast-tracked” growth I now have. I had to fully understand how my skills as an engineer could map to being a consultant. Through my leadership with WWCode over the past 5 years, I have had the privilege of figuring out where I want my career to go. I see that as a Head of Diversity & Inclusion position.

 

I am showcasing the impact that one person can have, and how, regardless of your race, gender, sexuality, religion, abilities, etc, you can and should avail of the great opportunities the tech industry can provide.

 

You travel the world as an ambassador for Women Who Code – tell us about the message you are trying to impart, and how you balance that commitment with your role at Deloitte?

I am showcasing the impact that one person can have, and how, regardless of your race, gender, sexuality, religion, abilities, etc, you can and should avail of the great opportunities the tech industry can provide.

The system needs work – it is broken and is riddled with unchecked bias – but through showcasing relatable role models accomplishing great things in STEM we can empower those who want to make their way into this industry.

WWCode has over 137,000 global members, in over 80 cities. The work we do is crucial in helping women excel in their technical skillsets, but also to empowering those members to become our current and future leaders. 

 

I have availed of the super flexible Time Out initiative at Deloitte, which gave me the opportunity to dedicate June to my European speaking tour.

 

My career (or maybe I mean my life!) is a balancing act. I am at a crux in my life where I’m figuring what I want to do and how I want to do it. My passion is making the tech industry of tomorrow better than the one which exists today and because of this, my career is going to be dedicated to that. 

I have availed of the super flexible Time Out initiative at Deloitte, which gave me the opportunity to dedicate June to my European speaking tour. Deloitte is dedicated to Respect & Inclusion, ensuring our firm enables everyone to bring their whole selves to work. Because of this, they know how important my leadership in industry is and have empowered me to focus on it.

 

Sheree Atcheson

 

How do you motivate yourself on days when your energy levels are lower?

I take a step back (which I’m still learning to do). I try and focus on the impact I have had already and see the positives there. I go to the gym regularly and that definitely helps center myself.

But more importantly, I’m learning that there are days when I just need to stop, leave it and give myself a rest. I have burned out 3 times already this year …. There’s a lesson in there somewhere!

 

The system is broken and not built to empower and promote those who don’t “fit” in with what a leader looks or sounds like.

 

What do you feel are the main barriers to attracting more women to tech roles? 

The system is broken and not built to empower and promote those who don’t “fit” in with what a leader looks or sounds like. That needs changed. People shouldn’t need to “lean in”, they need a system which values them accordingly.

To do that, we need to change company culture and environments – creating a place where people can be themselves entirely, whilst progressing up the ladder. We need middle-management (and executives) to be invested in D&I and this means allyship, privilege awareness and sponsorship becoming second nature, not second thought.

Getting more girls into STEM subjects means giving them the opportunity to decide whether they like it or not. Get involved with CoderDojo, Stemettes or some of the other amazing youth-focused organisations. Allow your child to determine what they like without close-minded stereotypes playing in. Check out Let Toys Be Toys on that.

 

I always knew I was adopted and being a person of colour in Ireland obviously shapes how you view yourself – I was always different.

 

Can you tell us about your I Am Lanka project – what is your aim for it and what does it mean to you on a personal level?

The I Am Lanka organisation is here to highlight Sri Lanka’s local & global role models who have accomplished great things in their lives and careers. We are working to empower & inspire our people through showcasing the current Sri Lankan change makers, in order to foster innovation & change in our and the next generation.

I created this for the same reasons I started my WWCode UK expansion in Belfast – I wanted people to hear the stories of local people who look, sound and are similar to them doing great things. Representation matters and if I can do even one small thing to help someone feel like they belong, then great!

 

Your search to find your Sri Lankan birth mother was helped by News First in Sri Lanka. In the video footage of that emotional reunion you graciously told your birth mother not to apologise, that you have a fantastic life – how have the circumstances of your birth and your upbringing fed into your passionate advocacy for empowering women?

I’ll be honest and say until I began that search last year, it hadn’t. I hadn’t fully realized how privileged I was being adopted to have it feed into any of my work. I always knew I was adopted and being a person of colour in Ireland obviously shapes how you view yourself – I was always different. However, until I realized and saw the life I could have had, I never really thought about how lucky I was.

That perhaps sounds selfish or naïve but it’s a very unusual situation. I have always used my voice to amplify others but this has certainly helped me understand how the fact I have that ability is a privilege in itself.

 

 

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given in your career?

Everyone doesn’t need to like you. We spend so much time trying to ensure everyone is part of our mission that it means when someone actively doesn’t believe in what you do, it tears you down.

We are here to bring people on our mission and have a shared brain experience, but there will be people who will be negative. That’s life. Don’t focus on them and certainly don’t allow them to affect your mental health or capacity.

 

What are your goals, personally and professionally for the rest of 2018?

I want a Head/Lead of Diversity and Inclusion role. I want to affect change in a new place, forming D&I strategies and leading the way. I’ve done a lot of great work over the years and I’m ready for yet another pivot.

Personally, I want to learn how to slow down and take more time for my partner and I. 

I work a lot. Too much. I was on a road-trip around Croatia this year and whilst driving this amazing road with my partner, I was replying to an email from a leading tech company to have me speak at their Leadership Summit. I shouldn’t do that and I regret missing moments because of it – I want to change that.

I only got married last year and no one should live to work, we should work to live. I love my work, but (thankfully), I love my husband more!

 

How do you relax & de-stress at the end of the day and during difficult periods?

This is one of my developmental areas – I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I think that means I need more holidays and more spa days 😉

 

Sheree will speak at the upcoming Women in Tech Dublin event on November 15th. For information on the event, and to receive a 15% discount on tickets, follow this link. 

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