This summer, BusinessWorks ran a social media campaign to discover the most inspiring business leaders in our region. Sam Hawcroft talks to the one who came out on top…
In her own admission, Claire Clark isn’t the most well-known business leader around these parts. “Someone might read this and think, I’ve heard of all these other people – who’s this? But it shows that it's about people who inspire others, and it’s not necessarily about ‘well-known’ leaders; it’s about people like myself just working hard, trying to make a difference, for now and for the future.”
And that’s the competition in a nutshell. BW’s MD Helen Gowland said her intention was to showcase new talent. “Our starting point was, how many businesses are there in Hull and East Yorkshire, and how do we get a campaign out to all of them? Social media was the only option. There was no judging panel or criteria – we just asked our readers who had inspired them in the past six months. It was never about the most successful, longest-serving businessperson, but the most inspirational, so the winner may not be the face people expect on the front cover.”
Among the numerous nominations we received for Claire, who is the director of development at Hull tech firm Sauce, were comments such as, “she puts in tremendous efforts in her own time to champion local initiatives and inspire more women and girls into engineering roles”, and “Claire has introduced new processes, structures, standards and an overall professional way of working – she really is an inspirational leader to her peers”.
From the outset, Claire was someone who wanted to break new ground – to lead, and not follow, as she pursued her ambition to work in what was then, and still is, the man’s world of computer science – something she’s passionate about changing, of which more later. Her A-levels at Hull College included IT, which furthered her love of all things tech, and she went on to study computer science with information engineering at the University of Hull, being the first person in her family ever to go to university. She wasn’t the only woman on her course, but there were just a handful of others. Not that this remotely put her off – she was far too driven to follow her passion.
On graduating in 2004, Claire joined Serco as a software developer, before moving on to another firm to be a software engineer working on critical communications, tracking and telematics systems developed for emergency services people and vehicles; it was during her time there that her natural flair for organisation and project management began to be noticed. She seized the opportunity to take up a management role, progressing to be responsible for engineering teams across multiple disciplines and products.
She began her recent role in 2018, becoming only the eighth person to come on board. (You may recall our feature in BW Spring 2020 that told all about Sauce’s rapid growth to a team of more than 30, developing bespoke apps for the likes of Siemens, Ideal Boilers and Nestle.) “I was there to help build a strong and highly regarded software development team, putting the structures and processes in place, while being responsible for the overall delivery of product development and projects,” says Claire. “I’ve had to do this while still preserving that start-up culture of positivity and making sure our substantial projects were delivered to a high standard. That's gone really well, and we’ve built up a great reputation.”
“Positivity” more than likely isn’t Claire’s middle name, but it should be. The word crops up again and again during our Zoom interview. She says her “growth mindset” is what helps her succeed, adding, “I'm quite tenacious, and I'm positive. I always look to every opportunity, whether it's an obstacle or something positive, as something you can learn from. Work and life are about learning, so the more you can have the ability to embrace change and learn, you're taking positive steps forward and not being weighed down by any negatives.”
A couple of years ago, Claire became a chartered engineer – a status that is respected as a significant career achievement and is independently assessed, recognising the highest level of professional competency through training and practice experience. There are about 200,000 people professionally registered as such across the UK and only about 10% of the engineering workforce are women, so Claire certainly feels as though she’s one of a select few. “It's almost like I’m statistically always up against challenges,” she says. “If you look at what a chartered engineer is and how the status is awarded, it’s based on a number of things, including project skills, personal standards for yourself and professional standards for other people, and ultimately the work you deliver has to be of such a high standard that you can benchmark to.”
For Claire, it’s all about teamwork. She played for Hull City Girls and Women for a number of years, though she’s hung up her boots professionally now. “I took a lot of value out of my time as a football player at Hull City,” she says. “I learnt the importance of teamwork and having good management around a team, so know as a leader that it’s not all about me. As a team on the pitch, everyone had their own strengths but we really pulled together and won lots of trophies, helped by great coaches and managers. So I was overwhelmed when I won the Hull City manager’s award.”
The parallels between sport and work don’t stop there. “I had a really good team manager, and in my career as well I feel as though I’ve been really lucky that there were people who believed in me, who saw that I was capable and supported me when I took an opportunity. I’ve had great people around me. I like to pay those people back, and I do this in many ways such as ‘paying it forward’. I do this with my teams at work and I give up quite a lot of my own time to mentor people.”
Last year Claire co-founded the Women 4.0 initiative, which aims to give a platform to successful women in the industry and encourage more women and girls to take up careers in technology and engineering. “There are people out there with such inspiring stories,” she says. “And I think storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to inspire people. Tech has not traditionally been seen as a profession for women, but the more they see people like me talking about leading teams in tech, then the more they might start to think, ‘I’d never thought about that as a career – I can do that.’ It almost becomes an unconscious thing.”
If Claire has ever had any bad days, she doesn’t mention them. She takes the positive from the negative, and moves on. And it’s an attitude that has won her numerous accolades before this one. In 2019 she was a finalist in the Manager of the Year award at the Hull & East Yorkshire People in Business Awards (HEYPIBA), the same year as her work team won Tech Team of the Year at the Hull & Humber Tech Awards. She also won a special recognition award from the University of Hull for her work in setting up an employment enhancement programme, running workshops on things such as CV and interview techniques. “Again, I just wanted to give something back to the university, as I had a great time there, and also to the city – to encourage university talent to stay in Hull. I wanted to give people who were talented, but didn’t necessarily know which path they were going to take, or even how to get started in the tech world, the opportunity to have an insight into it so they could feel confident about it and then be their best. One of the students I collaborated with went on to win the John Cook Award for the highest-scoring third-year project – so the people I work with tend to go on and do well too.”
This led to one of the most remarkable moments in Claire’s career to date. On the back of the Student and Graduate Programme that Claire established and managed, the students gave extremely positive feedback and the university decided to put this forward as a nomination for the national 2013 AGCAS Awards, which recognise excellence in higher education career development. Claire attended a glittering ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House, also home to the Baftas, the MTV awards and others. “We were up against some big global companies, and I thought, well, I’ll just enjoy the meal and have a good night – but we won! And there I was, on stage in front of a thousand people collecting the winner’s trophy, which was sponsored by Rolls-Royce.”
This award was particularly special because it recognised the effect Claire’s work had on other people, she adds. “It was based on real feedback from students. When you see people you have helped, inspired or worked with go on to do well, it’s really rewarding. Being a manager and leader is such a privileged position – you’ve played a part, albeit perhaps small, in setting someone up to further their career, whether it’s team awards or individual awards.”
Well, I reckon that newly relegated Hull City could do with a dose of Claire’s infectious positivity…