As the CEO of AgendaWorx and founder of inSite Innovative Education Solutions (Pty) Ltd, Zeldeen Muller understands the importance of innovation in technology as perhaps few can – from personal experience as a woman, a colleague and a manager.
With International Women’s Day 2021 on 8 March, Muller notes how important it is for women to #ChooseToChallenge the status quo in business, explaining that her first challenge in her 20s was to learn to thrive in the male-dominated sector of financial consultancy to large pension funds.
“I was quite perplexed by how male dominated the higher management positions were when I had just entered the industry. At one of my first meetings with a client, I was looking around for a restroom – but there was no women’s toilet on the boardroom level of that company’s headquarters, because there had never been a female board member in that company. Ever. That was quite an eye opener.”
It was subtle “signals” like these that Muller chose to challenge, by using them as a springboard to make sure she learned the ins and outs of her industry, her product and her potential to innovate.
“As a junior financial consultant, I spent hours putting together agenda packs for large financial organisations and saw first-hand the time and effort that went into the task. From inviting board members, preparing and printing the agenda packs to follow-up notes, it was gargantuan,” she says, noting that a typical agenda can be between 150 pages to 1 000 pages for some of their clients. “And every board meeting had 18 or more board members. It was a nightmare.”
Thoughts turned to a “better way” to get the job done, and Muller set about digitising the process. “I knew my own limitations but believed implicitly in my idea, so I surrounded myself with people who had the experience I needed.
“Coders in those days were all men, but once we all had the same vision, there was no issue working together,” Muller says. “I am thrilled, however, to see the number of women in tech today, and how more and more young women are choosing a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.”
Choose to challenge whole sectors
Now CEO of the highly successful AgendaWorx.com and managing director of inSite Innovative Education Solutions (Pty) Ltd, Muller’s advice to women seeking a path that will open doors around the globe is: “Take yourself and your dreams seriously. When you have self-confidence, others have confidence in you, too.
“The IT industry will always need bright, innovative minds, so #ChooseToChallenge yourself not only to become a web developer using on-the-shelf tools, but a hard-core coder. It’s a high risk, high-reward industry, but the real innovation and money is in custom coding for clients.”
Muller urges teenage girls to opt for the STEM subjects at school that will ensure they have the vital abilities required in the tech industry. “Maths is vital,” she asserts, “and so is your willingness to stand out from a group of your peers.
“Believe in yourself and do not let learned limitation live in your head. Regardless of your background, self-belief and education blurs the lines between women and men, and so many other areas of bias.”
Muller says that where coders used to be “the backroom boys”, they are now interacting with clients directly. “This bodes well for women, who use intuition to quickly understand what a client needs. As companies are forced to be leaner, more clients are talking directly to developers.”
Noting the internet as a valuable resource for teens and women to learn new skills in their own time, Muller highlights the importance of continual learning and looking for opportunities to grow – “and not just on Women’s Day, but every day.”
The best career advice she ever got? “Be an expert. Keep choosing to challenge yourself. Start doing your bosses job…”