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Human: Jem Henderson's Story

Our book, Human: Global perspectives on diversity in tech features firsthand accounts from 25 individuals, offering insights into what the technology community is doing to create more inclusive environments from the perspective of the individual. Here’s Jem’s story. 

Jem Henderson is the Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for Tech Nation, a government funded organisation aimed at helping ambitious tech entrepreneurs as they start, scale and grow. She also works with leading names including Digital Catapult and Rolls Royce on strategy, content and community management. Jem is a social entrepreneur, passionate about tech for good and working-class voices in digital.

I started out of home at 16 after being kicked out by my mother. I lived in a squat and in a homeless hostel before sofa surfing and being vulnerably housed on and off for a couple of years. I did a whole range of jobs; cheffing, hairdressing and decorating before I ended up signed off sick for a number of years due to PTSD caused by my upbringing. I was out of work for six years; too ill, insomniac and depressed to do a ‘proper’ job. However, I still tried to do what I could, managing to attend college and later university to get an art degree, and English Literature degree and then a creative writing masters.

I landed my first job in tech as a junior copywriter working for a data centre company. I was interested in how everything worked and so landed the job of technical writing - both for the main organisation and later the digital health organisation which started up while I was there. Unfortunately, I was made redundant eight months in, but by this time I had realised that corporate life wasn’t for me. I would get all my work done by Tuesday lunchtime and struggled to look busy for the rest of the week. I started my own copy-writing business and while I wrote about everything from hair loss treatment to digital marketing, I kept up my interest in tech.

The real turning point was landing a role where I was writing about cutting edge technology for the Head of IoT at Telefonica. This rapidly built my portfolio and gave me a mini apprenticeship in everything from corporate creativity to blockchain and AI. This led to a role as community manager at Digital Catapult which showed me my real passion was working with tech start-ups and now on to my awesome job as Entrepreneur Engagement Manager with Tech Nation.

It also inspired me to start a digital innovation hub in Harrogate called Indieworx Collective but unfortunately this recently closed due to cash flow issues. It’s pretty tough out there right now!
Taking the step into the life of a tech entrepreneur was difficult.

I knew I wasn’t the same as everyone else, which actually made the decision to work for myself much easier. I’m not cut out for Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 - it’s too constraining. What if I have insomnia and can’t function the next day? It’s also made me pretty fearless (which feels easy to say but I am not sure if it’s true given the nights of lying awake worrying about stuff). I know I have developed a resilience because of my experience. I’m disgustingly optimistic, even in the face of debt and business closure because I know as long as I have a roof over my head and I can provide for my family, everything is okay really. Because I have worked for myself for such a long time, I’ve carved out my own space for work. I have only taken jobs which suited me and learned how to fire clients that aren’t worth working with along the way - a tough lesson but one I wish I could teach all entrepreneurs! I haven’t really revealed my mental health issues - I have kept my arms covered so employers couldn’t see any scars until I’d proven my worth and then I don’t feel too worried.

I mean, I do have ridiculous coloured hair and I am a bit eccentric but in Britain, this isn’t viewed with too much wariness anymore. I’m definitely the weird one on my team but that’s pretty usual for me. There are so many ways companies can better support people who are suffering from mental health issues. Downtime is so important. I know Elon Musk talks about his 100 hour weeks but that just isn’t sustainable. Work should finish on time, not bleed into weekends and be well rewarded. This goes for anyone, not just those with mental health problems. Neurodiversity should be celebrated.

If we’re only creating tech by and for white, male, mentally well people, we’re cutting out swathes of society which can really add value to the things that we’re developing. Tech is supposed to make our lives easier so let’s have tech created by those whose lives aren’t always that easy, eh? I would also like to see companies create more opportunities for young people from challenging social backgrounds. Degrees aren’t important, people are. I was lucky, I had understanding tutors and lecturers who got that while my attendance could be poor, my mind wasn’t. I hid my age on my CVs and just allowed people to think I was just out of uni and a similar age to my peers and not an ex mature student. I don’t know if this made a difference but I was ashamed of my work record.

Apprenticeships are the thing for me. Anyone can do them and if companies approach them from a respectful place, as in pay them a real living wage and listen to their insights, then a company can really flourish. They’re an opportunity for everyone involved, although sometimes I think they’re used to just get in cheap labour.

Diversity should come right from the start. Don’t just hire yourself over and over, but look for a different viewpoint. Let the interviewee interview you - let them share what they think you should be doing and what they want to be doing. Build roles around people and don’t just hire people to fill roles prescriptively.

Jem’s advice for people working in tech who may feel overlooked due to their background or experience:

// Keep going. Keep learning. Talk about your experiences, take insights from them to help you grow.
// The most important thing is don’t be afraid to admit you need help or you don’t know something. Ego gets in the way of living a full life if you never admit you don’t understand.
// Stand up for what you believe and let your morals be your guide. Don’t do stuff that makes you feel bad but do try things that take you out of your comfort zone. You never know what your next talent could be.

Read more stories like Jem's by downloading our Human: Global perspectives on diversity in tech e-book here, and don't forget to check out our second instalment of Human, Human 2: Bold leadership through crisis and change which you can download here.