To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we get up close and personal with Karen Barrett, CEO of Unbiased. A mother of three, Karen founded Unbiased in 2010 and has since developed it into the UK’s leading website for finding advice on life’s biggest decisions.
Hello, Karen. Can you tell us what it was that first drew you to the finance industry?
I’m not in the finance industry! Finance is obviously a key ingredient, but what we do at Unbiased is simply helping people to navigate life’s biggest decisions. What excites me is being able to improve people’s lives through a blend of technology, knowledge and empathy – and of course running a thriving business with a great team. What we’ve managed to do, I think, is move beyond mere ‘finance’ into people’s broader lives.
That said, it’s interesting that finance is a very male-dominated industry, which I think has offered me openings that I might not otherwise have had. It was getting stuck in a set way of doing things, so may have needed a new perspective to shake it up a bit.
Have you ever felt held back by being a ‘woman in a man’s world’?
To be honest, I’ve never seen it that way. Mostly I’ve had good experiences through my career, and I have a pretty thick skin for when I haven’t. I’ve always had an eye for the opportunities to stand out and prove myself, which I suppose is down to loving what I do and wanting others to feel the same.
I take full credit for where I am today – but if I had any luck, it was being part of the generation who were told that we could ‘have it all’. Like all the other mothers, my mum told me I could do whatever I set my mind to, and I was naïve enough to believe her. And so I ended up here. Joking aside, I do think that you need faith in yourself first and foremost.
Can you point to career moment where you pushed against people’s expectations?
Back in my twenties, when I worked for Abbey, I’d started to become frustrated with the large corporate structure – the way you might have a good idea, it would go through four or five different levels of consideration, then disappear into a black hole… only to reappear six months later as someone else’s idea! It was this repeated frustration that prompted me to strike out in search of something better, and a manager said to me at the time, ‘So you want to go off and be a big fish in a small pond?’ I was put out by that, and I thought, ‘Too right I am!’ So I found my small pond and got to work on making it bigger. It was a useful life lesson for me: if the opportunities aren’t forthcoming where you are, go out and hunt them down.
What traits or qualities would you say are the key to your own success?
Aside from spotting opportunities, I’d say stubbornness and persistence. Telling me something can’t be done is usually the best way to motivate me.
What motivates you?
I like to remind myself constantly that Unbiased is about far more than just being a successful business. We have an opportunity to use technology to help people to shape their lives for the better, while being representative of what the UK tech culture is known for: innovation, teamwork and diversity. I’m really inspired by the team I have around me, and I’ m amazed on a regular basis at how everyone brings something unique to the table, making Unbiased a great place to be.
On the rare occasions I’m lacking motivation, it’s a case of one foot in front of the other, and talking to other people on my network who inspire me. That usually gets me back on track. No-one can be 100 per cent a hundred per cent of the time!
How do you handle criticism?
I pick holes in my own work constantly, practically everything I’ve ever done, finding faults with all of it and nagging myself to do better in the future. I prefer it when other people criticise me, as it saves me the effort! I hope that this attitude has its advantages and stops me being complacent.
Who inspires you in the industry, both finance and technology?
I saw Demet Mutlu (founder of Trendyol) at Websummit in Lisbon and I was very impressed at the way she thinks and what she has achieved. She had a big vision, saw gap in the market and acted on it quickly – the three key steps to being a successful entrepreneur.
And I must say I envy Georgina Coleridge Cole (sheerluxe.com) – getting to wear designer outfits while working in the interesting sector of digital media! The brand has a great look and I think she is working hard to really understand their audience’s needs.
Also Helena Morrissey, who is Chief Exec of an Asset Management company with nine children (Nine! HOW?!). Something she says that resonates with me is, ‘Work is an activity rather than a place.’ She’s also a reminder that it is possible to juggle a large family and a high-powered job. Apparently she plans every day on a whiteboard. There are masses of other women in all areas who are hugely inspiring.
One of the biggest issues highlighted as the reason of workplace inequality is women taking career breaks to raise a family. You’re a mother of three, how do you make it work?
You make it work because you want to. Because all of these things are important to you – work, family, and your own life, so you work out a way to balance them. A lot of it falls naturally into place; I work in London, and for leisure I enjoy what London has to offer in the way of culture, food and shopping. And I wouldn’t be a CEO if I wasn’t good at organising others, so that helps with the military planning you need to juggle childcare and so on. The most important thing is to keep yourself on the priority list – if you aren’t happy the rest will fall apart.
How has diversity been an asset to your own business?
What’s interesting is that we’ve always hired purely on merit, and the diversity has happened automatically. At any one time we might have seven or eight different nationalities or ethnicities in our office, along with a wide mix of ages, so we’ve never even had to try to be ‘diverse’. I think it brings an enormous advantage, to have all those different backgrounds and perspectives thrown into the mix. We’re serving a wide consumer audience, so we need to approach them from every angle we can. What you don’t want is the kind of business where the boss hires people who look and think exactly the same as themselves!
Do women and men really bring different skills to the table?
People bring different skills to the table! In talking just about men vs women, you can miss so many other distinctions that are far more significant. Any two women might be as different from each other as they are from any man, and vice versa.
However, we all know there still isn’t a level playing field yet in most industries, and there’s a shortage of women in both business and political roles. The end goal is for merit to be the deciding factor, so that both sexes have the opportunities they deserve. Supporting women has never been about taking anything away from men. I have two sons – I want as much for them as I want for my daughter.
Do you think women face additional financial challenges outside the workplace?
One of the areas where Unbiased tries to raise awareness is in the different financial pressures that women can face. This isn’t just about pay inequality, but also includes things like career breaks, part-time working, life expectancy and even an unfair share of childcare costs. Women may forget that every day they’re not working is another day they’re not saving into a pension for their retirement. Women may also end up overly reliant on their husband’s pension, which can cause major problems if the marriage breaks down.
This is one of the key messages of the new Unbiased movement #Sortedforlife, which encourages people of all walks of life to take ownership of life’s big decisions, rather than being swept along by them. By encouraging people to talk more about these choices, we hope to empower them.
Can you give us your top tips for navigating the business world as a female entrepreneur?
Learn from others. Talk to people who’ve done it, spot the traits they may have in common, and learn from their experiences – while remembering to be your own person. The simple rules also apply: treat others as you’d wish to be treated yourself, and remember that what goes around, comes around. Be persistent in chasing down what you want, and if you lack confidence, remember that it’s a skill like any other and can be learned. And while it’s easy to say, ‘Have a positive attitude!’ the fact is that this will at least make you a person others want to be around… and that in itself is a key to success.