Here at Central Working, we are passionate about promoting female entrepreneurship and encouraging more women to step forward to become leaders in their organisations and the communities in which they live! We have now launched the ‘Inspirational Women Series’ which is all about celebrating and sharing the stories of many of our female entrepreneurs and the networks or organisations that they run.
Interviews like below are aimed to showcase inspirational women and their stories and designed to let their voices be heard, unfiltered and unedited. We also hope other women who would like to share their stories to reach out and participate in this new initiative, as we believe that the more stories we share, the more we can learn from each other.
Our featured guest this month is Soraya Jones, who was born and raised in Malaysia and who left at 17 to study in the US. Her values are built upon education and knowledge, both of which she needed to remove herself from the predominantly male society she was born into and to become the successful business person/entrepreneur she is today. Soraya was the first CEO of Cambridge Wireless (CW) and by the time she stepped down in 2015, she had grown the business to a membership of over 400 companies and 20 industry-focused Special Interest Groups making it one of the premier tech clusters in the UK.
Who are you and what’s your business/or what is your job?
I am privileged to be working in roles that I really enjoy. I am currently the Innovation Ambassador for the Bradfield Centre, promoting the place as an innovation hub and encouraging for more innovation activities or projects to be taking place within the hub. Since
I am really passionate about innovation, I feel really lucky to be doing this role in such a vibrant place like the Bradfield Centre. I also help with the Invested Investor project, which is about a social venture that aims to increase the success rate for entrepreneurs and investors—another cause that is very close to my heart.
I also have other board and advisory/ambassadorial roles supporting start-ups and entrepreneurs especially women leaders and entrepreneurs and the next generation of young people.
What’s your background?
I am Malaysian born and grew up in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. I left for the States at the age of 17 to pursue my Bachelors and Masters degree, graduating from Indiana University. Following a period in academia, I came to Cambridge in 1990 to undertake my PhD in Education and spent many happy years in Magdalene College.
Why do you like the job that you do currently?
I have got to like what I am doing, otherwise I get bored! As I explained above, I feel very lucky to be able to work with colleagues at The Bradfield Centre and the Invested Investor venture, as they are aligned to my interests and passion.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome as you scale the business or what is the biggest challenge that you have in your job because you are a woman?
The biggest challenge for me was when I was the CEO of Cambridge Wireless. Growing the team from a one (wo)man band (and a freelance part-timer) to a team of over ten people was hard! I had to learn how to ‘delegate’ and to be less ‘controlling’, and spent a considerable amount of time managing the team and the team dynamics! I learnt so much from the experience. Looking back now, I wished I had been better at delegating, and there would be some things I would do differently now!
As the female CEO of Cambridge Wireless, I reported to an all male Board who were extremely supportive and as passionate as I was in growing the cluster. In 2007 most of the members were white, middle class men but to be honest, although I felt intimidated, they never made me feel like an outsider. I supposed it was because I never really thought about my gender at all when I worked—I just wanted to do my best to grow the company.
I had this strong desire to grow the membership to become the premier technology cluster in the UK.That was the vision I shared with the members, and it was inspiring to see that the members bought into this vision too! Whether I was a woman or not was a non-issue- it was all about the dream and the mission of the business! That said, I was disappointed that there was not much involvement from female employees from the membership companies! The board and I were on a mission to change this…. I must say that in the last few years, it has been really great to see more women participating (speakers, SIG Champions) in the Cambridge Wireless activities.
What advice would you give yourself 5 years ago?
I wish I had taken more time to have a better work-life balance instead of working all the hours in the day, week after week, which I believe is not unique to just me, but it happens to CEOs of most start-ups! I enjoyed my job and I loved the “smell of success” but, in hindsight,
I wish I had taken the time to look after my health and to smell the beautiful flowers in the spring instead (it took a cancer diagnosis later on in my life to make me realise this. So don’t let this happen to you too!)
Who inspires you? And why?
My late mother grew up in a male-dominated society and she had an arranged marriage at a young age to my late father and, ever since I could remember, she instilled in me at a very young age how important education is, especially for a woman. To her, it seemed that it was the only way to liberate yourself in a predominantly male-dominated society. It was the ‘get out of jail’ card for most women in her time! Inspired by this, I found myself driven to do well in my studies, and I went on to do my PhD in Cambridge—for this, I will always be indebted to her!
There are other people that have had an impact on my life, no names mentioned as there are too many! However, they include my husband, my mentors, my friends, the board of Cambridge Wireless, my previous bosses—each and everyone of them have shaped me into the person I am today. I feel humbled by their love and support. I would not be where I am today if not for them and I owe a huge gratitude to all these people. You know who you are!
What else can the Bradfield Centre do to help women entrepreneurs and leaders?
I like the open and inclusive atmosphere at the Bradfield Centre and the sense of community that it encourages not only within the membership but also extending to the ecosystem outside the building. I believe that innovation cannot take place in isolation—and therefore the Bradfield Centre is providing the right community atmosphere!
In particular, I am pleased that the Bradfield Centre has launched the Inspirational Women series as part of promoting women entrepreneurship and women in business. This is a great start and I hope to see more activities along these lines in the near future!
For more information about Soraya Jones, see her Linkedin profile: