As the female CEO of ServicePower, an AIM-listed technology company, Marne Martin is currently a rare breed. But she sees no reason – aside from a lack of ambition – why other women can’t follow in her footsteps
Maybe it’s the association of technology with ‘geekdom’ or the fact that tech behemoths Facebook, Apple and Microsoft were founded by men. Either way, it’s difficult not to conclude that technology is currently a male-dominated industry.
Marne Martin, CEO of ServicePower, the field management software company, can therefore count herself as something of a rarity. The British tech firm she has headed since September 2013 is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has had a secondary base of operations in the USA since 1999. Martin, herself an American, has been tasked with helping the company maximise commercial returns from its innovative business software products.
She is already making her presence felt, helping ServicePower secure lucrative deals with the likes of Electrolux and BestBuy. “The culture I’m trying to manifest in this company is that of a start-up,” says Martin. “I want it to be very entrepreneurial: driving things based on returns on investment and making product development decisions based on commercial return. You aren’t able to do this overnight but we have already had a lot of success over the last year and I’m certain we’ll have more over the next year.”
Martin’s story carries more than a hint of triumphing in the face of adversity. She spent most of her childhood on cattle ranches in Montana, Wyoming, which she describes as “a very male-dominated environment” and one in which “you had to be very independent”. It was evident that she was on the course for business stardom from a very young age. “My grandfather used to tease me that my first words were ‘me can do it’,” Martin laughs. “If somebody said I couldn’t do something, I wanted to find a way to do it. It didn’t necessarily mean that I would be the best at it but I would find a way to at least be reasonably successful at whatever it was I did.”
This attitude stood Martin in good stead as she went on to attain a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. followed by a dual MBA and master’s degree in management from ESCP Europe and Krannert School of Management. And at the age of 27 she was managing her first company, Digicel Holdings, the Central American telecom firm. Martin admits it was a bit of an eye-opener but firmly believes that grabbing a chance with both hands as early as possible in your career is essential for any woman who is hoping to go far in business.
“It was quite an interesting experience managing a company in Latin America at 27,” she says. “But if your first priority is to work close to home and not make any sacrifices, by default you are not going to get the same professional opportunities. I think a lot of women have to be flexible to doing overseas assignments and take risks earlier in their career so that they start to build that repertoire and hopefully build relationships with the people who will give them the opportunity.”
As far as Martin is concerned, women who aren’t willing to stand up and be counted for are unlikely to reach the top. “It’s a sad reality but you just have to accept as a woman you are going to have to work harder to earn the respect of all those around you,” says Martin. “Even when you get to the level of manager, director, VP or CEO, you are still going to have to prove every day that you are the right person for the job, that you have value to add and that you manage your team in a way that makes them perform better.”
Martin has significant experience to draw upon in this regard. However, whilst she admits to the existence of certain prejudices in the workplace, she reiterates the need for women to rise above these if they’re to really make a mark. “Gender-specific biases exist but did I ever feel discriminated against? No, because I felt it was my job to prove myself,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of harassment protections because I know women who have had truly horrific experiences. But I also think that if you’re going to be a woman in a predominantly male environment, you need to understand male humour.”
Whilst the female tech star is on the rise in the UK – recent stats revealed there are now more women in tech leadership positions here in Blighty than in the US – there’s still work to be done when it comes to closing the gender gap. Martin believes that there are plenty of females who possess the necessary skill set to succeed in technology, adding that the key is getting their foot in the door as early as possible. “I was always interested in problem-solving and engineering skills,” she says. “To do well in tech skills, you have to have that kind of mindset and there are actually a lot of women who have that aptitude now.”
She continues: “To be developing more female technology CEOs, technology companies firstly need to make sure that they’re bringing them in when they come out of university. They then need to be coaching women to put their hand up for the key assignments and key projects. During the course of my career, whenever I was presented with a hard project, I wanted to lead it.”
And in terms of the types of tech firms to be targeting, starting small is often the best approach, according to Martin. “For women to be moving up the ladder, they really need to be taking the cross-functional roles and they need to be willing to go to a small company,” she says. “If you only want to build a CEO path in a very large company, that is going to be a lot harder.”
Despite her openness to the idea of government-set quotas for women at management and board level, Martin firmly believes there’s as much of an onus on the individuals themselves. “I do think that government has a role, as do senior leaders, but I also think that women and, in fact, any minority has a responsibility to be the type of person that they would themselves hire,” she concludes. “The reality is that women really need to want it.”