Jacqueline de Rojas is known as the UK’s ‘titan of tech’. Here is a woman who has risen to the very top of her sector: she is president of TechUK, which represents 950 companies, chair of Digital Leaders, a board member of Rightmove, Costain and AO World, and part of the government’s Digital Economy Council.
Yet this ‘titan’ spent her childhood trying to be invisible. ‘I grew up in a home where my mother had a black eye every week,’ she says. ‘We escaped to Swindon where my grandparents lived, and my mother remarried. A positive move for her but not so great for me and my brother. My stepfather was very insecure and let’s just say it was more than miserable.’
She found safety and structure at school, and she excelled. She recalls standing in the kitchen of their council house at the age of 16 with her O-level results in her hand: ‘My stepfather snatched the envelope from me and read out my grades, which were very good. He said: "What are you trying to do? Are you trying to show me up?"
‘I thought, "Yes, I probably am. I'll show you just how amazing I can be." And that was a massive motivation for me throughout my career.’ De Rojas describes that as the pivotal moment where she went from survivor to thriver.
She studied European Business in Germany, then spent two years in tech recruitment before clinching a job with her largest client: ‘They couldn’t understand a word their German reseller was saying so they hired me to run their international channel,’ she says.
She went on to work for a variety of software giants and powered up the ladder to become a vice president of sales. In the late 90s, she applied for a promotion as country leader. ‘I’d been running a £300m business with hundreds of salespeople – and yet I lost out on the job to a guy who was running a minuscule business by comparison. When I asked for feedback, I was told: "Jacqueline, we simply don’t put women on the leadership team."
It was a huge blow – but de Rojas chose to reframe it as a positive experience: 'At least they told me. At least I didn’t spend another five years bashing my head against the glass ceiling.'
She quickly landed her first job as managing director for a company that was bought by IBM for a whopping $1bn just three years later.
De Rojas admits that she suffered from impostor syndrome and over-compensated by being ‘aggressively assertive’ and turning into an ‘alphazilla’. ‘I had no idea what I was meant to do as a managing director so I developed a simple strategy to ask lots of questions, give no information and say no to every second request for funding. I developed a reputation for being ruthless, resulting in terrified groups of people over-preparing for meetings with me. People even said I ate razor blades for breakfast. I am not proud of that time in my life.'
She made the leap from manager to leader once she stopped trying to act like a man. ‘I learned to empower and inspire the people around me and give them space to be amazing. The best way to get a successful outcome – without leaving dead bodies around you – is to be positively deviant.’
She also hired a stylist to help her build her personal brand. ‘That made a huge difference to my confidence,' she says. '83% of communication is visual. 6% is content. The rest is verbal. When I walk into a room, I want to make sure that I command respect and that I am heard.'
Now she’s using her experience and her platform to champion the country’s tech sector, which is creating more jobs than it can fill. ‘It’s not only shameful that we have 23% of women in tech but it's also proven that diverse teams create better business outcomes.' She has spent the past 18 months advising the Girl Guiding Association, helping to create new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) badges to encourage 550,000 girls to learn STEM skills. 'If we don’t inspire the next generation, and the government closes its borders, then we will lose our competitive advantage as a digital nation of significance.’
Her services to the industry earned her a CBE in the Queen’s Honours List earlier this year. In a final act of closure, she ordered a replica of her award and presented it to her stepfather. ‘Finally the circle was squared. I had proved myself to him. And I had proved to myself that I'd made the best of things.'
Jacqueline de Rojas was a guest speaker at MT's Young Women in Business conference on 27th June.
Photographer: Erroll Jones