Inspirational Woman: Agata Laydon | VP of Business Operations at Student.com

Agata Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m VP of Business Operations at Student.com, the world’s largest marketplace for student accommodation, where I oversee marketing, partnerships, sales and the booking process. I love the challenge of scaling our company through a combination of automation and expanding into new international markets – the business started in China, we now help students in over 130 countries!

I started my career in strategy consulting at Bain & Co. I really wanted to tackle social problems, so I advised social enterprises on pro bono projects and spent time in the Bain’s Social Impact practice. Later, I became the first employee of a tech startup, where we built and launched a new digital platform to make charitable giving easy and rewarding.

I studied Experimental Psychology and then International Development. I’ve always been interested in understanding people, what motivates us and how we create a fair society with equal opportunities for all.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time discussing my career path and development with managers, mentors, and friends. Career planning is such a useful exercise because it helps guide your decisions – but it also helps to be flexible with your approach! Opportunities come up and things change unexpectedly – five years ago, I would never have predicted I’d be where I am today!

Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you deal with them?

I don’t usually let challenges phase me – I try to enjoy them. If you know where you want to go and have that end goal in mind, then you need to be up for a challenge. For me, having a positive impact on the people I work with, and contributing to the goals of the company is normally enough to keep me going.

People challenges are often tougher than technical challenges. If you don’t know how to do something, there’s usually someone you can ask for help, or you can research online. However to address problems that involve people, then the best advice I can give is empathy – put yourself in their shoes, understand their motivations and where they’re coming from.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?

I think mentoring is incredibly valuable, both for mentors and mentees. At any stage in your career it’s impossible to have experienced everything. Mentors can be great sounding boards for big decisions or challenges. They can pull you out of your comfort zone and help you to achieve more. They can also introduce you to your next job opportunity or help you map out your career path.

I’ve had lots of mentors but haven’t ever actively looked for one – they’ve all been people who I’ve stayed in touch with after working for them. Because they know me inside out, they’re able to provide critical, honest advice. Admittedly, this isn’t possible for everyone, and so I try to introduce potential mentors and mentees to one another when I can. Most recently I’ve done this at One HealthTech, a volunteer-led network that champions and promotes women in healthcare and technology.

In terms of my experience as a mentor, I’ve mentored both informally and formally at work. My approach to managing direct reports also involves mentoring – I enjoy helping my team develop their skills and achieve more than they think they can. Drawing on my own experience helps me give better, more relevant and tangible advice.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

The one thing I’d like to change is actually very hard to change – unconscious bias. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve been held back professionally because I’m a woman, but I have friends and colleagues who have. It’s disappointing to see any kind of bias have an impact on what people do. On a practical level, I believe in meritocracy – opportunities at work should be transparent, whether it’s hiring, a promotion or an opportunity to work on a particular project.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

There is a charity called ThinkForward that is close to my heart because it addresses one of the issues I care most about – inequality. They coach disengaged young people aged 13 to 18 to succeed in education and progress into sustained employment. One of the achievements I’m most proud of is creating a program for companies to provide mentoring and work experience for the teenagers they work with. The product is still used today, five years later, and has created thousands of opportunities for young people.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I’ve spent the last decade developing a broad set of skills across strategy, product development and operations. Over the next ten years I want to use these skills to contribute to positive social change. There are so many intractable problems facing our society, and I want to dedicate my energy, experience and drive to help solve them. Whatever I get involved with next, it will continue to be in tech – it’s the best way to address problems at scale!

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