Samantha, aged 31 and from the West Midlands, founded Open Study College, a distance learning provider, with her father over 12 years ago.
CEO since the age of 29, she heads up a skilled and diverse team of 42, encompassing academic specialists, web developers and customer service operatives. Working with a network of specialist tutors, they deliver flexible learning which has helped thousands of people to improve their career prospects through distance learning.
Samantha has always been passionate about championing women in the workplace and supporting them in achieving their full professional potential. At Open Study College, women make up 65% of the workforce with 50% of the senior management team being female. Samantha has also won a number of accolades, including Most Influential Woman in E-learning 2018 and Influential Women in Business Award 2017, amongst many others.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
Currently I am the CEO of Open Study College (OSC), one of the UK’s largest distance learning providers, that has supported over 85,000 students in achieving their goals. I have been CEO since the age of 29, and I head up a skilled and diverse team of 46, encompassing academic specialists, web developers and customer service operatives. Working with a network of specialist tutors, we deliver flexible qualifications and courses that have helped change the lives and career prospects of our students. I began by studying law at college before pursuing a career in retail. However, in 2007, I craved greater professional autonomy, a more stimulating work environment and a career that allowed me to help others. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I went into business with my father, Mark Rutter, and co-founded OSC. Since then I have worked in many departments, which has really helped me to understand all areas of the company and lead it effectively as the CEO.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I initially planned to go into law as a profession, as I had been interested in that particular field from a young age. But as I studied, I realised that it wasn’t for me and I wanted to pursue something that would allow me to help others more. It wasn’t entirely planned that I would go into business with my dad, but when the opportunity arose, I didn’t shy away. My dad had lots of experience in the distance learning industry, and he felt there was a way to offer students so much more and improve their experience. So, we set out together to make OSC better than the rest.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
I think the biggest challenge that I have faced during my career so far are some of the preconceptions people may have about me, due to my age and gender. People would often assume they were meeting a man when they would hear my name is Sam, so that could sometimes be tough. Walking into a meeting with men a lot older than me and more experience also used to be intimidating. However, after repeatedly going into the meetings and having confidence in myself, I no longer feel intimidated in those situations. I have worked to prove myself as a businesswoman and CEO in my own right. And while I am thankful to my dad for the opportunity of going into business with him, I have always strived to not be seen solely as “Mark’s daughter”.
Finding my own path was also a challenge. I didn’t do brilliantly at school and had to put a lot of effort into getting the grades I needed for my law course, but after all my hard work I quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Thankfully, I’ve been really fortunate to end up in such a rewarding industry.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement so far would be taking on the role of CEO in 2018 at the age of 29. I think it proved to a lot of people that I wasn’t just working for my dad at OSC but working with him. When I eventually took over from him as CEO, he filled the role of Chairman. I think becoming CEO at age 29, especially as a woman, is fairly uncommon, so I’m really proud of myself for getting to this position. I’m also incredibly proud of OSC and how far it has come since my dad and I started the business from our family home in 2007.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I think my determination to succeed has always been the biggest factor. Initially, we were happy to get one enrolment a day when we started, so back then we never expected to get to where we are now. I think always going for it has been my mantra and it’s done me quite well so far!
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I am all for mentoring; I think it’s a great way for advice and experience to be passed on to someone else so that they may learn from you. My dad was, and still is, my mentor. He had worked in the distance learning industry before we started OSC, whereas I hadn’t. He was instrumental in helping me understand how to lead a business of this sort effectively. However, mentoring can sometimes be quite a large investment of time. So, I make sure that I do my best to mentor my senior management team, so they can in turn, mentor their team members. That way, everything is more focused on each individual department.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Closing the gender pay gap would go a long way in accelerating the change towards gender equality, at least in the business world. I also think providing better opportunities for women to further their careers will also do wonders for improving the pace of gender equality. Allowing women to have more control over their working life in order to develop themselves will give women more opportunities to progress, whether that be through flexible working (something we offer to our staff), or through flexible learning, which can also be accessed through our courses. With more opportunities to progress, we’ll see more women in senior roles in businesses, as demonstrated by the majority of the leadership team at OSC being female.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I think I would tell myself to just go for it. I’ve had times in the past where my confidence was knocked, and I thought “is this for me?” But I got on with it and pushed through and I’ve never been happier with where I am. Having confidence in yourself to succeed, especially as a woman, is so important if you want to prove you can do it.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
My next challenge is to double the size of the business in the next three to five years, which we are on track to achieve. We have plans to expand internationally, as well as looking to diversify and expand our course offering which I believe will be key to achieving our future growth. I think this is a great target for everyone to get onboard with and will definitely motivate the team – the more successful the business is, the more opportunities for development there will be and the more rewarding it will be for staff to work with us.