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Gemma McCall, Culture Shift

Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Gemma McCall, Culture Shift

Gemma is a purpose-driven tech-for-good founder with a passion for using technology to speed up the rate of change for people globally. As the co-founder and CEO of Culture Shift – an impact software business that works with over 80 of the UK’s most prominent universities, plus a number of corporate businesses, the NHS and further education institutions, Gemma has a track record of activating change within organisations for the better and removing the barriers to reporting any form of harassment. Gemma is also a prolific and passionate speaker whose mission is to be a visible female founder and encourage other women – particularly working mums, to become leaders in business.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

Culture Shift is an impact software business that exists to lead positive change in organisational culture. Our online reporting platform gives organisations the insight they need to monitor and prevent bullying and harassment in educational institutions and workplaces. The software empowers anyone who has experienced or witnessed any form of unacceptable behaviour the opportunity to report it safely and anonymously if they wish, at a time and place that feels comfortable for them, while also accessing further support. In addition, the organisation is able to manage specific cases and identify any trends, so they can take a proactive and preventative approach to protecting their culture.

When I had both of my children, I was faced with maternity discrimination with bosses assuming that, as I was a mum, I wasn’t as committed to developing my career. It was for this very reason, I decided that I wanted to strive towards creating a more positive workplace culture – and Culture Shift was born.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

Culture Shift was created with a strong belief that everyone should have a positive experience in their place of work and study. We launched the platform with the aim of empowering leaders and senior teams to create positive, lasting change for their entire organisation.

The underlying principles of our software were originally developed in collaboration with the University of Manchester’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Team, alongside their Students’ Union, in response to research from the NUS on female students’ experiences of sexual harassment and violence during their time at university.

Tackling problematic behaviour and improving organisational culture is something that is incredibly close to my heart, having experienced incidents myself. Facing maternity discrimination on two separate occasions really motivated me to want to improve workplace culture and ensure that others don’t have to bear the brunt of unacceptable behaviour. 

How did you achieve awareness?

We have worked hard to share our best practice to help others learn from our experience in tackling problematic behaviour. Culture Shift’s software has been featured in multiple best practice case studies too, by a number of prominent organisations who are working to change their culture when it comes to tackling bullying and harassment.

We contributed to two reports by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one on tackling racial harassment at university, and another for which we gave evidence to feed into the technical guidance for employers to handle sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace.

Alongside this, we focus a lot of our attention on our marketing efforts and on generating awareness via a mix of channels, including social media, digital and PR. We also host regular webinars, speak at industry-leading events and have had great success with general word-of-mouth. We’ve done a lot of work to instill positive change for our existing clients, many of whom have shared their experiences publicly, which has resulted in growth for us too.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

Over the last two years, I’m proud to have been able to lead the team to secure two rounds of investment. As a female founder, the odds are stacked against me when it comes to seeking investment. In fact, the HM Treasury’s Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship report revealed less than 1% of all venture funding in the UK goes to female founders, so being able to raise £1.35 million in VC funding in 2020, followed by a further £1.5 million in 2021, has been an amazing achievement to buck this shameful trend.

The funding has really supported our ambitious growth strategy and has enabled us to expand into new sectors, develop our product and grow our team.

What are the key successes?

More than 1.5 million people now have access to Culture Shift’s reporting system, which is a huge milestone for us.

We’re working with multiple world-renowned institutions such as UCL and the University of Cambridge, the NHS, plus a number of corporate clients and further education colleges, who really see the value in taking a preventative approach to tackling bullying and harassment. We also have a 0% churn rate, which is something that I am hugely proud of.

In addition, we’ve increased our headcount by a third over the past year and are continuing to experience substantial growth.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

The pandemic has of course been challenging for businesses across the board and as many organisations had to cut costs, we really thought workplace culture may have fallen to the bottom of the agenda. But that’s not been the case at all.

Our recent growth has proven that businesses are really keen for positive change and, while there is still a long way to go, it’s great to see that many leaders are still striving to create safe and supported environments for their employees. 

What are your plans now/for the future?

We have now expanded beyond universities and are working with multiple private and public sector organisations, plus further education colleges, which is a huge area of growth for us. You only have to switch on the news to see a new case of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination in many organisations including workplaces, hospitals, sports clubs and educational settings, proving there is an urgent need to tackle the issue head on, otherwise we are failing people.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

My life has transformed twice. Firstly, when I became a mum and secondly when I found the courage to become my own boss. I am a mum of two and suffered maternity discrimination during both periods of maternity leave. This massively affected my confidence. I was sick of bosses assuming that because I had become a mother, I wouldn’t be as committed to developing my career. If you feel this too, don’t put up with it – be the change you want to see in the world.

Can you share your top 5-10 tips for entrepreneurial success?

  • Jump in to every opportunity that comes your way, even if you feel like you can’t do it. It’s important not to hesitate and to just push yourself!
  • Building a diverse, inclusive and supportive workplace culture is essential and is something we’re incredibly passionate about at Culture Shift. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also been proven time-and-time again that diverse and inclusive workforces that feel supported, are more successful, have happier employees, build better products and services, and are more profitable.
  • Keep going! Building something takes time and when things seem insurmountable, maybe take some time away to refresh and come back to it later.
  • Take time to look at how far you’ve come. It doesn’t always feel like it, but every day you’re making incremental progress, so when you look back it’s inspiring to see what you’re capable of.
  • Building a business is hard and there’s no doubt you will have to make tough choices. It’s okay to feel sad after making the right decision.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most?

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an American politician/U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district and taking office at age 29, she is the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. As documented in the Netflix film Knock Down the House, she defeated Democratic Caucus Chair, Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, in what was widely seen as the biggest upset victory in the 2018 midterm election primaries. She is honest and is true to her values, which has proven very successful for her – a huge inspiration!
  • Serena Williams is widely regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles – more than any player in the Open Era. For me, she is a great inspiration as it has been a huge challenge for her to return to form after giving birth to her first child, but she keeps going and I admire her for that.
  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who spent a lifetime flourishing in the face of adversity before being appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the US, where she successfully fought against gender discrimination. She dedicated her life to challenging inequality, but always spoke about the importance of taking people on the journey with you.
  • Dolly Parton is an American singer-songwriter who has sold over 170 million records. In addition to her prolific music career, she is an actress, theme park owner and passionate philanthropist, worth over $500 million. She is an incredibly savvy businesswoman and has written thousands of songs under her own music publishing company since 1965. When Elvis Presley wanted to do his own recording of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ after she had made it a hit, she was thrilled. However, upon learning that this would require her to give him half of the publishing rights, she declined the deal. Having the courage to walk away from a bad deal is a huge inspiration to me.
  • Harriet Harman is a British politician and solicitor who has served as Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham since 1982. She has campaigned tirelessly for the equal rights of women throughout her entire career and, during her time as a member of the cabinet, she brought forward the Equality Bill (now the Equality Act 2010) – one of the most important pieces of legislation to promote equality, fight discrimination in all its forms, including age discrimination, and introduce transparency in the workplace – which is key to tackling the gender pay gap.

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

  • “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Maya Angelou
  • “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Eleanor Roosevelt

What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?