Soaring to Success: From the Airforce to Global VP for Workforce Solutions

Sam Smith, Global VP, Life Sciences & Healthcare, KellyOCG

  • Sam Smith has had a varied career, from working as an engineer with the RAF, to supporting Welsh railway workers and now she is a VP in the Life Sciences division at KellyOCG, a global provider of workforce strategy, solutions, and operations. She’s bold, brave and ambitious, everything a strong female lead should be.

“I always wanted to join the air force; there was never any other path for me, I made that decision at a very young age… I was in the air training cadets and that really carved a path to get to where I wanted to be. Being in the mechanical side, we were fondly called riggers or fitters, you’re there to keep the rotors turning, the aircraft in good condition and in the air. It was exciting. We worked with pilots and a real variety of professionals, we felt valued as part of a team and I really enjoyed it, in fact I loved it.”

Her next role came about by chance after unexpectedly leaving the RAF. She actually applied for a job with Jaguar Land Rover in their stores department, but ended up working for the recruitment agency who were filling the role. “I didn’t know that recruiting agencies existed. I thought to get a job you went to the job centre or the newspapers.”

When she got to the agency, the manager spent 10 minutes telling her why she wouldn’t get the job and why he shouldn’t put Sam forward. “I decided to put him right. I said if you put me forward for the job, which I think I’m overqualified for, I’ll get the job, you’ll get paid and we’ll never have to speak to each other again!

“So, I convinced him to put me forward, went to the interview, and got offered to job. But I had to go back to the agency to sign the paperwork. This guy said, “Don’t work with them, come work with me, you’ll be really good at this!” And I started the following week – it was light industrial, supporting a supermarket warehouse distribution centre. It was a fortuitous, lucky incident, chaos at times but the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Now Sam leads the Global Life Science and Healthcare practice at KellyOCG and is responsible for $3.4 billion in spend under the management portfolio. “ We’ve really connected with customers whose primary purpose to improve patient outcomes. When you work in that space every day, you see the sense of purpose and passion in those organizations which has an ongoing impact into my teams, into the talent that we engage. Life science and healthcare companies’ sole purpose is to prolong life, improve lives, give people pain-free lives, dignity, mobility and independence. It’s such a privilege to work in that area of the business.”

Living the highlight of her career

Day-to-day, Sam crams lots into her working hours – mainly looking after her global teams. “I would be a complete liar if I told you I was up at 4am juicing kale before yoga and running a half marathon. That’s not my life. My life is full of graft… [I have] team members all over, the majority in North America (the company HQ is in Michigan), which affords me a wonderful gap in the day where I can think. I take advantage of those mornings. Even on occasion I get into a routine with my Pelaton.” 

Sam is clearly passionate about her work, and her team, and she has obviously found her niche at KellyOCG. She says that there is a unique, combined sense of purpose to what she’s doing now, both in terms of the fulfilling work she’s doing and the feeling of acceptance. “I feel genuinely blessed to be working with a very diverse and inclusive organization.

“KellyOCG is a really cool place to work. We’re not the biggest and don’t pretend that we are, but we have a unique sense of who we are. That gives me a sense of joy about where I work. I’ve been lucky to win awards, well, I’ve worked bloody hard to win awards and worked hard to be recognized with performance and with team members. But the sense of team that I have built with this Life Science team is a massive highlight. They’re phenomenal.

“When you have a combined sense of purpose and build in a commitment to kindness, it changes the dynamic of how you work with people. You and they feel invested in the outcome of what you’re doing, so it changes the mood. You can get through challenging times in a different way. I don’t mean friendship, but a connected sense of purpose – everyone is on the same page. You don’t have to be friends to respect each other. And that’s he differentiator for what we’re doing here in this team”

Video by KellyOCG:

Comradery, brothers and resilience

From the beginning of her career, Sam has always worked in male-dominated environments. In the air force, she was the only female there for quite some time, before she was joined by a female on the electronics side, and then one more in the administration part of the squadron.

“It was odd, but I ended up having 80 brothers, and about 19 uncles, and a few grandads. It was very much a family environment. If you don’t mind getting stuck in and proving yourself, you’re accepted. I was fortunate that my humour and sporting nature helped me integrate in that male environment quite quickly. I’m still friends with many of these guys. Some of them have been to my weddings – I’ve had two, and they’ve been to both – so some of them are lifelong friends.”

Sam has witnessed discrimination and a variety of behaviours that with the passage of time fall into the category of inappropriate. With many men on the ground in heavy construction, on the railways or elsewhere the talk would certainly cross boundaries that have been firmly marked out. Back then Sam just put up with it and took it with a pinch of salt but wonders how she may react to the same language, behaviours and scenarios today. Differently for sure.

Nobody puts Sam in the corner

“There’s an age-old issue that assertive, confident women continue to be classified in different way… We’ve got to get to a point where we eradicate that type of gender flip of narrative that impacts women. Do women go to work feeling as confident as men do? Probably not. There are some people like me who flip the bird and think, I’m rocking it. There’s no guy who’s going to put me in a corner or label me aggressive when I’m just being assertive.

“You have to look at the data; look at the number of women in senior leadership and board roles. In the boards of FTSE 2000 organizations, the data doesn’t lie. There is clearly a problem, a measurable issue of women not moving forward. She’s right. In the largest 500 companies in America, there are more CEOs named David than there are women CEOs.

“I’m really lucky that I work for what I consider to be one of the most inclusive and diverse organizations in the world. And that’s my experience as a gay female. In my early career, I wasn’t able to be myself or talk about my homelife. Then you become a liar because you’re not telling the truth. I do think that women feel that they have to be somebody different and can’t be their whole selves all the time because that is seen to fall short or fall into the bracket of being over confident.”

While she feels included and accepted for who she is at KellyOCG, that hasn’t always been the case for Sam. She appreciates that in today’s society, sexuality has become much more of an open conversation, but there are still areas where gay people face homophobia. She recalls that it wasn’t that long ago that two women on a London bus were subjected to homophobic comments and physically attacked, just for showing affection towards each other in public.

“To say its better is true, but it’s not a place of real comfort. In my career I’ve worked with and for homophobic people, who have made it clear it is better for me not to disclose my home life, but then took great joy in watching me try not to lie.” It’s quite upsetting listening to her recount how these colleagues would back her into a corner. Thank goodness she doesn’t have to put up with that anymore. “I’m now in a company that acknowledges my son and my wife. You only have to meet me and it’s pretty obvious which side of the rainbow I fall on.”

The rainbow is used as the gay pride flag to represent the diversity of people within the LGBTQ+ community. But to many, the rainbow is also a symbol of hope. Rainbows appear when the storm has passed, and the sun is shining. This seems appropriate for Sam now, who can happily bask in her success that she has worked so very hard to achieve.

Quick-fire questions

  • Cats or Dogs?    Dogs
  • Would you rather read fiction or non-fiction?     Non-fiction
  • Most recent film you watched?     Notting Hill
  • What’s your signature dish to cook?    Roast beef
  • Drink of choice?      Gin and tonic
  • Most used app on your phone?     Outlook / news app / twitter
  • Would you rather go on a relaxing or active holiday?      Relaxing
  • Where do you do your best thinking?      In the shower
  • Biggest weakness?      Guilt
  • Favourite female icon?      Rosalyn Franklin – pioneer from science perspective but overlooked. She came up with one of the most phenomenal elements of modern sci, but people attributed work to the men around her. Discovering DNA, but the work went to Watson and Krik.

Conquering Cloud & Championing Talent in Tech

Nabila Salem, President of Revolent Group, Board Member of Tenth Revolution Group

  • Nabila Salem has a quiet confidence about her. She is calm, poised and eloquent when she speaks, but it’s clear she means business. The topic of confidence comes up several times as we’re talking. It’s what she believes got her to where she is today, and what others need to instil in themselves as they pursue their own ambitions.

As the President of Revolent Group, a leading cloud talent creator, she tackles the global tech skills gap and helps build a new generation of cloud professionals. “We recruit, cross-train, place and continue to develop ambitious people for the Salesforce ecosystem, but it can be applied across all cloud technologies as well,” explains Nabila. “So, we’re training the next generation of certified tech talent and making sure organisations have access to the skills that they need.”

Technology has been present throughout Nabila’s career in one way or another. Her first job was at an internet café in Spain. Then, after graduating from Brighton University she worked in Internal Comms at IBM before she made the move to a smaller company where she felt she could make more of an impact. At FDM Group, a professional services group, she worked alongside the founders for 12 years. She saw the organisation grow from 300 employees to 4,000. “What was a small, UK family-run business transitioned to become a FTSE 250 company that was operating globally,” she says proudly. “In the 12 years that I was there, I wore lots of hats… it was a fantastic part of my career.”

Now she is President of Revolent Group, part of  Tenth Revolution Group, the arm that creates talent. “For me, launching careers in tech and diversity and inclusion in the workplace are two things I’ve always been passionate about and my role at Revolent encompasses both,” she says.

Nabila was the first and youngest woman to be appointed to VP at FDM. “It opens the door for others, but also it can be a lonely space, being the sole woman there. So, at Revolent I didn’t want to be the only person in this role. I wanted others to follow. Of the management team that reports to me, 40% are women. And I love the fact that two thirds are working mums.”

No two days are the same for her, although it was slightly more varied prior to the COVID lockdown. She still gets up early and does an hour’s exercise before she starts her day working from home in London, which is efficiently planned out. She makes lists of things to do the night before; so she knows what to focus on the next day.  

“We use Teams and Zoom to conduct meetings now, so they go on as normal, but just virtual. We have various exciting projects in the pipeline, so I’m busy with those. But ultimately, my role is to make sure the team at Revolent is as efficient and productive as they can be. It’s about communicating targets and monitoring performance. I believe performance is driven by having the right people and the right processes in place.”

Revolent Group remote working during lockdown

Backing women in tech

Nabila has always been an advocate for other women and minorities in business. In fact, she started the Women in Tech initiative at FDM. “In 2011, we had clear goals in terms of diversity. We grew the company to have 50% women on the management team. And that’s something I’ve always been really proud of.

“I thought at Revolent Group, we’ve got to do the same thing. So, we’re now at 40% women on the management team. But diversity obviously goes beyond gender, and if you look at Revolent Group, 63% identify as BAME [Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic]. So, it’s not just diversity in terms of gender I’m passionate about, also ethnicities and social mobility and giving people opportunities,” she says.

She (quite rightly) points out that leadership is not about you, its about others. “Once you’re a leader, your job is to help other people grow and progress. True leaders don’t focus on their role, they focus on the goal.” She says that working directly with two founders of successful businesses has in turn given her the confidence to push boundaries in her own career, which helped her to become FDM’s youngest VP.

“The tech sector has always been male dominated. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always had supportive managers. The big challenge I see in women is having the confidence to go for it despite being the minority –being the minority can give you a competitive edge. The barrier exists in our own minds. So, if we can overcome that, there aren’t any barriers. Women have to believe in themselves.”

Boards, summits and mentoring

Her confidence to push boundaries has not gone unnoticed. She was named in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 List 2019. “It was a nice surprise,” she says modestly. “Being recognised amongst so many other inspiring women was quite humbling. It’s important to highlight achievements and celebrate accomplishments of women in the industry, but more so to give others something to look up to. Wherever possible, showcasing the achievements of women is a good thing because there aren’t that many women in tech. But honestly, I’ve never chased awards for myself. I was usually the one nominating people for awards!”

Nabila is also on the advisory board for the NY Women in IT Summit. She was asked to help shape their inaugural New York summit two years ago. She moderated a session, sat on various panels and participated in workshops where topics varied from mentoring to cyber security.

Nabila presenting a ‘Star of the Month’ award at Revolent Group

One of the topics she spoke about at the event was diversity in Artificial Intelligence. “AI has some serious flaws because the majority of those developing AI are white men. A self-driving car was more likely to run over a black person when tested, because it hadn’t been tested with that group of people. Then AI on Google phones wasn’t recognising black males because the black community wasn’t involved in the development of this AI which is ludicrous.”

Even during her down time, Nabila likes to get involved in helping people. “There’s a group called Migrant Leaders, a non-profit that trains aspiring leaders from migrant backgrounds in the UK. “Generally, I tend to get involved in these sorts of things because I’m passionate about it. In the past [when she was based in the US] I mentored Veterans who wanted to launch a civilian career,” she says. But she does also find time to relax by losing herself in cooking or unleashing her creative side by painting with oils and acrylics.  

The future is in the Cloud

“Almost everything digital is already connected to the Cloud. Companies used to keep data in local storage for security purposes, but we’ve advanced so much. Cloud will continue to become an integral part of our lives. And it’s just much more practical: it doesn’t take up physical space and you can access it whenever and wherever we want… It’s 100% the ‘now’ and the future,” she says.

“[Cloud] is the fastest growing industry in the world. The thing people misunderstand is that a career in tech does not have to be super technical. There’s a lot of people who work in tech, like myself, who aren’t that technical. There are opportunities for everyone.” Indeed, the tech space needs all sorts to work, people skills, creativity, leadership and management. It’s not all about building circuit boards and writing code.

And the velocity of this year will require more minds than ever to forge a path forwards. “All the tech trends that were predicted for this year have gone out the window now,” she says. “I think by the end of the year, 40% of jobs will be fully remote – if not more. The world has changed. 90% or more, I think, will have some sort of flexibility in their jobs if they didn’t previously. It’s a huge opportunity for business; you can save costs, target different demographics… the world has gone virtual. This is no longer the future, it’s the now. The next normal has arrived.”

Achieving a diverse  culture will also become easier, which Nabila says is harder to create than it sounds. “People join companies and look for people like themselves. It’s difficult to be what you can’t see. So, we encourage and support all our employees with progressive ways of working…You can’t expect one size to fit all. In my experience, if you’re flexible with people they actually work even harder.”

“At Revolent Group, we built an inclusive culture that encourages meritocracy. So, we highlight role models internally and give others something to aspire to,” she says. Indeed, Nabila has made herself visible, and someone that women and people in tech can aspire to be like.

Quick-fire questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl?    Morning
  • What music are you listening to at the moment?   Cher – she’s taken me through lockdown
  • Favourite film?  The Green Mile
  • What’s your signature dish to cook?    Spanish tortilla
  • Most used app?   LinkedIn
  • If you could have a superpower, what would it be?   To be invisible
  • Favourite holiday destination?    Aruba
  • Where do you do your best thinking?     Kitchen
  • Favourite gadget?     Fitbit
  • Favourite female icon?     Oprah Winfrey