23rd February 2015
From an undergraduate degree in languages, through a trainee management programme that involved everything from washing cars to profit and loss accounts, to coming first in her MBA class at Smurfit, Niamh Townsend’s drive to succeed has seen her join one of the world’s biggest technology companies.
Words: Deirdre O’Shaughnessy
Dell Ireland is one of the country’s flagship tech companies and Townsend’s passion for the company is evident, particularly in the wake of signing a major partnership with distribution firm Exertis. Her initial training in Enterprise Rent A Car prepared her for a career in business, she says, but it was the ‘rounding out’ she got at the Smurfit Business School that provided her with confidence dealing with different aspects of business.
“Business wasn’t my initial area of interest, I wanted to study languages, basically to communicate with anybody I met! I would always try and pick up even ten words of a language wherever I went, and I focused on that at university”. Although the link might not be obvious, Niamh says this focus on communication has stood to her throughout her career, “dealing with customers is all about communication”.
While she has no “celebrity” role models, her advice on who to look up to is practical for any woman in any industry. “My first manager was really empathetic and showed weakness, which I think is a real strength”. It was the same when she joined Dell.
“My first leader at Dell was great – open to a new perspective from a fresh pair of eyes, rather than step in line – what does each individual bring to this that I can’t see. My role models are closer to home.”
She advises women starting out in their careers to look for a mentor, but someone who is not too senior – someone who remembers what it’s like to be in a junior position is more likely to offer useful advice.
Leading a team of 16 people, a mix of specialist and generalist sales people, is challenging, but she loves it. It’s a role she moved into after returning from maternity leave, a new challenge but one that she relishes. “I landed this job on return from maternity leave, it came up and I said ‘that’s my job!’”
Dell, she says, is very female-friendly. “I can’t talk for other companies in the technology industry, but my experience in Dell has been very encouraging. Women in Dell can move up, over or take a step back after maternity leave, and that is great because it offers them a broader based experience that often the men aren’t getting – the natural breaks are creating career progression. Promotion is one thing but I’ve also seen people able to step back for a while when they are just in a different place, and then maybe return from a second maternity leave ready to move upwards.”
There is a conscious focus on gender equality within the company, which has a number of female senior managers, and Niamh was encouraged to get involved in the women’s network when she joined Dell. She says Dell’s employee resource groups, linking staff across the company, are invaluable because they make people more engaged.
She’s also brought this passion to the wider industry through her involvement in the Connecting Women in Technology group, running IT programmes with transition year students to encourage girls in particular to study STEM subjects. “It’s a challenge for all technology companies,” she says, “If we don’t have the quantity going in, we can’t get the quality on the way out.”