Novacroft CEO: We need to overturn notions of the transport industry being all about hard hats

Following the death of her parents in 1998, Debra Charles felt the compulsion to actualise an idea she had “kept in my back pocket for a while”, spurred on by the “sudden feeling that I needed to make my life count”.

Previous time spent at Apple and robotics company Unimation meant “technology has always been in my blood”, and Charles became fascinated with finding ways to harness tech to make life easier. The emerging internet 18 years ago highlighted an opportunity to provide transparency for organisations through a new kind of web-based data management system. “I’d seen poor examples of customer service and data management, where there was no transparency or value and had a real desire to do things better, with greater respect for the individual and their personal information,” she said.

The idea came to her quite quickly – the application process for travel cards, which up until then had been complex and lengthy, could be simplified and made more efficient through the creation of an online database. Novacroft, named after a beloved family labrador, was formed and today has over 250 team members, with turnover over £10m this year – up from £6m in 2012.

The progress has been significant – “today we’re a smartcard programme and software solution company working with public, private and third sector clients, including Transport for London on their Oyster photocard schemes”, Charles explained.

The latest offering developed by the company is a smartcard-based social action programme, Ucan-do-it, hoping to enable organisations to recognise and reward customers, volunteers and employees “for all the positive things they do, such as taking public transport, recycling, keeping fit and being active in their communities”.

Novacroft’s diversification of offerings has extended to hardware, 3D printing, gamification and mobile apps thanks to improved technologial capabilities, while the development of Ucan-do-it aims to create “an entirely new market by bringing together collaborators from the public, private and third sectors to make a positive difference in society” according to Charles.

Making life easier for people by freeing up time spent on unwanted tasks through smart solutions is a focal interest of Charles’s, and another personal interest relates to the shortage of women in STEM careers. She pointed out that women make up just 12.8 per cent of the UK STEM workforce “and although women are entering at a faster rate than men, the numbers are still nowhere near enough to meet industry demand”.

Charles added that although the number of women attaining vocational qualifications in a science, maths or technology subject has increased from eight to 24 per cent, something is “stopping this increase translating into more women in technology careers – the gender gap has widened in the past two years”.

She feels a personal responsibility as a business owner to do what she can to get more women involved and believes others in similar positions should have a similar outlook. Charles is taking part in TfL’s 100 Years of Women in Transport, a campaign to celebrate women of past and present who have played various roles within the industry over the past 100 years. A key aim of the initiative is also attracting and retaining new talent, and Charles feels one of the most widely-regarded problems relating to encouraging more women to pursue a career in the industry is a lack of awareness.

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The ongoing discussion of the gender imbalance within the technology industry specifically has often been put down to “a simple lack of awareness of the wide variety of careers it has to offer” and Charles hopes the TfL campaign will help display all the options out there. She will be providing young people with one-to-one sessions to advise them and do what she can to “overturn preconceived notions of technology being all about coding or transport all about hard hats”. The positions available can cover everything from project manager to business analyst and account manager to software developer and website designer.

When it comes to heightening awareness, Charles thinks the industry as a whole can do better in establishing connections and “forge better links with young people before they make their career choices”. While collaboration between commerce and schools is a route to inspiring young people to think more about technology careers, Charles also pointed out that transport “opens up so many new opportunities for travel and learning experiences, and over the years it’s going to change even more”.

She is passionate about encouraging others to give transport the credit it’s due as it “has always struck me as one of the most worthwhile industries to work in”, making a difference to people’s everyday lives. Part of the reason Novacroft came about in the first place was because of a desire to help keep transport playing its part in society effectively, and to do so, “it needed to embrace technology”.

Overseeing the company’s path to success hasn’t always been easy for Charles though. While Novacroft was created as a reaction to a desire to make her mark after her parents passed away, the £90,000 of her inheritance she invested into the development of the first data management system cost her “the bulk of my parents’ estate, which was really upsetting because they’d worked so hard for everything”.

Charles felt she was too lenient with the developers involved, which was a costly mistake, but after recruiting her first employee they “turned my vision for the system into reality” and are still working on enhancing its current form today.

Tackling the inhouse systems of many organisations was also a challenge in the early stages of the business. It took a lot of convincing to make some realise that using an online application process would solve many of the problems they were facing with the manual options of postal forms and delivery. “We’ve come a long way since then and have enabled many public sector organisations to embrace the change,” Charles said.

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