A passionate advocate for Aotearoa, Vanessa is responsible for ensuring Microsoft empowers all its customers and partners to achieve more.
Vanessa joined Microsoft in October 2017, after more than two decades at Spark, New Zealand’s largest telco. In her first role at Microsoft as Director of Enterprise, Sorenson was tasked with driving business growth, forging strong relationships, managing Microsoft’s large Enterprise sales team and working closely with partners and key stakeholders.
Even with decades of tech experience, Vanessa doesn’t consider herself a ‘classic techie’ – rather she is driven by what technology can do for all New Zealanders. She is a noted champion of diversity and inclusion across the ICT industry, encouraging change, fostering diversity and inclusion, driven by the belief that D&I is not optional but essential.
Having carved out an extraordinary career that has included both wins and losses, Sorenson has committed herself to a lifetime of actively mentoring other businesswomen to become the best they can be.
Outside of work, Vanessa is passionate about education, championing equal access to technology for all children and encouraging girls to embrace STEM. She is married to Chris and together they have two children, Grace and Jack.
A more sustainable world with greater diversity and inclusion is what a better world looks like to me. This is a personal answer but if I could affect one significant change in my time in technology it would be to foster greater diversity and inclusion within it. Due to my own experiences in both life and the industry, I want to be a champion for change. But I also want to say this: I am not the great expert. I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is some perspective on breaking into an industry that did not have a place for me. I’m not from a classic tech background. In fact, I have done several interviews recently in which I have been very open about my background. It was nerve-wracking to do it, but I am pleased I did it. In those interviews I explained: my childhood was complicated; I was raised for much of it in a trailer park; I was not brought up in a stable environment; I did not excel at school; I did not come out of university and go straight into an amazing job; and anyone whose seen me struggling with my Surface Laptop will know that I am not even technical! No. I worked in many places, trying to find my way, and got a break or two, and I also hit a lot of hurdles. But I had to cut a path. There was not clear path for me to follow. So, I’d like where possible to try and make that path just a little easier for others.
We have this saying: Microsoft used to be full of know-it-alls, but we have grown and we now consider ourselves learn-it-alls. We are always learning. We are trying to do better every day. And our mission is to empower organisation and every person on the planet to achieve more. So I won’t every say we all the answer. We don’t. But I can tell you what we are doing, how we are trying to affect change, how we are trying to foster the right conditions to improve our D&I.
Ultimately our industry cannot thrive without different voices, different perspectives, different opinion.
I think it’s odd that an industry that literally destroys the tyranny of distance, that dissolves borders and brings nations closer together, is still an industry with so few diverse nations actually working for it.
And talking is one thing but doing is the other. So we have started a number of key initiatives. One of the key things I learned is this: to really make change you need to partner with people, you need to collaborate. That is something I really believe in. And you need to collaborate with people and organisations that already have a great voice and relationship with the communities that you want to talk to.
That’s why I love our partnership with TupuToa. Microsoft has an ongoing partnership with TupuToa, which sees us employ Māori and Pacific Island interns each year, many of whom go on to enjoy successful careers at Microsoft.
Building on this, in 2021 we made a grant and allocated support to TupuToa for the co-design of a skilling programme, Hikohiko te Uira, that will see thousands of Māori and Pasifika people receive free digital skills and training in a setting that is reflective of and respectful to their cultures.
In fact, recently we have agreed another grant to TupuToa in order to focus on delivering cyber skilling training to Māori and Pasifika.
This is so good, and it will literally change people’s lives and add to our industry. We all rise on the same tide, so I’m thrilled that we are always empowering our partners and deepening our relationships with organisations like TupuToa who are doing so much good for New Zealand.
And I also want to highlight another initiative dear to my heart. In 2021 we also launched the #10KWāhineinitiative, which aims to provide 10,000 women in Aotearoa with free training in digital technologies by the end of 2022, either through online Microsoft Learn courses, on-the-job training, internships or other initiatives. I can’t wait to see the women who come out of these programme, and into our industry to shed a new light and understanding on how we can innovate.
We also work with the likes of PwC on skilling initiative. The PwC partnership is very specific. Because I hear this all the time: Yes you can skill people but where is the bridge to then get them into roles. Well, we know that is an issue. And so, the PwCIgnite initiative tries to build that bridge to so people can get skilled then also get access to real roles in this industry.
I say it all the time, but I’ll say it again: If We Want Wāhine [Women] To Thrive In Digital Roles, We’ve Got To Give Them The Tools They Need To Succeed.
Predictions are of course dangerous territory because we almost never get them right. But I don’t believe we will ever go back fully to the way we worked pre-COVID. And I don’t thing that is a bad thing. We have proven that there are many things that we can do with technology that we never thought possible before. However, I’ll caveat that by also saying that there are some things that only humans can do, and some things that are best done in person, so as with so many elements of modern business and life, I think we are all going to be part of an ongoing hybrid experiment and we all need to work together to get the best mix of what works for each company and each individual.
What I can predict with certainty is that it will involve a lot of adaptation.
And that is something the whole world is getting a little more used to.
The biggest challenge is also the greatest opportunity – how to adapt organisations so that people are happy and give their best.
Work is always careful balance of give and take. Good companies are those that are consistently willing to recalibrate how we all work together.
One of the biggest challenges I see related to perception and again it is another reason why there is not enough D&I in the technology industry at this time. I have spoken to so many women who don’t even consider technology. Because the perception is that they don’t fit, or that technology is too technical. So, they don’t even consider trying for these sorts of roles. Microsoft research back this up. Research reveals lack of relevant skills – or the perception they don’t have the right skills – had stopped over half (59%) of women surveyed pursuing a digital career. That’s terrible. Even more crucially, over 90% of respondents said they are not currently being offered training or assistance to help increase their digital skills. It’s all too common for people to believe tech careers require programming or technical skills, but that’s just not the case. Really! I am not a technical wizard by any stretch of the imagination. Managing tech projects requires creativity, good people skills and communication, as well as the ability to see things from the tech user’s point of view – in other words, empathy. So, a big challenge is how we change this perception of our industry in order to make the welcome mat even bigger to invite even more people to come and take part in what is an incredible business to be in right now.
Collaboration is everything. If you can’t build the business together with your employees, it will never succeed.
Of course, there are always heroes of mine and great men and women who have somehow risen above adversary and done incredible things. And I have a few key mentors who have helped me in my career. But, to be really honest, of late the people I am most impressed by and admire are two women who have used one of these new skilling programmes and come from different industries and broken into technology. They took a leap of faith, they re-trained and they are both working for PwC. That takes a lot of nerve, and they inspire me, and I hope others to do the same. These ladies, Ruth and Mere here are incredible and both great examples of women who once they saw there was an opportunity, they seized it.
Before COVID, Mere Rewi-Leaunga was a flight attendant seeing the world. Ruth Langi ran her own events business. Now, both of them are part of PwC’s Ignite programme, an apprenticeship scheme helping women across Aotearoa find rewarding new employment via on-the-job training and partnerships with companies like Microsoft to provide digital skills. Already Mere has created a Māori language app for kids, following her passion, and her old school has invited her to speak to girls there about opportunities in tech. And Ruth’s husband was so inspired by her stories he applied at PwC himself! The real fuel of innovation is fresh points of view and women such as Ruch and Mere will bring a fresh perspective to everything they do and that is inspiring.
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