Amanda Williams is the Head of Innovation at Nest, who believes in a leadership style which is equally enriching and fruitful for any organisation. According to her, compassion and empathy are the two most important elements to be a successful leader.
We approached Amanda for an interview with our magazine. Amanda revealed a lot of precious wisdom on the concept of leadership along with a wide reflection on her success journey.
Q: Kindly brief us about you and your journey from the beginning of your career.
A: At University, I intended to do a biology degree, but an economics course to fulfil a liberal arts credit requirement helped me understand how business growth can be aligned with sustainability and I was hooked on the power of innovation and doing things differently. I ended up creating my own degree – combining economics, environmental sciences and political science. I followed this multi-disciplinary approach with my Masters at London’s Imperial College, home to one of the oldest sustainability graduate programs in the world.
At Imperial, I developed an interest in renewable energy, which brought me to my first role with a micro solar startup. I believe that this experience, as the second employee in an early stage startup, was a better “how to” – and how not to – than an MBA.
After my time at the startup I stayed in the energy sector, in consulting, at a high-growth startup, and finally in innovation and strategy for Centrica, the UK’s largest energy company. I spent 5 years there, in strategy, policy and innovation and had the great privilege to help build its impact investment fund, a real pioneer in corporate impact venturing. The fund invested in 10 impactful businesses, profit-making but values-led, and my colleague and I convinced the executive board to dramatically increase the scope and fund based on our outcomes over just two years.
Throughout my career, I have been a translator – aligning the needs of the business, the technology providers, the financiers, the policy makers, and the customers. I have searched for mutually beneficial solutions and helped both sides get there.
Q: How would you like to describe yourself as a leader?
A: I have always had a passion for the power of innovation, and I try to lead with purpose, making sure my team is aware of our end goals and clear about what success looks like.
Compassion and empathy are also incredibly important to me in my leadership style. Working with a diverse global team, trying to understand your employees’ perspectives is essential.
Q: Tell us about your passion, ambition and goal.
A: I’m passionate about progress, change, and innovation. I believe that we can do more with less if we use technology intelligently. I believe that success should never come at the expense of integrity – and for me that means looking after our environment and empowering those with less of a voice.
I want to do my part to facilitate change as I truly believe it can get better – more efficient, more productive, more sustainable, more equitable.
Q: What is that one thing that keeps you motivated? Any philosophy that’s close to your heart or any role model who inspired you to become the best version of yourself?
A: The thing about innovation is that it never ends. There is always an emerging technology that can change the world, so the fact that the work is never done keeps me motivated. It’s that hope in the power of innovation that keeps me going.
I am a believer in the “triple bottom line” philosophy from John Elkington, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times, and I’m motivated by the growth of b-corporations and others who are driving forward responsible economic growth.
Q: What are the qualities that turn an entrepreneur into a successful leader? Please share your point of view.
A: Communication and trust. Entrepreneurs are often solitary creatures. To go from a great idea to a successful business commercialising that idea requires a team, and eventually a management team. Entrepreneurs need to be able to communicate their vision effectively to recruit the first key members of their team. They then need to trust them enough to delegate activities. Unless they are able to give up control of some aspects of their business, they will never succeed.
Q: Kindly tell us about the biggest challenge you took and the risk associated with it. How did you conquer it?
A: I chose to “go it alone” in my career. I left the US, and the connections I had there, in pursuit of my own path. I was passionate about the positive benefits of globalisation from the start and knew that I wanted a global career.
I left the US to do my Master’s in the UK and then pursued roles with companies that were addressing global markets. With each new project, I had to understand not just the technology, the client and the market, but the cultural values that made that market unique. Moving to Hong Kong without a job lined up was the most recent challenge in my journey.
If you choose to follow an unusual path, you need to put yourself out there and talk to everyone you meet about what you do and what you’re trying to do. Luckily, the innovation world is a small one and a collaborative one.
Q: Brief us about the industry scenario from your perspective. What are your views on the digital disruption and its impact on your industry?
A: Digital disruption is a great leveller, with the potential to democratise information and destroy the barriers to entry that have kept incumbents in power. The incumbents that will survive will be the ones that acknowledge the rules are changing and find new ways to collaborate with breakthrough technologies.
When we speak with corporates, we discuss the relative merits of build, buy and partner. Technology is moving too fast for traditional corporates to build their own. There is a great role for corporate venture capital, but outright buying of startups and attempting to integrate them into the corporate fold comes with a lot of challenges and a low success rate. Partnering is the way forward, as corporates can offer startups and scale-ups ready markets to scale their products and services.
Q: Kindly provide a brief glimpse of your company and its services/products.
A: Nest operates corporate innovation accelerators, invests in startups and runs a global entrepreneurial community called Mettā.
Our corporate innovation programmes are designed to drive commercial outcomes by connecting startups with corporates to solve specific challenges. Nest plays the role of translator and coach, helping the two sides communicate and reach a collaborative commercial deal. We work with both sides, readying the corporates to experiment and ensuring that the startups are stable enough to take on a corporate contract.
Nest has built an innovation ecosystem to connect the fast-growing markets of Asia, Middle East, and Africa. These dynamic markets have fewer legacy barriers and young populations with increasing reliance on technology. Our Mettā network connects up entrepreneurs, corporate innovators, policy makers, investors and other drivers of change.
Q: Kindly state us your memorable achievements and your company’s accomplishments in your leadership.
A: I have only been with Nest for 18 months, but I am proud to say that we have grown in size and scale in that time, opening offices in Bahrain and Thailand. I oversaw our first corporate accelerator in the Middle East, bringing seven impressive startups from across the globe to Bahrain to work with American Express Middle East.
I am also hugely proud of the work that the whole team has done to increase the benefits of our programmes to both corporates and startups in the last six months. Of the four programmes we ran, each is on track to run commercial pilots with 50% of the startups we introduced to them.
Q: Your views on women in business
A: With climate change and rising inequality, we are facing huge challenges and I would much prefer to be using 100% of our potential brain power to find solutions. We should all be trying to break down the barriers keeping women out of the workforce or from positions of leadership.
I have always worked in male-dominated industries and I have had to adapt my style accordingly to get into a position of leadership. I am committed to doing what I can to help the women and girls following behind me so that they do not have to change to succeed.
Women supporting women is essential. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to get connected to a group of strong, intelligent women through my involvement organising TEDx TinHau Women, a local event tied to TED’s annual conference dedicated to women. The event itself was inspiring and being around a tribe of supportive women did wonders for my confidence. It was the ideal preparation for my interviews at Nest the week afterwards.
I encourage all women, especially those in male-dominated industries, to find their own supportive tribe of powerful women. Male allies are important, but there are some things that only other women will understand. I have a group of women that I have known since my student days in London and they are my go-to for all career-related issues and decisions. We all encourage each other to achieve the greatness that we believe the others are capable of.
Q: Any advice for the budding entrepreneurs?
A: Passion is great, but it’s not enough. Make sure you are solving a real problem.
Prove your market as soon as possible – prototype and sell. I always recommend that entrepreneurs prioritise sales – you are building market buzz, testing with real customers and proving value to investors, meaning you have to give away less of your company.
Lastly, make sure you have some trusted associates. Surround yourself with people who encourage you but who aren’t “yes-men”. You need robust challenge to perfect your initial idea and avoid the pitfalls of ego.
Q: How do you see yourself and your company in the near future?
A: I see Nest building on its experience of the last couple of years. We have been “doing the doing” so now is the time to share our accomplishments and scale up our proven playbook of how to bring corporates and startups together to bring innovative solutions to customers.
I am excited by the potential in some of Nest’s new markets, Thailand and Southeast Asia especially. I am also excited to be putting in our first proposal for a social impact accelerator, uniting my passions of innovation and triple bottom line philosophy.