How do you turn a life full of disruption and chaos on its head?
Dr Sue Black is no stranger to Inspirefest.
She previously spoke at the sci-tech event in 2015 and 2016, sharing her experience of setting up Techmums – an online network aimed at demystifying technology for women – as well as her successful efforts to secure the future of Bletchley Park, the birthplace of modern computing, made famous by The Imitation Game.
This year, though, Black returned to the stage to offer something a bit different – and a lot more personal.
“Get out, get out, or I’m gonna kill all of you.” That was what Black’s ex-husband screamed at her as he ordered her to leave their home one night, 30 years ago.
Fearing for their lives, she took her one-year-old twins and her three-year-old daughter, and fled to a nearby friend’s house for safety.
With no family to turn to and no money in her pocket, Black sought refuge at Women’s Aid in Peckham, London, where she and her children remained for six months. After settling in the area, she managed to get an apartment in nearby Brixton and began the next chapter of her life.
“So, what am I gonna do now?”
Black decided that a monumental change was needed, but it had to come from her. “My life had been disrupted but I really wanted to be the person taking charge,” she said.
Black started by taking a maths course at night school for a year, before going on to complete a degree in computer science at London South Bank University in 1993. In 2001, she earned a PhD in software engineering, focusing her thesis on ripple effect measures.
“I never would have dreamed really that anything like that would happen, that I would get to uni, that I would get a degree, that I would get a PhD,” she said.
Disrupt the world
Black went on to attend many tech conferences, and soon noticed the lack of women at these events. To address this issue, she was inspired to set up BCSWomen, “the UK’s first online network for women in computing”.
Following that, she embarked upon her well-documented campaign to save Bletchley Park, which resulted in a best-selling book and some celebrity encounters, from Queen Elizabeth to Will.i.am.
In 2016, she was honoured by Prince Charles with an OBE for services to technology.
So, how did all this happen to a self-confessed shy person who was scared to even start a conversation with someone she’d never met?
“I looked deep inside myself and told myself a story, and the story I told myself was that you’ve got to change yourself, you’ve got to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t just keep bobbing along with stuff, you’ve got to put yourself out there.”
By transforming herself into a social entrepreneur, Black managed to conquer her fears and become the person she wanted to be.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life scared. In the beginning, my life was being disrupted and someone was scaring me, but I kind of changed it around and started scaring myself.
“I’ve disrupted myself so much that that’s now my modus operandi, that’s what I do, and I just keep going. And the thing is, when you do these scary things, the more you do them, the more fun it gets!”
Black concluded by urging the Inspirefest audience to push themselves to achieve their own personal goals because, as the old adage goes, you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.
“If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens, and who wants a life like that?”
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