Liz Williams MBE: ‘without action, digital is a societal threat’

7th April 2020

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

Liz WilliamsIt would be easy to assume that Liz Williams MBE was born with a determination to change the world. With “a strong sense of fairness and work ethic” having been instilled from childhood, Liz has spent her professional life running full pelt at some of the biggest issues that our digital age is ushering in, not least during this current pandemic and widespread lockdown.

“‘Digital’ is all around us,” she says. “It’s a disruptor, which presents opportunities but without concerted effort, it’s a societal threat. Almost 12 million adults in this country lack the essential digital skills needed to use the internet and communicate online; we run the risk of a two-tier society if we don’t tackle this head on. And while there is a great deal of momentum around digital inclusion, it hasn’t been a coordinated effort.”

This is something she is trying to change as CEO of FutureDotNow, a new industry coalition of which Nominet is a founding partner and acting as an incubator as the organisation finds its feet. The mission is one Nominet is passionate about – to ‘empower everyone to thrive in a digital UK’ – and chimes with the issues that Liz has dedicated her career to tackling. “This role is so aligned with what matters to me and BT has kindly seconded me to help stand up the organisation.” It serves as part of the company’s commitment to the coalition, one of six big names who founded the organisation.

“Moving beyond the founding partners, the level of interest in FutureDotNow and our mission from large companies, such as Asda, Nationwide and Deloitte, has been quite overwhelming,” she explains. “This means our reach and potential impact is vast.” It is an influence she is hoping to tap into for the recently launched DevicesDotNow, urging companies to donate devices, internet connectivity or funds to help the many who are unable to get online in these days of lockdown. “Many of those without access to the internet are in the high risk group, such as the elderly,” she explains. “We cannot leave them vulnerable and digitally isolated during these days, it’s just not safe and it’s not fair.”

Beyond this urgent activity, FutureDotNow will also engage the different businesses to start driving change from within their own work force. “We’re asking coalition members to start with their own staff and look inside their own businesses. Putting it simply, does everyone wherever they sit in the organisation have the essential digital skills they need?”

It’s a question she has been asking in various guises for years: at BT she led the organisation’s long-time focus on digital society, while she is also chair of the Good Things Foundation (the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity) and is a Social Mobility Commissioner for the UK Government. Somewhere in between all these commitments, she finds time to coach and mentor young women.

Yet Liz remains bamboozled at having been awarded an MBE for services to digital literacy and social inclusion in 2019. “I was completely shocked,” she admits of receiving the letter. “That was a moment of serious imposter syndrome – things like that don’t happen to people like me. But it was the most amazing moment of my life and sharing it with my parents was really special.”

They are a close family, but her past held no hints of her future. She grew up as an only child in a working-class home in South London with few ambitions for her adult life beyond “being happy”. Her dad worked as a BT phone engineer and she laughs to recall her Mum’s offhand statement of “you could do worse than work for BT”. Liz has now been with the company for over three decades, preparing to leave in August 2020, 32 years to do the day she joined.

“BT has given me the most amazing opportunities over three decades,” she says. “From our charity work with Comic Relief to more recently shaping and leading the tech literacy strategy and education programmes globally. Seeing that work front and centre of BT’s recent brand relaunch advertising was a career highlight, and it does feel like the time to move on.”

The decision has, in part, been influenced by her experience of breast cancer a few years ago. “That was a seminal point in my life – and the worst thing ever, to be honest,” she says. “But it made me look at my life and ask what kind of person I wanted to be, what did success look like for me?  Personally, success means a strong marriage (my long suffering husband is my rock), my kids knowing they can rely on me and a home that may not be perfect but is open to anyone that wants to spend time with us.  Career wise, it’s about making a difference. I have something of a platform now; can I use that more impactfully?”

She hopes that FutureDotNow will be part of that the answer, while her work with Good Things Foundation and the Government will keep her in the highest echelons of tech for good activity, able to influence initiatives at a higher level.

“Technology has been created by humans, it’s ours to shape in terms of its place in our society.  We need to make sure that applies to everyone.  At the most basic that means everyone can access and can use it,” she says. “It’s not just about elderly people who grew up in a different time, it’s also about the young people who have a smartphone but don’t really understand it. We need to get inside the heads of these people, see what their barriers are and reach them in their world.”

And though there has been a lot of talk about the digital skills crisis, Liz is certain that “there comes a point when you either lean in fully and drive change or stop talking about it. Now is my time to fully lean in.” DevicesDotNow is just one example of Liz taking the initiative and driving change.

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