Edwina Dunn on Using Adversity as a Springboard to Triumph

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Anyone who has been involved with customer-centricity has heard of Edwina Dunn. A pioneer in the loyalty space along with her husband Clive Humby, dunnhumby created the first loyalty program in 1994 on behalf of Tesco, one of the world’s largest retailers. By 2011, when Edwina and Clive took a step back, dunnhumby had expanded into many retailers reaching 350 million customers in 25 countries and has continued to grow, today reaching 1.3B shoppers globally. Now, Edwina is leading another massive global initiative, this time supporting women’s advancement and empowerment through her organization The Female Lead. It’s already one of the top 5 Global Campaigns for Female Empowerment and with a million followers on LinkedIn, as she says, “we intend to keep growing.” I have no doubt they will and we’ll be here supporting her on.

How did you get to where you are today? 

I studied Geography at university and joined a large U.S. software consultancy where, as a newly created UK team, we built location planning tools from big data and new technology. … I became the youngest female vice-president building and managing a team of 45 people by the age of 28. I met my husband Clive on my first day of work (he was a software engineer) and we married a year later. After nine years of working together, excited by data, fuelled by a desire to create the next step in capability, and somewhat frustrated by the lack of desire to invest in R&D, we rather took a step into the unknown, our riskiest step, leaving the safety of well-paid jobs to follow our vision and set up our own business.

“I eventually thought, just wait, you’ll see what you missed.”

It sounds logical and planned but it wasn’t. When my husband handed in his resignation, he didn’t know exactly what or how to take the next step. Naively, I thought I’d stay on and pay the mortgage until he determined a plan and got onto his feet. My boss fired me ten minutes later saying that as we might compete, my future was compromised. That was a real shock.  We were out in the cold, broke, with no plan, no clients and no financial backing. It took a while for me to get over the hurt and anger at what I felt was an injustice. … But anger is a good motivator. I eventually thought, just wait, you’ll see what you missed. It certainly fuelled my determination to build a business of importance and significance.

What’s one pivotal moment you recall after you ventured out to start your own business?

In 1994, Tesco approached us (dunnhumby, the company I set up with my husband Clive Humby) about its plans for a loyalty card. It was an idea, a bold idea but there were so many challenges around scale and complexity. Our defining and most exciting moment was having analysed their trial data in a handful of stores the then-chairman, Lord MacLaurin, said to us, “What scares me most about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.”

We launched the world’s first supermarket loyalty card in 1995, propelling Tesco into a market leadership position ahead of the leader at the time, Sainsbury’s. … By the time we stepped back from dunnhumby in 2011, we had 1,500 people (50% female), reaching 350 million customers in 25 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas. This was an amazing and uplifting achievement. I helped to change the world of grocery and FMCG forever.

What are you up to now?

nadine.dietz@adweek.com Nadine Dietz is chief community officer at Adweek and host of the CMO Moves podcast.