Edwina Dunn on Using Adversity as a Springboard to Triumph

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?

Over the last few months, my focus has been on my educational charity, The Female Lead. In less than 5 years, we have become one of the top 5 Global Campaigns for Female Empowerment—and we intend to keep growing.

We are currently mid-way through a major research programme focused on Women at Work across the UK. We are exploring the issues that matter most to women today. Our goal is to understand what is missing in terms of policies, organisational culture and personal networks so that we can help open up better routes to facilitate, even fast track, women’s careers.

What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today?

When I worked in retail all those years ago, there were no women in the boardroom. It was almost exclusively men. This wasn’t just the UK, it was a global phenomenon. I had a brilliant career but I don’t think boardrooms have changed that much in 30 years. I think many women still face challenges in making a job at the top work alongside a personal life, particularly if that involves having a family.

Are things getting better?

A little bit, but women are still paid less than their male counterparts. In terms of opportunities, a career in technology most often benefits from high growth, global demand, high salaries and significant international travel opportunities. But girls often choose to give up math and science after GCCE’s because they believe it’s not for them. Strange, as their academic results are consistently better than those of boys.

What advice can you share?

"...your darkest moment (like when I got fired) turns out to be the springboard of your most exciting and rewarding endeavour."

Never allow anyone to tell you what you can or should do. Find out what you’re good at, what you love and feed that passion. Keep working hard. Surround yourself with positive people who will support and encourage you. It won’t always be easy. You need to build resilience. Careers don’t often flow smoothly and you may change course or find that your darkest moment (like when I got fired) turns out to be the springboard of your most exciting and rewarding endeavour. Trust yourself to make the right decision but most of all, choose a partner in life or in work, who will support you and encourage you to become the very best you can be. When you believe in what you do, you will go from strength to strength and take satisfaction and enjoyment from that mission.

Who has helped you in your journey and how did they shape your thinking or career?

I joined a company that believed in what you did and backed you to do more. The more success you achieved, the more they backed you. Unfortunately, when we became so profitable, they didn’t want us to stop and do something else. Understandable, but you have to keep investing in the future. So, I am thankful to those early technology pioneers at CACI but happy we left to start our own part of the journey before it was stifled.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing? 

I love The Female Lead. I know that women’s stories of success and achievement are just as exciting, just as energising and important as those of men. But we know for a fact that history has subsumed many. Women’s stories are less known and less visible.  My dream is to ensure that girls and women do not get limited by the perception of others, do not get told what they can’t do before they even start their careers. I believe that you can’t be what you can’t see so my ambition, no holds barred, would be for The Female Lead to be on every school and college PHSE curriculum encouraging girls and women to take the lead in their own lives. I would want to tell the stories and make the films of 50,000 women and for boys and men to feel comfortable talking about a female hero!