Jazz Shaper: Edwina Dunn OBE

Posted on 08 May 2021

Edwina is the co-founder of data science company, Dunnhumby.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers, it’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  Today, I am very pleased to say, we have a Jazz Shapers Encore, as returning to the show is the one and only true pioneer of Big Data, and we’re going to remind ourselves what Big Data is, it’s Edwina Dunn, now OBE as of 2019 I think, and she last joined me, would you believe it, in 2013.  Edwina is the Co-founder of data science company, dunnhumby, former chair of Starcount which uses data to help brands connect emotionally with customers and since we spoke as well, she’s only gone and founded The Female Lead, a foundation celebrating the achievements and diversity of women.  Beginning in the back bedroom of Edwina and her husband Clive’s home, dunnhumby revolutionised the world of retail and consumer goods, inventing new ways to use customer data and creating of course, the Tesco Clubcard and other global loyalty programmes.  For over three decades, can you believe it, her innovations have empowered leading global brands to better understand consumer behaviour and talk to customers in a more personal and relevant way.  In 2015, after much experience of male dominated boardrooms, Edwina launched the educational charity, The Female Lead, to increase women’s visibility.  As Edwina says, “It made me realise that it’s very hard to be what you can’t see.”  Offering alternative role models to young girls and inspiring the next generation of leaders, they’ve also published in February this year, a ground-breaking gender pay study concluding that women are socially conditioned to feel unentitled and therefore paid less.  This led to their Close The #Entitlement Gap campaign to inform policy, upskill women and educate girls on addressing workplace challenges. 

It’s lovely to see you again, albeit it through the wonders of modern technology.  I know, where people say ooh time’s moved quickly, but eight years since we last did this, our programme was in its infancy, dunnhumby was still quite recent history but here we are and you’ve reinvented yourself, you’ve discovered this other thing that has really motivated you.  Firstly, hello.  I should have said hello, terrible manners, lovely to see you.  Tell me about The Female Lead and we’ll work around it because I just want to hear about why in 2015 you said “Enough.” 

Edwina Dunn OBE

Well first of all Elliot, it’s a real joy to be back, honestly, I love talking to you and it sort of flies by and that introduction was just sublime because you know, it’s so rare these days that people just say really lovely things and remind you actually you’ve been on a pretty long and intense journey and I can’t believe it was eight years ago, absolutely amazing.  A lot has happened and I think to your question, you know you step away from something big like dunnhumby and one, you are tired and two, you can’t ever imagine doing something that is so much fun and so exciting, you can never imagine really getting there again but it’s addictive and actually after some time, after some time doing things maybe that didn’t work out quite so well, you suddenly discover a new lease of life, it’s totally energising, totally exciting and completely absorbing and it’s a joy and that’s really what The Female Lead has become for me. 

Elliot Moss

But the outputs, the thing you are trying to achieve now with The Female Lead has a totally different end point, if we ever get there, to commercial endeavour.

Edwina Dunn OBE

Yes.

Elliot Moss

What… and do you think though, is the truth that it’s very hard to achieve that sort of level of… is Maslow was here, he’d be talking about the hierarchy of needs, to really self-actualise, you really need money in the bank to be able to do that and I don’t mean that crudely but you need that security.  Is that true?

Edwina Dunn OBE

Yes it is true and, you know, money in the bank gives you the freedom to do what you believe in and the joy for me is the purity of the project, you know it’s not someone else’s agenda, it’s not sort of shoehorned into a different set of objectives that you know, I mean I’m really admiring of brands but in the way you’ve just described Maslow’s hierarchy, to go to the needs of human beings, to go to the very heart of that, is a completely different mindset and it took me a while because I was used to speaking corporate language and then suddenly you are talking about how people feel and what they believe in and what inspires them and it feels like a very soft language in comparison with the language that I’ve always been involved in which is sort of facts and figures and Big Data so, yeah, it was a complete transformation really but fun and yes, absolutely made possible by having a few bob in the bank and what a great way of using it because, you know, after a certain stage, you have enough stuff…

Elliot Moss

I was going to say, I always love the quote, Johan Cruyff says, “There’s only so many steaks you can eat in a day” and that quote has stuck with me. 

Edwina Dunn OBE

And he was running them off after having eaten them. 

Elliot Moss

He ate them but he didn’t look like he ate very many.  You talked about… we touched on dunnhumby and I said this, I think, in 2013, when I was starting in advertising in 1993, around September 27th precisely, my first day at an agency called Leo Burnett, I would tear bits out of the newspaper and at that point in time, there was this article in the Financial Times about two people and those two people, so around maybe ‘94/’95 by then, there was this noise happening about these two people and this thing called a Club Card and the use of data.  We now hear a lot about Big Data, we hear a lot about, well if you understand your customer.   You two were really pioneers of taking what was a science that lived outside of the world of business and moving it, at least to me, into the mainstream.  At that point, did you think you were doing anything other than your job? 

Edwina Dunn OBE

No, I did think we were just doing our job.  You know, when you start in a role and it’s your first role, you’re kind of like a sponge and everything you do just feels like the most natural thing in the world.  So, here I was, a geographer, suddenly immersed in the world of tech and mathematics and simulation modelling and it was super exciting, it just became sort of like a new University where you were learning these fantastic skills and also the creativity of the moment, just became a normal way of working.  An idea spurred another and the things I saw that were just made within a room by a few people, I think lived with me and have lived with me ever since which is a few good people really motivated together, can do just about anything if that impetus and desire to do it and it did just become incredibly normal and so when we eventually set up dunnhumby from this place, we just tried to hire the smartest people with that can-do, really positive attitude and you know, the whole thing just became the norm.  We didn’t realised just how brave and bold this all was and of course, the other thing that people forget is Tesco was enormously encouraging, they needed something very different, they needed something bold and they let us do it and I mean that is a very, very rare thing, as I know having tried to do it again and again afterwards. 

Elliot Moss

Well, that’s what I was going to ask you, I wonder what, if you can remember, that the source of the conversation or the pitch was?  Did you say to them, listen, you’ve got lots of customers, we understand or we think if we capture some information about them, we’re going to make them more loyal.  There are ways of getting under the skin of it.  Was it as simple as that?  Or was it much more, did it circumvent A, B and C?  I mean, I’d just be intrigued to know how they did, as you said, give you the space to just say, yeah, go mine, I understand what this could do for our business.  Did they really understand?

Edwina Dunn OBE

To be honest, they were the kind of company that never invited consultancies in, I mean that was the start point.  They had a thesis, literally a thesis, which was if we reward customers, if we thank them for their shopping, we think it might make them, bond them, more closely to us but it was a hypothesis.  The thing that meant they invited us in was that the technology at the time just couldn’t hold the amount of data that they would generate and so they trialled this idea, this was before we arrived, they trialled the idea of Club Card and none of their IT people could hold the amount of data even for the test and that was really our challenge and we used kind of slightly maverick techniques which are more statistical than mathematical which was some of the data, some of the time and by taking that approach, we completely revolutionised what could be done.  You know, at the time, small technology, big idea, big data, so statistics won the day and we got the job where no one else could do it. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from Edwina Dunn.  Some of Edwina Dunn, some of the time, here on Jazz FM in my Jazz Shapers Encore and that’s a really good point about thinking about the information at your fingertips.  Make sure it is the information you need rather than stuff you don’t.  She’ll be coming back in a couple of minutes.  Right now, we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions which can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Pigott and Dr Rebecca Newton, Organisational Psychologist and CEO of Coach Advisor discuss the impact of women in positions of leadership and on boards. 

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again on the Jazz Shapers podcast or if you’ve got a smart speaker you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you’ll find many of our recent shows.  But back to today’s Jazz Shaper Encore guest, a pioneer of customer data science, it’s Edwina Dunn OBE.  How nice is that, to say that thing?  She’s the Co-founder of data science company, dunnhumby and amongst other so much more, she’s the Founder of The Female Lead, the foundation celebrating the achievements and diversity of women.  You’ve said in the past, you said it just then, it’s been difficult to replicate that again and I often think that the alchemy of the people on one side of the table and the alchemy of the people on the other side of the table and a bit of luck and the zeitgeist and all these other things play their role.  How much do you put down to luck and how much do you put down to being the cleverest people in the room?

Edwina Dunn OBE

Well, yes, people say don’t they that the harder you work, the luckier you get.  I don’t think it’s completely that, I think timing is crucial.  I think you can have a brilliant idea and if the time is wrong for that to come to life, it just won’t happen so, I think I learnt that the hard way, I thought, you know, having created dunnhumby, I could just create something else because of just that force of will, wanting to, thinking the next thing, the next excitement.  It doesn’t work like that, it’s the timing is really crucial and it is the alchemy part of it, I don’t think you can force it. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of timing when you leave a business, when you say I brought this baby into the world in 1989.  When did you leave dunnhumby or…?

Edwina Dunn OBE

2011.

Elliot Moss

2011, so that’s a fair old way.  It’s now time for me to step back and then after stepping back, you say you know what, I’m now really leaving.  How have you and Clive, or just you, decided when it’s the right time to say we’re done because that’s also very hard, especially when you are in the business of creating your own thing?

Edwina Dunn OBE

So in the context of dunnhumby, we actually wrote three business plans and we were going to exit after the second one and in the end it was the excitement of the next thing that we could see that we managed to persuade Tesco and Kroger and all the other retailers we were working with around the world.  It was the permission to be able to do that that enticed us to stay so, we did stay longer than we anticipated.  So in a way, we left exactly when we thought we would, after the third business plan and the ending, I think, was probably one of the best things we could have envisaged because we just went round the world saying thank you to everyone for about a year, having celebration parties, loving everybody in the team and just feeling overjoyed, fulfilled and truly happy and I think that’s a very rare thing where you sell a business and you don’t regret it and you are hopeful for its future when you want it to be successful, I mean I honestly couldn’t have counted myself as luckier in that respect.  Having said that, when you step away and all the adrenalin leaves your body, you feel really terrible, I mean I don’t think people talk about that very much but all that excitement and adrenalin goes away and suddenly you are just this ordinary person again and you feel quite sad and lonely at the end of it because you’ve been surrounded by all these fab people who are really clever and really creative and you are alone and that’s when your mind kicks in and you think ‘ooh, what else can I do’ to give me back my little drug of excitement and fulfilment and that’s what I thought about. 

Elliot Moss

The Female Lead obviously was one of the next incarnations, it wasn’t straight after dunnhumby as we know, it was Starcount but I want to ask you a question about being a woman for a second because obviously The Female Lead is all about women in business and women and young women being able to achieve great things.  You worked with your husband, you worked in male dominated boardrooms, as have most women forever and it has been this way and it is changing.  Were you ever treated differently to the way you would have thought you would have been if you were a man?  Which may sound a weird question to ask the person who is the figurehead and the Founder of an organisation promoting women in life and in business because obviously the thesis will go, well of course there’s problems, but for you personally Edwina, because I don’t know that that would have been the case.  Here I see this incredible person, forget gender for a moment, with more accolades on two pages than most have got in fifteen lives and doctorates here and Co-founders here, I mean, really brilliant stuff and it is nice to hear nice things and you are right and you deserve it and thirty years is not fluke but for you personally, were there moments when it was like, okay, Edwina is a woman and therefore X happened?

Edwina Dunn OBE

There are, Elliot but, you know, I think for most people who’ve been successful and, you know, I have no doubt you have had moments where things have made you feel less than and they happen to everybody all the time.  I think, you know, there’s a particular female version, the one that used to make me laugh was when really serious people would come in, like really grown-up men, very powerful jobs, and when I spoke, they would put their head on one side.  I mean, it was just subconscious and it made me smile and the other one that used to make Clive and I laugh and we’d have little bets about it, was I would say something in my funny, probably slightly quirky way, and then he’d say it afterwards because everybody would look kind of slightly paused and confused and he would say it and they would all vigorously nod and say “Yes.  There is Clive Humby, the genius” and you learn to live with it, you know, if you don’t laugh, it breaks you up and I think a sense of humour is everything because we all face knocks, you know, people who want to take a little bit out of us, make us slightly less than we are, I don’t know why, but it happens all the time and it happens to men too but I am particularly focussed on the manifestation when it comes to women. 

Elliot Moss

Obviously, the case for equality is not one we need to rehearse here because it’s pretty obvious that we are there, we are nowhere near there on so many metrics but for you, when you are now running this organisation and you did run dunnhumby, did you live up to your own expectations of what a leader ought to be like?

Edwina Dunn OBE

No, I don’t think any good leader ever feels like the finished product.  I think we all develop really quite bad habits and I think it’s only having the kind of humility to hear other people’s impression of you can you really learn that quite inadvertently that you can do things that switch people off.  I mean, sometimes I’ve been told I’m quite scary and I go, “Me?  Scary?  How can that possibly be?” but the reality is, well perception is reality and if some people think you are, then you just are.  So, I think all the time you have to adjust your language.  I think the more powerful leader you become, almost the more careful and almost gentler the language you need to really communicate with and it’s something that takes you quite a long time to work out.  Of course, making mistakes, it’s just a daily thing that you do so, no, I don’t think you are ever the finished product and from running an organisation that was 1,500 people, I now run an organisation that’s eight people.  I mean, The Female Lead is only eight people.  We are as lean as you can possibly be but every person has their role, their expertise, their brilliance and we cut across every age group as well.  So, it’s a completely different experience. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with Edwina and we’ve also got a treat for you from Tito Puente.  That’s all coming up in just a moment here on Jazz FM.

Edwina Dunn is iconic too because she’s my Jazz Shapers Encore and super-successful one at that.  I’ve read before that you said in the era that you grew up, girls weren’t expected to do much and I don’t mean… in terms of business at least, there were certain roles and my mum was in that camp as well, whatever intellect level, intelligence you had, whether you were Grammar or not, private school or not, you became a secretary or you did, you became a nurse, these are your words, not mine, though I’ve heard them many times before.  Are you still surprised that that little girl called Edwina is now a grown-up with two grown-up children, more than a successful career, a trailblazer in the world of data, a trailblazer in the world of women’s rights?  Do you ever go, but it’s just me?

Edwina Dunn OBE

Oh yes so much so.  I mean, I always think I’m a great role model for someone who, you know, thought maybe I’m not a career orientated person and, you know, I’m not particularly academic and it just goes to show that if you keep learning, keep working hard and really throw yourself into what you are doing, no one’s life, future and career has to stop, it can all continue and I think that’s really what my messages are always about.  You don’t stop, no one is imposing the end of I don’t know who you are after school, you can carry on, you might not go to University but you can carry on learning, you can carry on growing and that’s really my message and that’s what I’ve ended up with at the end of all of this.  Had a fantastic career, loved every minute… well, no not every minute, I’ve had some really tough moments to be really honest but I’ve mostly enjoyed it and that’s what I want to give back, that sense to girls that, you know, don’t let anybody else impose on you what they think you’re capable of and what’s the best looking life and career for you, you know, just push through that and believe in yourself and I honestly think the more we can show amazing girls, amazing women who through all sorts of challenges, all sorts of setbacks, can become amazing in their own right and that’s really what The Female Lead and the showcase is all about. 

Elliot Moss

When does it not need to exist?  At what point do you say, it has achieved its objective and what is that objective?

Edwina Dunn OBE

Well, you know Elliot, I had a very moving moment this week when we interviewed a young boy and he was talking to a female Olympian, someone with a disability, and it made him so excited and enthused him and I think the moment at which boys will name female role models as their heroes, their inspiration, that’s when our job is done. 

Elliot Moss

Wow!  I mean, let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later.  It’s definitely changing, isn’t it, I mean just, I do feel like the energy is changing.  That said, there are inevitable, and you talked about difficult days, there must be some seriously difficult days in the office now because your vista is slightly larger, it’s society at large rather than the business and a set of metrics which are more, never manageable in the complete sense but, you know, you’re at the behest now of a whole bunch of faucets which you can’t control but you can certainly influence. 

Edwina Dunn OBE

Yes, and I think, you know, I’ve thought very hard about this, you know, when we have these waves of anger and real hurt in society, you know, Black Lives Matter, you know, the tragic story of Sarah Everard, you know, I think really hard about what is the role of The Female Lead and, you know, my belief is not to be part of that anger but to celebrate the girls and the women who overcome that and do something good from it, that lasts and that can be shared with others, that I think is our role.  We’re not on the front line, we’re not going to be the people who necessarily make that impact with the Police or that whole communication of women’s fear of being alone, walking alone, that’s really, really hard to change but if somebody can show a better way of doing it that we can all live with, that’s what we want to talk about and that’s what we want to put in the spotlight. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been brilliant talking to you again.  It doesn’t feel like eight years.  I know we’ve met in the interim and had a few chats as well.  I’m so proud that you took this on and you’ve created this thing called The Female Lead, I think it’s critical and I think it’s making a difference and just if you go onto LinkedIn today, you will find there are millions of people, literally millions, of men and women following it which from a standing start, Edwina, is yet another success, another start up success so, brilliant.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Edwina Dunn OBE

Yes, I have chosen Courtney Pine.  He’s the most fabulous saxophone player, I’ve always loved the saxophone and I went to Ronnie Scott’s and saw him there live recently and he was just charismatic so, honestly I could have picked all of his early work and much of his recent work but anyway, this is a joy and a pleasure to listen to. 

Elliot Moss

That was Courtney Pine with The Morning After the Night Before, the song choice of my Business Shaper here on this Jazz Shapers Encore, Edwina Dunn.  She talked about the fact that no good leader ever believes that they are the finished product, that it’s really important to have the humility to hear how other people see you and that the more powerful the leader you are, the gentler that your language needs to be.  All really, really good stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have lovely weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Dunnhumby revolutionised the world of retail and consumer goods, inventing new ways to use customer data and creating the Tesco Clubcard and other global loyalty programmes. Edwina is also former chair of Starcount which uses data to help brands connect emotionally with customers.

In 2015, after much experience of male dominated boardrooms, Edwina launched the educational charity, The Female Lead, celebrating the achievements and diversity of women. It aims to increase women’s visibility, offer alternative role models to young girls and inspire the next generation of leaders. In February 2021, they published a ground-breaking gender pay study concluding that women are socially conditioned to feel unentitled and therefore paid less. This led to their Close The #EntitlementGap campaign to inform policy, upskill women and educate girls on addressing workplace challenges.

Highlights

Money in the bank gives you the freedom to do what you believe.

I was used to speaking corporate language and then suddenly you are talking about how people feel and what they believe in and what inspires them and it feels like a very soft language in comparison.

People say… the harder you work, the luckier you get. I don’t think it’s completely that, I think timing is crucial.

Making mistakes, it’s just a daily thing that you do.

I always think I’m a great role model for someone who thinks 'maybe I’m not a career orientated person'.

If you keep learning, keep working hard and really throw yourself into what you are doing, no one’s life, future and career has to stop.

Don’t let anybody else impose on you what they think you’re capable of and what’s the best looking life and career for you.

My belief is not to be part of that anger but to celebrate the girls and the women who overcome that and do something good from.

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