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Girl Guides: Martha Lane Fox sets out her vision for the future of the digital economy

Digital pioneer, dotcom millionairess, and youngest female member of the House of Lords, Martha Lane Fox has made it her mission to tackle the nation’s digital skills deficit. Here she speaks to The Drum’s Jessica Davies about the digital economy as part of the magazine's Girl Guides series - where leading women in digital talk about their careers as a way of inspiring younger women to follow in their footsteps.

16 million people in the UK lack the basic online skills to use digital tools, while more than seven million people have never even been online. Baroness of Soho Martha Lane Fox, the UK government’s official digital champion, has set her sights on driving down that number – a mission she believes is critical to safeguarding the UK economy.

“Not only do we need a million more people working in IT if we are to build a successful economy, but there is the mind-boggling number of people who still don’t have basic online skills, and it is even harder for them now when so much is online based. It is making us weaker and poorer as a country,” she says.

Although the digital skills gap has moved further up the government’s agenda over the years, it will take the effort of all to eradicate it and ensure technology is put at the heart of social change – a subject close to Lane Fox’s heart.

“Corporates need to do more, the government needs to do more: everything matters, from FTSE 100 companies ensuring their workers are skilled to libraries being given the funding to stay open and have computer classes. If we can do this we have a good shot at making a big difference over the next year,” she says.

Technology is bridging the commercial and not-for-profit worlds and the opportunities surrounding this convergence are limitless, according to Lane Fox. She believes public services such as education and health can “reinvent” themselves through the effective use of digital technology.

The future of the NHS and how it will be funded has been a discussion she has helped fuel in her newest guise as the youngest female member of the House of Lords. “I’m very interested in how we can make the NHS put the internet at the heart of its design. We haven’t even begun to unlock what technology can do in this space,” she adds.

Health is always at the forefront of her mind, having herself suffered from a horrific car accident in Morocco in 2004 at the age of 30, which left her unable to walk for nine months and subjected her to countless operations, and in need of a permanent walking stick.

Yet sitting in her back garden with her two Bengal cats Coli and Pollack – named by her partner Chris Gorell-Barnes who founded an ocean charity – wrapped around her, Lane Fox is refreshingly optimistic, joking that online walking stick sites have “done very well” from her custom, and that she owns a stick to match every outfit she wears. She also jokes that despite being founder of the highly successful karaoke chain Lucky Voice, she is a dreadful singer.

Lane Fox co-founded Lastminute.com at the age of 25, and in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of £571m. Only weeks later the dotcom crash hit and Lastminute.com’s share price plummeted, along with the majority of its launch investors’ money. Lane Fox was stunned by the vicious backlash she received from the media as a result of the fallout.

“I was vilified as I had the brunt of the PR on my shoulders. They always cut [co-founder] Brent [Hoberman] out of the picture, which annoyed us both although he was always gracious about it. There was a lot of nasty stuff in the press and I received a lot of hate mail. That was a very hard time.”

The digital landscape at that time was “immeasurably different” compared to today where the route into the internet is far less fragmented, according to Lane Fox.

“We were trying to convince people that the internet would still exist in five to ten years, let alone Lastminute.com. There were no enormous platforms like Google or any social media, which are most people’s route in to the internet now; it was a very different landscape.”

Today’s challenges have become more about how individuals can manage and control their own digital footprint, according to Lane Fox. “Trust is being eroded across the board. People trust the government and big corporates less than they did. That’s good in one way because it shows people aren’t letting themselves be spun nonsense. But at same time it’s a bad thing to have to constantly question people’s authenticity.”

She believes the recent PRISM scandal, the top secret program that gave the US National Security Agency direct access to the servers of internet giants including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple, has further damaged consumer trust. Yet the extent to which people care about what and how their personal data is used varies “massively” between different generations, with younger demographics more accustomed to and therefore more nonchalant about the use of their data, according to Lane Fox.

Regardless, she believes data privacy issues will continue to be a challenge for businesses for some time. “Identity, data, privacy, your digital footprint and reputation, all these things are becoming much more important. We should be educating children as much as our generation and older people about what an individual’s reach is on the internet, and how they can ensure they are in charge of it and not someone else – this is absolutely fundamental.

“Brands that respect you as a person and make you feel like you are you, and that you, rather than they, have control over you, will be the ones who are successful,” she adds.

Lane Fox was appointed Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire this year for her services to the digital economy and charity. She also sits on the boards of Channel 4 and Marks & Spencer. In 2010 David Cameron hosted an event at 10 Downing Street to celebrate her ‘Manifesto for a Networked Nation’.

This March she became the youngest female member of the House of Lords, and describes her first few weeks there as “nerve-racking”. Yet she is hungry to learn the ins and outs of this institution, which she feels is “misunderstood” and therefore undervalued by the public. She will also continue to drive Go On UK, a charity she founded aimed at making the UK the most digitally skilled nation in the world.

This feature continues the Girl Guides series that aims to highlight the lack of female recruits in the digital market and the fact that the industry is only getting access to half the talent base. The Drum asked Martha what career advice she has for young women who may be considering following in her footsteps:

"I am with [Facebook’s chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg on this. She had the best education, worked in high-profile places and was given all the support in the world. Yet she still has to flick on that switch that says ‘be confident’. Things are intimidating all the time, like giving a speech at the House of Lords. Everyone has that feeling, but don’t let that put you off. I bet there isn’t a single woman that doesn’t have to flick on that switch of confidence on a regular basis.

Don’t worry too much about planning every moment of your life if you’re just starting out. Everything that happened to me happened serendipitously. It’s about building networks of people and using that for the basis of working hard and building your experiences. Digital is an immensely exciting and rewarding sector to work in and it’s not even separate to our lives it’s a fundamental part of them now. So understanding it is crucial - use the web to be more of an expert than the person sitting next to you."

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Jessica Davies

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