IAG Tech’s Interview with Nimisha Patel

On International Women’s Day, IAG Tech had an inspirational fireside chat with Nimisha Patel, hosted by two of their graduates. You can read the full interview below.


Nimisha Patel

Nimisha Patel was Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Bupa, and former Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) at the Cabinet Office.

Recognised for her tenacity and outstanding achievements, Nimisha received the Global Top 100 Chief Digital Officer Award for two consecutive years, 2021 and 2022, and was voted CIO of the Year at the 2020 Women in IT Excellence Awards.

Here she talks to IAG Tech about her career, the struggles she’s overcome, and how she would encourage other women wanting to progress.



How did you start your career?

I was one of these people who spent far too much time in university to begin with because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do.

I was surrounded by a number of individuals, particularly women, who were studying computer engineering and computer science degrees.

It wasn’t the actual studying of those topics that really intrigued me, but the experiences they were gaining and the opportunities they were being given to apply what they were learning in the classroom.

Through internships, many of my friends were coming back and talking to me about some really exciting things they were working on, for big companies like Boeing and Ford Motor Company, and what really intrigued me was the ability to solve large, complex problems using technology.

It was through these conversations I started studying computer science, and that was back when there were few women in a class of 200 studying the subject.

Through internships I was able to apply what I had learned to solving real problems and challenges, the job became easier for me and I actually really enjoyed it.

I think that was the beginning of my career in technology. It gave me an opportunity to work in every industry, every sector, trying to solve all sorts of problems.

It ingrained in me a passion, and that’s something I’ve taken with me to this day.

Did you find you faced challenges as a woman in the tech industry?

Yeah, I’ve certainly faced challenges. I think the toughest time for me was earlier on in my career.

When I was 23 I spent a year in India setting up one of General Electric’s first global application development and maintenance centres.

And when I got there, I found it was really hard to get the job done, not because I didn’t have the skills or the capabilities, but because people didn’t take me seriously.

I think what helped me, and it is something I’ve taken everywhere I’ve gone since, is the importance of building credibility up front.

Beyond likeability, it’s really important people truly understand the experience, skills, learnings, diversity and richness of what you bring to the role.

Have you ever done anything radical around promoting diversity in the workplace?

I think I’m radical in general! Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I think you’ve got to try different things.

When I arrived at Bupa I had a technology function of 2,000 people and what really surprised me was the lack of diversity, particularly women, at my leadership table.

I set us a target to get to one-in-three by the end of our first year, and we were going to do it in really creative ways.

One of the things I did to attract a much wider variety of individuals into the function was to hold open days, where we invited outsiders interested in our roles to come in and understand what we were doing.

This led to very different people applying for those sorts of roles, because they got so much more out of those open days than they would have got out of just reading a job description.

I’ve also paid people that work for me more money than I get paid because it was the right thing to do. I think it’s really important not to think about yourself, but to think about what’s right for the organisation.

In your experience, what unique perspectives or skills have you seen women bring to leadership roles?

I learned a lot about the skills that women bring to business when I worked at the Cabinet Office.

I was leading the digital, technology and data response to crises such as the COVID pandemic, Brexit and our forces leaving Afghanistan, not delivering some sort of financial product out into a marketplace.

It was about saving people’s lives, and what I learned, particularly from women in senior leadership, was the empathy, self-awareness and emotional intelligence they brought to their roles.

I think you can be an extremely strong, effective and credible leader, but you don’t have to give up your humanity, individuality, and empathy.

Surrounding myself with women like that in the middle of a crisis showed me that was actually exactly the sort of leadership you need. It also encouraged me to bring more of myself to work.

I think it really made the difference in getting us through some of those crises effectively.

What practical things do you think we can all do for ourselves to make things better?

One of the things I’ve always done to help myself is to be open and transparent about my ambitions and my goals.

I think that’s really important because sometimes we assume that everybody – including our line managers and the broader organisation – knows what we want to achieve and where we want to get to, and the truth is, they don’t.

Anything we can do to make sure people are clear about why we’re here and what we want to accomplish drives a really robust and focused conversation.

I’ve found people remember those conversations, and when an opportunity opens up or they see a role somewhere, they approach me because they remember the conversations we’ve had.

I’d really encourage people to start having open dialogues about their aspirations, and not to be shy about those things, because I think it’s not something we should be embarrassed about.

Organisations are highly motivated and supportive of individuals who are ambitious, because at the end of the day, these are going to be individuals that are going to contribute to wider objectives and the organisation’s mission.

Think about where you want to be, and start at the end of your career. Think about the last role you want to be in and how and what will get you there. I often ask myself where I want to end my career, and when I look back, what are the sorts of things that I want to be able to say about my contributions?


Have you experienced allyship or support from others in the workplace?

I have, and I think what’s really surprised me is the allyship I’ve received from some of the younger generations.

When I was young I thought I was indispensable, and that nothing could stop me. I had all the energy and passion in the world.

I thought I could accomplish and do anything, and that’s still true today, but what I find is that maintaining that energy is easier by staying close to our graduates and our apprentices.

They come into the organisation full of dreams and aspirations, but they’re also much better at striking a proper work/life balance.

They force me to look at how I do and approach things, and how I create the culture and the environment they’re going to thrive in.

When I got my first CIO role, my husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer a week before I was offered my dream job.

With my husband spending a year away from home getting treatment, I was the sole carer for our four-year-old daughter, and so my initial response was to say no to that job because I did not think I could do it on top of what was going on at home.

My boss at the time was incredibly supportive though, he said opportunities like this don’t come around every day, and that I didn’t have to do it on my own because he and others had my back.

I really needed to hear that to give me the confidence to accept that role, knowing if I needed help, I would get it.


Have you ever faced imposter syndrome at work, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Let’s be honest, I think every role you go into can be quite overwhelming, and I probably face imposter syndrome every time I take on a larger role.

In the first few weeks, you’re trying to understand the size of the challenge and problem, while acclimatising to a new culture and environment.

And I think it’s more a reflection of that environment, the organisation, the system, and how that sometimes makes us feel that we shouldn’t be there, or that we haven’t got what it takes to do the job. But we absolutely can do the job.

You know, it’s really interesting that going into my fourth CIO role, I’m still sitting there thinking or saying to myself ‘I don’t think I can do this’. I don’t think it’s about self-doubt, I think it’s more about just how much I care about doing a brilliant job.

Sometimes I think about how I’ve accomplished the things I have. There’s an incredible amount of pride, not just in what I’ve done, but the way in which I’ve done them.


How do you prioritise your work/life balance and support the wellbeing of your team members, especially considering the new unique challenges that women may face in balancing a career?

As someone who has been very close to burning out myself, I know what it feels like.

One of the things I did at Bupa is I introduced a two-hour window every Wednesday called ‘Be the best version of you’.

It allowed people two hours away from work to exercise, take a new course, get involved in a hackathon or create “space” to think, or to shadow someone.

Even in creating that two-hour window, you won’t believe how many people still came up to me and said they were still struggling to do the things they wanted to do in this time frame.

I also take all of my holiday, and I do not log on during this time, as well as doing things with my daughter.

Doing something you’re passionate about, hopefully with friends or family outside of work, also allows you to bring the best version of you back into the workplace.

The other thing I’ve become a lot better at doing is saying no, in pushing back. If I’m telling an organisation we need to go slower, or we need more time to think, or the approach we’re taking is too risky, the organisation needs to listen.


What role do you think education and awareness play in promoting gender equality, both internally and externally?

It plays a massive role. I think one of the things that really makes a difference is reverse shadowing and reverse mentoring.

To go and spend a day in the shoes of somebody who comes from a completely different background and has faced different challenges is an incredibly unique and important way to learn.

I’ve personally participated in that four times in the last year, and the number of things I learned in all of those shadowing experiences completely changed the way I approach things.

Learning never stops, and you’ve got to continue to do it, but it’s only as good as the effort you put into it.

Do you think there is value in working with a mentor?

Having mentors can be incredibly valuable, but equally, I think it’s really important that you pick them.

Earlier on in my career having a mentor was the thing, and often they’d give me a female mentor.

What I found is while it was helpful to look up to someone who had faced some of the same challenges I was facing, if your way of approaching things isn’t similar or you don’t connect, it is hard to get much out of it, as you can’t be as open and honest as you’d like to be.

What is it you’ve looked to get out of that mentoring relationship over your career?

Well, I would say to understand the difference between a mentor, a coach, and what I would call an advisory committee, and who you go to for what.

Also make sure when you pick a mentor that you have a say in who it is, because it’s important you can be open, honest and candid with them, and if you can’t have those sorts of conversations, then you’re probably not getting the most out of it.

Even today, I have mentors I get a lot out of and from. It’s something you can have until the end of your career, and even after that, because by then some of your mentors become your allies and your friends.


We all have heroines who we look up to … who stands out as yours and why?

My heroine is my younger sister, and that’s quite interesting because most people look up to someone who is older than them.

She is a doctor, and is probably one of the strongest, hardest-working individuals I know, going out to countries like India and in Africa and performing surgery at no cost.

When I was in my second year of university, my mum had stage four cancer and needed a lot of care and help, and my sister took care of her so I wouldn’t have to drop out of university, she made an enormous sacrifice.

Can you tell us what advice you wish somebody had given you when you were younger?

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to my younger self and the first thing I said in it is if I was younger, I’d tell myself to stop caring about what everybody else thinks.

Because actually what I’ve found is the authentic self I bring to work is the best me, and also for the organisations I lead.

And I think the second thing that I would say is have fun! Yes, work is important, but so is just the ability to have a laugh, have a good time and not take everything too seriously.