Susan Elizabeth Black was born in Fareham, Hampshire in 1962. She left home at 16 and soon after was forced to drop out of school because she couldn’t work to pay the rent and study at the same time. She worked in a café, did accounts for a record company, worked at the local council, worked with refugees and tried a stint at nursing. She was married at 20 and had three children by 23. But by the time she was 25, she was a single mother living in a refuge on benefits, with no job or qualifications.
She wanted a better future for her children and knew that education was key to building a career and supporting her family. She thought back to what she’d enjoyed at school and kept coming back to maths. “Maths was the obvious choice for me – I just thought technology is the future.”
“I was petrified. I walked into this room with all these guys in suits, there was I, in Doc Martins and a miniskirt. I felt quite out of place!”
She started a maths access course at night school and this led to enrolling in an undergraduate degree in computer science at South Bank University. Most of the other students had come straight from studying computer science at A-levels so she had a lot of catching up to do.
“The first class that I went into, I was petrified. I walked into this room with all these guys in suits, there was I, in Doc Martins and a miniskirt. So I felt quite out of place!”
When Sue graduated in 1993 her supervisor, Professor Robin Whitty asked if she’d thought about doing a PhD. Encouraged, she went on to embark on a PhD in software engineering which she earned in 2001 at age 39. During her PhD studies, she noticed how male-dominated the technology world is and wanted to support other women already within or wishing to enter the industry. At a Women in Science conference she met Aliza Sherman, the founder of US based Webgrrls, who inspired her in 2001 to set up a UK equivalent, a BCS Specialist group – BCSWomen, which was the first British online network for women in tech.
After completing her PhD, she went on to become a lecturer at London South Bank University and then later became Head of the Department of Information and Software Systems at the University of Westminster.
As chair of the BCSWomen group, Dr Black visited Bletchley Park, the codebreaking centre that helped win WWII and launch the modern computer. When she was there, she learned that thousands of people had worked there during WWII, half of whom were women! She hadn’t realised any women had worked there at all, and left determined to ensure that the women of Bletchley Park were recognised in some way. She applied for a funding grant and a project was set up by to interview, record, and transcribe the recordings of some female Bletchley Park veterans.
She visited Bletchley Park again in 2008 and was astounded by the terrible state of disrepair the buildings were in, huts were literally falling down and the roofs were leaking. She immediately began a campaign that ran over several years which was ultimately successful to save Bletchley Park. This was one of the first campaigns to successfully gain support through social media, namely Twitter and Facebook. In 2015, Dr Black published a book about the process ‘Saving Bletchley Park’, initially funded by Unbound, it became the fastest crowdfunded book of all time.
As a single mother who’d brought her own family out of poverty through tech education, Dr Black founded the social enterprise #techmums with the aim of empowering women through technology. #techmums offers free training for mums on low incomes with no computer experience. The five-week programme covers basic IT skills, online safety, programming and app design.
“Education can completely change your life. If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens. And who wants a life like that?”
Dr Black was awarded an OBE for ‘services to technology’ in the 2016 Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. She is now a government advisor, Honorary Professor of Computing Science at University College London, thought leader, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker.
She went on to have a fourth child and has recently become a grandmother.
Featured on Universal Channel in their ‘’100% Uncovered” series she said “Education can completely change your life. If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens. And who wants a life like that?”
What an inspiring woman!
Image credit: Ali Tollervey