Northern Ireland

Sarah Friar: From Sion Mills to Silicon Valley

Sarah Friar
Image caption Sarah Friar is one of the most powerful women in the technology industry

Growing up in Sion Mills, Sarah Friar's introduction to engineering was dismantling and reassembling her mum's vacuum cleaner.

And when it came to digital technology there was a Commodore 64 home computer.

She's come a long way from that Tyrone childhood and now, based in Silicon Valley, is one of the most powerful women in the technology industry.

She recently became the first independent board member of Slack, a business communications platform.

Her day job is chief financial officer for Square, a payments business.

She led Square's stock market flotation in 2015 and it now has a market capitalisation of more than $8bn (£6.2bn).

She was back home last week for the launch of a project which is being supported by various members of Northern Ireland's tech diaspora.

They have funded the conversion of Belfast Ormeau Baths building into a co-working space for freelancers and small businesses.

She hopes it will allow for "the serendipity of bouncing ideas off different people. It's about creating that nugget of an idea that really works.

Image caption Belfast Ormeau Baths building has been converted into a co-working space for freelancers and small businesses.

"You're going to get a bunch of folks with an entrepreneurial streak all in the same place, digging deep to push their own companies forward but they're going to be talking to one another."

She works alongside one of the world's best known tech leaders, Jack Dorsey, the founder of both Square and Twitter.

"Jack is a phenomenal entrepreneur, what's special about working with someone like that is you see their creative process in action, you see how spontaneous it is," she said.

"Seeing something in action in is what gives him his next best idea or gives me my next best idea so my hope is that Ormeau Baths can become that little catalytic point."

Her route to the top took her through corporate heavyweights McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce after an engineering degree at Oxford.

But at the root of that are her school days at Strabane Grammar.

"I was lucky in that I was very interested in math and science at school and that was really encouraged," she said.

"You hear a lot today about how girls maybe don't get involved in those sorts of subjects. I never found that at school and in fact with all my best friends we were all mad about maths and science.

Image caption The Sion Mills woman is now based in California's Silicon Valley,

"There was never a sense that there was no job we shouldn't aspire to."

Square's main business is helping small firms to take payments through a card reader and app.

Its largest market is the United States and it has been operating in the UK for just seven weeks.

"So far, so good," Sarah said. "This is a market which has all the hallmarks of a market which should work for Square.

"A vibrant small business economy, very technology forward compared to the US and a very innovative spirit and that's usually the sort of business which will embrace all the products that Square will bring to market."