To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Found + Flourish partnered with Plus X to curate a month-long series of events. Trailblazing Women celebrates the women in our business community that are innovating for social, environmental, and political good – in Brighton and beyond. Part of Spring Forward Festival 2021.
In this lunchtime panel discussion, we heard from three women that are blazing a trail within the innovation and technology space – sharing their own experiences of challenging the norm, how they came to work in their chosen fields, and what advice they would give to fellow women aspiring to innovate or create for the benefit of both people & planet.
It’s taken a global pandemic to highlight the efficacy of female leadership, with many arguing that it’s no coincidence that countries with women at the helm have had fewer infections and deaths.
In fact, studies have proven that women not only make better leaders, but also have a natural tendency to prioritise innovating for good. According to Harvard Business School, ‘women are both conducting business in new ways, and ensuring that more and more businesses have a positive impact on people and the environment.’ [Source: Impakter]
However, at the forefront of innovation is technology, where women are still grossly underrepresented:
- 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice
- 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in technology
- 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women
In this feature, we’re focusing on Erika Brodnock, founder of Karisma Kidz, an interactive brand that teaches children to be happier and provides feedback to the whole family. More recently, she founded Extend Ventures, focused on using big data to diversify business and funding.
Lara: What’s your story and did you have a lightbulb moment for kickstarting your career?
Erika: As an entrepreneur, my bold moment came from the fact that I was a mum of 5 children. I went back to work after maternity leave and had been ousted from my role by the employer, who had pitted me against the woman who had been my maternity cover. They weren’t technically allowed to do that, but nonetheless, that was what transpired. So, after around 6 months of really fighting tooth and nail for a role, I started to freelance as a Parenting Support Officer, and then started to work for Lambeth Council.
I became quite disillusioned by the fact that lots of the provision that was being made available through local authorities and through independent parenting practitioners, was working really well while people were on a 13-week programme, but after that, people would fall back to their previous behaviours. So I founded Karisma Kidz in 2012 after going to Toy Fair and met my co-founder, Dr. Amanda Gummer.
We had a really potted journey through Dragon’s Den, then the Wayra Programme and then doing a deal with KD Interactive, which saw the platform and the game that we built pre-loaded to 1.8m devices, We went on to do another deal with Telefonica off the back of being in the Wyra Programme, and then one with Nextway and Acer. All of this meant that we were preloaded to around 15m devices by the time we got to 2015.
I really struggled to raise the next round of funding beyond the initial round with Wyra. I was trying to raise half a million pounds and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t realise at the time that the problem was me and my co-founder. We were both women.
It wasn’t until 3 years later that I went to WPP Stream and saw another young black woman that was going for fundraising and realised that she was experiencing exactly the same scenario as me. The only thing that was “wrong” was that she was black and female.
That was my lightbulb moment. I asked myself, “How many more will I need to see personally before I attempt to do something about it?”
So I spoke to Tom Adeyoola, who had recently left his business having grown it and achieved £35m of investment. I went to him and said, “We need to look at this and every time I speak about this I am told that the evidence is anecdotal, so we need to start to provide some evidence. There is nothing that says how many people are looking for money and how many are from different races or what their gender is. There’s nothing saying how race, gender and background intersect to inform investor decisions.” And so we started Extend Ventures last year, we’ve been able to produce the reports, and so it’s been a really interesting journey.
I am still an entrepreneur, I still run a company, I’m going out for fundraising again now. I’m like one of those suckers for punishment – five children, two start ups and a kick.
L: Firstly, why do you think so few women are in tech and what can we do to change this?
E: I think that there are a few key things from which we can get some quick wins, so I’ll focus on those. We know that the market is homogeneous and it breeds itself – the middle class white male keeps perpetuating itself by those people sponsoring and enabling each other. I call that mirrortocracy, and I think a shift away from mirrortocracy and actually looking at people for the content of their business rather than what they look like or what they sound like, is going to be key to ensuring that we are able to change the status quo.
There is a whole lot to do with the language we use at the moment that needs to change. Groups that haven’t been historically represented are called underrepresented. That often leads to the connotation that those people have something that’s lacking. Whereas I think if we switch that word to overlooked, we put the emphasis on the people who are making the decisions to look at different talent. It’s a slight shift. From “I need to make myself seen” to “You need to come and find me”
We have long established that there isn’t actually a pipeline issue, there is a plethora of women who are available. We are 51% of the population. The issue is we don’t see ourselves in positions that inspire us, we need to create more visibility of the people that are in industry. We need to make sure that those people are promoted and become leaders, rather than making everyone an intern and there only being one position at the table for women. That ends up also leading to women being pitted against each other.
I think if the incumbent community starts to look at things slightly differently and appreciates the fact that actually, according to research, when they employ women and people of other ethnicities, it increases their bottom line. We will then start to see change. That switching from being an incumbent to becoming an ally is going to be pivotal in us actually creating the change that we want to see. Men that have made it have done so off the back of a sponsorship, women are often encouraged to find mentors. We need sponsors and people who will be able to open doors for us and make the impossible possible. Lucy [Hughes] has actively shown that can be done.
L: What advice would you give to anyone who has an amazing idea but is struggling to move their idea forward?
E: I personally would say “find your tribe”. No man is an island and it’s important to have supportive people around you. You need to find people who believe in you, in your idea and propel you forward. There will always be people at the beginning of a journey that give you the confidence to turn around and say, “Actually, I am going to take that leap and give it everything that I have.”
Networking also can’t be underestimated. For those of us who haven’t been educated in elite institutions, we may not necessarily have a network at the beginning. I think it’s super important to connect with people and find ways to do that. Even when we were in physical spaces, I would always advise people to never go in and see a room of 100 people and give 100 business cards – connect with one or two people and genuinely get to know them, understand them and who they are.
I used to do this thing called Breakfast Networking International when I first went out on my own as a coach. BNI’s philosophy is that give is gain, and I think that is a fantastic philosophy to bring through to everything you do in life. If you’re always seeking to understand how you can help the person that’s in front of you, then doing the same for you in reciprocity becomes really easy. It’s those relationships that start to open doors and enable you to move forward with ideas.
The other thing that I would say is that there is no failure, only feedback. If people say no to you, take it on the chin. Don’t take it personally, understand how you can use it to enable your next steps. One of the things I used to do when I was pitching Karisma Kidz was, every time somebody asked a question at the end of the pitch, meaning that something wasn’t clear, I took that and incorporated it into the pitch for the following time. You are always improving and getting better by using the information and data being provided to you. That will make you the best possible you that you can be.
L: Best advice you can give to someone starting out or wanting to build a business for the greater good?
E: I would like to make some practical book recommendations. The Mom Test by Robert Fitzpatrick looks at asking questions to your audience in a way that will mean you get the truth. Not every business idea is going to solve the problem, so understanding that from early on enables you to cut through the crap.
In a similar theme, Jobs To Be Done Theory by Jim Kalbach teaches you to look at the pains of your target audience so you can frame things in that way that will allow you to have a clear understanding of the problem that you’re solving.
Questions are very important, and there’s a book called Better Leaders Ask Better Questions by Lindsay Tighe, which is not just centered around questions that you will ask other people, but also the questions that you ask yourself. Rather than saying “Why Can’t I do this?”, asking the question – “What will enable my creativity to flow?” will give you a completely different set of answers. Then using that same framework to ask those questions externally.
Audience: What positive experience have you had being a woman in the industry?
E: I have been sponsored recently and it’s the first time ever. My PHD supervisor at LSE has truly shown me what it’s like to have someone genuinely in your corner and who will push you forward for opportunities. She considers how I feel and what might or might not affect me.
I was so used to being treated in certain ways, being black and female, and LSE is an elite institution, so having that sponsorship feels second to none. I didn’t go out of my way to find a sponsor, but she was the only one that offered me a fully funded studentship. It was her going that extra mile that made me choose LSE instead of Oxford.
Audience: What’s your feminine superpower?
E: As a black female I’ve been expected to work twice as hard to get half as much, but now that has become a superpower. I now do three jobs and people look at me and wonder how it’s possible, but it’s the work ethic. If you turn what held you back into a superpower, it’ll make you unstoppable.
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