How to build diversity in tech

In this guest blog, Conception X’s CEO Riam Kanso shares how they’re removing barriers to entry for women in tech – helping turn PHD students into start-up founders.

Deloitte Ventures worked with Conception X – a deep tech venture programme that helps PhD students from across the UK turn their cutting-edge university research into viable start-ups. We shared our industry experience, whilst gaining access to deep tech innovation that could support our clients.

A smart pill¹ that once swallowed can feed data remotely to an app and help people monitor their gut health. A virtual reality tool² that speeds up upper-limb rehabilitation through immersive gaming and by supporting doctors with data insights into patients’ progress and predictive recovery. A new technology for sustainable concrete³ that can repair itself when damage appears. These are just some of the products developed by women-led start-ups we have supported over the past three years at Conception X.

Only 19% of UK tech workers are women, according to Tech Nation⁴ and CodinGame recently found that only 4% of founders of the fastest growing UK tech start-ups are women. Globally, the share of start-ups with at least one female founder is 20%, according to CrunchBase⁵ data.

Diversity and inclusion are big buzzwords in all industries today, but they’re often introduced into organisations from the top down as targets rather than through organic adoption. At Conception X, where women run 35% of the start-ups in the current cohort, we have managed to increase diversity with a more sustainable approach that addresses some of the roots of inequality from the bottom up.

Why is diversity important?

When Whitney Wolfe Herd started dating app Bumble, for instance, she created one of the first products in the sector that protects women from unwanted messages and online abuse by empowering them to choose whether they want to start a conversation with their match.

By addressing a simple but overlooked need, Wolf Herd became the youngest female self-made billionaire when she took her company public earlier this year and shattered the stereotype of what a billionaire looks like by ringing the Nasdaq bell while holding her baby.

In the UK, Hertility was started by two female scientists while on maternity leave out of frustration for the lack of support for women who want to find out about their reproductive health. The start-up recently raised £4.2 million in seed funding after developing at-home fertility and hormone testing kits that help women stay informed and prioritise family and career goals accordingly.

While we’re not creating dating apps or fertility kits at Conception X, the same principle applies to deep tech health products, work optimisation tools and more. The world is made of different people, and if we want to build products that can change the world, we need to ensure diversity is represented. Diversity of thought is a driver for innovation, as it brings fresh viewpoints, and ensures innovation improves quality of life for previously underserved slices of the population.

How we did it

To remove barriers to entry in practice, and not just make ourselves look like a diverse programme on the surface, we took a few radical steps. We changed what it means to be part of Conception X by de-risking the journey from scientist to start-up founder and introducing new terminology, shifting away from the jargon that has traditionally surrounded the tech industry and programmes like ours.

A) De-risk part of the journey

Too often the underlying idea is that you have to drop everything in order to be a successful start-up founder. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of approach. It’s all or nothing. The problem with this is that while it promotes key entrepreneurial values such as determination and self-confidence, it also reflects a position of great privilege, assuming that most people could risk dropping everything to start a business. This effectively alienates those who have more to lose and prefer to make less risky career choices.

We don’t ask founders to make any life-altering decisions upfront, and this opens the door to people who can’t or don’t want to commit to that level of risk. For example, a final year PhD scientist who may be thinking of starting a family after her degree could be less likely to embark on a risky venture pathway. Experimenting with the idea during her degree de-risks part of that journey.

We developed Conception X as a collaborative learning experience that runs alongside funded PhD programmes to lower the amount of risk involved in starting a venture and give students a space for networking and collaborative experimentation.

B) Remember that labels are important

Another reason why we chose to move away from the cut-throat Silicon Valley terminology, replacing it with words borrowed from educational jargon instead, is research shows that 60%⁶ of women put off starting a business due to imposter syndrome.

For instance, we prefer to use “venture scientist” rather than “founder” or “entrepreneur”, without expecting applicants to change their identity but instead inspiring them to build their start-up on top of their research success.

This has encouraged a more diverse set of aspiring deep tech founders to join Conception X organically over the years. It’s a much more sustainable way to build diversity from the ground up, without force-feeding change into old structures.

The impact will be visible in a few years, as our venture scientists finish their PhDs and enter the workforce or raise capital. Our hope is that in the next four or five years, when you look at the portfolios of the larger VC funds, you’ll see some of the female-led start-ups we helped create – and a much more diverse tech industry as a whole.

This blog is one in a series of pieces Deloitte Ventures has published with Conception X. If you’re curious to know more or discuss our work with start-ups, please reach out to helloventures@deloitte.co.uk.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and are not on behalf of Deloitte


¹
Enteromics, 2021

²Neurovirt, 2021

³University of Cambridge Business School, 2021

TechNation, 2021

Crunchbase, 2021

RBS, 2019

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