Sat. Jan 18th, 2020

8 working-class CEOs and execs reveal how they left tough circumstances to break into the elite tech scene

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8 working-class CEOs and execs reveal how they left tough circumstances to break into the elite tech scene

  • Business Insider spoke to eight working-class trailblazers about how they managed to climb the ladder in the UK’s overwhelmingly middle-class tech scene. 
  • Research shows a lack of diversity across race, gender and class at European startups, with most founders being well-off and well-educated before starting their companies. 
  • Among those Business Insider spoke to, some had experienced domestic abuse, poverty and homelessness – but told us how they came through the other side. 
  • Some are CEOs of their own companies while others work for major players like cybersecurity firm Darktrace and fintech startup Revolut. 
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

It’s no secret that the UK tech scene has something of a diversity issue. 

Research released earlier this year confirmed that European tech founders are overwhelmingly well-off and well-educated before starting their companies. 

With this in mind, we spoke to eight tech trailblazers – all from working-class backgrounds – about how they broke into this bourgeois bubble. 

Chad West, 28, director of global marketing at fintech Revolut

What was life like for you growing up?

I was one of six kids raised by a single mother in Torry, which is among the most deprived areas in Aberdeen. I shared a bedroom with my sister, where we both slept on mattresses on the floor.

When I was 13, I was taken into care. In Scotland, you qualify as an adult at 16, so at that age I was placed in homeless accommodation. I was suddenly surrounded by people much older than me, many of whom were suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism.

How did school go for you?

I flunked my high school exams but, thanks to the help of an incredibly dedicated support worker, I enrolled at college to get the qualifications I needed to go to university.

I studied business administration at Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, partly because I couldn’t afford to move further afield.

How did you get your first break in tech?

I realised early on that you need something on your CV to make you stand out. I started taking whatever internships I could, paid or unpaid, just so I could get some names on there.

Then I saw a job ad for a comms role at Rocket, the German tech VC firm, and I worked really hard to make myself stand out in the application. I wrote and printed out an entire interactive deck full of ideas for their PR strategy, and then sent it to them in a parcel.

I don’t think I’d have got the job if I hadn’t put in that extra effort.

Have you ever felt alienated due to your background?

One time it really hit me. A colleague mentioned they were going on holiday with their family, and I knew everyone else at the table’s parents were paying their rent while they were living in London. Meanwhile, I could just about afford to grab a drink after work.

I’m still yet to meet anyone in the UK tech scene, as far as I’m aware, from the same kind of deeply poor background.

Mike Beck, 38, global head of threat analysis at cybersecurity firm Darktrace

What was life like for you growing up?

I was raised in Highbridge, a former market town in Somerset, by my mum. My dad left before I was born so she was on her own.

My dad was Sri Lankan and my mum white British so, you know, being a mixed-race kid in Somerset in the late 80s could be tough. Almost everyone was white and had both of their parents around.

How did you cope?

I think I started finding my groove in my teenage years. Being good at sport definitely helped me fit in. Getting into the school football team allowed me to establish myself.

I enjoyed learning too, so I ended up getting streamed into the top classes. That can really be the make-or-break for a lot of people.

What was your first break in tech?

I deferred my place at the University of Plymouth to do a “year in industry” scheme with House of Fraser. I got a job with their IT department, which basically meant driving around the country, checking their systems and fixing their cash registers – they even gave me a company car!

For a 19-year-old who’d spent his whole life in Somerset, that was an adventure.

Have you ever felt alienated because of your background?

Not too much, in all honesty – although there were moments.

I went to work for GCHQ after university and I definitely noticed some differences between me and my colleagues there. Most of them went to very prestigious universities and I was aware Plymouth wasn’t really in that category. I remember one person asking me where I had been schooled…That’s always a weird one.

What advice would you give to someone of a similar background to yours who wants to get into tech?

For me, the most important thing was putting myself into new situations that forced me to develop confidence.

I knew I couldn’t compete with the privately-educated kids that had that drilled into them, so it had to come from somewhere else.

Elle Melrose, 23, apprentice at energy startup Bulb

What was life like for you growing up?

My mum raised me on her own. She made sure I never went without, but also made sure not to spoil me. I attended all the clubs I wanted, even if the costs meant she didn’t eat that day.

Mum so wanted to make sure I had a father figure while I was growing up that she accepted treatment from men that was, in essence, abusive. I would find her crying every day, and even heard her being physically abused.

While I was growing up, she became increasingly unwell, which led to me being put into care.

That must have had a big impact on your education?

It took a lot of discipline to balance my studies with a part-time job. Getting myself back into an educational mindset after leaving school wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

I signed up to do a law and criminology degree at the Open University, but ultimately chose not to complete the course.

How did you get your first break in tech?

I moved from South Devon to London earlier this year. I wanted to be a commuter who complained about Tube delays and the price of a sandwich, instead of a girl that had been in care.

That’s when I found Whitehat, a company set up to help people gain apprenticeship qualifications through work. After working with them, I got my job at Bulb.

What advice would you give to someone from a similar background that wants to get into tech?

Remember that your past doesn’t define your future. There are options, even if you haven’t gone to university and just want to get on with work.

If you’ve had a difficult upbringing, you will probably be more resilient, empathetic and open to change. Any employer would be lucky to hire you – so just go for it.

Dean Forbes, 41, CEO at human resources tech firm CoreHR

What was life like when you were young?

I’m a proud south Londoner. I was born in Lewisham Hospital and spent most of my younger days moving between there and Peckham. I grew up where the taxi drivers didn’t like to go.

It was a single-parent household, with mum raising me and my two younger brothers. She suffered from chronic muscular dystrophy, which meant I was effectively her carer from the age of 11.

I would dress my brothers, take them to school, bring them home, cook dinner some nights. Thinking back on it, I couldn’t imagine placing that much responsibility on my kids today. It was just “normal” for us, I suppose.

Did you go to university?

At that time, I wasn’t looking into furthering my education.

Although I think I would have been capable, I had aspirations to be a professional footballer. I signed a contract with Crystal Palace and thought I was set for life.

What happened?

I got injured just before my contract came up for renewal and it all fell apart. If I’m honest, I don’t think I would have made it anyway. But I was devastated.

I was very careless with money, as you might expect a young footballer to be, and found myself in a lot of debt.

My agent got me a job in a call centre, working for Motorola, while we looked for other clubs to sign me. I cried and cried for weeks.

That’s a lot to deal with. But it looks like you made the best of a bad situation?

It took time but I slowly got my head around it. The office culture could be a bit demanding but I was already used to football managers losing their rag at me, so I could deal with it.

I just kept my head down and worked really hard, quickly climbing the ladder. At the first opportunity, I left to join a telecoms startup, and I’ve been headhunted for almost every job I’ve had since.

Have you ever felt alienated as a result of your background?

I’ve had a handful of moments. There have been occasions where I would go for meetings, and I would be with an older, usually white, colleague. And the person we’re meeting might assume I’m the junior person in the room, despite that not being the case.

In some ways, that has helped me. I haven’t had many experiences of people actually being uncomfortable with my existence, but I have been paranoid about it.

Because of that, I always make sure I am the best-briefed person in the room. I play out every scenario before I go into a meeting, because I need to make sure people know I’m not messing around.

Do you think more can be done to help kids with a background like yours get into tech?

One hundred per cent.

My wife and I have put a lot of time and money into this. We run Project 10, an organisation that takes people from backgrounds like ours, and helps them develop in-work skills: office etiquette, punctuality, dress code and so on. From there, we help them get work experience opportunities.

I think more needs to happen to bridge the gap between the poor and the privileged. Too often, the assumption is these kids don’t want to get off their estates – but I know that’s not true.

Stacey Wilkinson, 39, CEO at recruitment firm Techsearchers

What was life like for you growing up? 

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I had quite a difficult home life compared to my peers. I grew up on various council estates in Salford and we never had “a pot to piss in”, as they say. No holidays, we couldn’t afford a VCR. My relationship with my mother wasn’t the best and I genuinely feared to be around the woman, to the point I threw myself into academia as a way of escaping it all. 

By the time I was 17, I had scraped together everything I owned and moved into supported accommodation. I managed to bag myself a place at the University of Salford, to study graphic design. Like many people I know, I did bugger all with my degree.

Where did tech come in for you? 

Quite by accident, in all honesty. I had been working as a club rep in Ibiza and realised I was a natural at sales. I joined Computer People in 2006, a tech recruitment firm in Manchester, and was absolutely shite at it when I first started. 

However, thanks to some good management, I persevered and soon became one of the top-performing tech recruiters there, winning every company award and a place on all the winners’ trips. I finally felt I had found my calling in life. 

You also spent a fair bit of time travelling? 

That’s right. I’ve only just started being able to talk about it but I basically had a cancer scare in 2012. I came through OK but it really gave me a wake-up call. I just decided: “Right, I’m off!”

I spent three years travelling the world, from the bottom of South America to the top of Alaska, Cairo to Cape Town, Asia, Australasia, the Caribbean and finally the UK. People genuinely thought I’d lost the plot. These days, I’m a digital nomad, so I work remotely from any country I fancy…I just take my laptop and find some WiFI. The world is my oyster.

When did you start Techsearchers? 

November 2018. And in only a year, I have recruited staff for tech companies all over the world. I’ve had articles published about getting more women into tech, I’ve been to the House of Commons and met the Isle of Man Government. I’ve just come back from a week with Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island – It’s been one hell of a year!

I’ve always felt at my most comfortable speaking with strangers and connecting people, so this job suits me to a tee.

Ismail Jelani, 26, CEO at tutoring platform Scoodle

What was life like for you growing up?

I’m a north London boy, I grew up in and around the Tottenham area.

I went to what I would call a very “normal” school. It wasn’t about how it placed in the local rankings or anything, we just so happened to live in the catchment area.

Were you interested in school?

My parents really cared about my education while I was growing up. They came to the UK from Somalia when I was very young.

I went on to King’s College, London, to study Political Economy. I think that was a bit of a curveball for them because it wasn’t clear what the vocational use of it would be. I could be wrong, but in my experience I think it’s relatively unusual for ethnic minority kids to study social sciences.

What was your first taste of business success?

I was part of the first cohort of kids that saw university tuition fees triple to £9,000 in 2012. I decided I didn’t want to take out that kind of a loan so I started a tutoring business, Satifs, to make some cash.

I had just over six months, from June – before uni started –until January to find the full term’s fee. I just about managed it, but I carried on with the business on the side and it got easier every year.

Have you ever felt like the ‘odd one out’ in the UK tech scene?

Imposter syndrome is a big thing for me. I try to have as much self-confidence as possible.

We all know the tech scene is disproportionately middle-class and white but, you know, that’s because those people can afford to take risks.

It’s the same reason my parents were confused by me going to study social sciences. After fleeing civil war in Somalia, I’d imagine they wanted as much stability as possible. Why wouldn’t I do something more vocational like try and become a doctor or a lawyer? Something stable?

When you’re moving through this tech ecosystem, it’s very easy for me to be totally wowed by something that, for other people, is just normal.

Even since I founded Scoodle, that gap has taken some time to close.

Jason Arora, 32, director of value-based healthcare at medical device company Medtronic

What was your childhood like? 

My parents moved to Britain from India in the late 1960s. They were both educated back home but their qualifications weren’t recognised, so my dad became a prison officer and mum worked in supermarkets. 

Of course, being of an Indian background meant that getting an education was considered incredibly important. My sister and I went to ordinary comprehensive schools.

How was school for you? 

I was pathologically focused on my studies in my teenage years. I had to be. It could be a bit rough and it was tough to get work done at school…Nothing too crazy ever happened but it wasn’t, so to speak, an “academically nourishing” environment. I did most of my studying when I got home at the end of the day.

I had always been ambitious and decided I wanted to go to Oxford University. It was actually my teacher that suggested I study medicine – most of the people on the course wanted to be doctors but, in all honesty, I just wanted to challenge myself. 

How did you get into tech? 

It was working with ICHOM, an organisation that works to improve the quality and value of care in health services, that really exposed me to tech companies. 

I had already worked as a doctor on the frontline of the NHS, but I often became frustrated thinking about how these services could be better deployed – then I started to consider the role that technology could play in that transformation. 

Going into tech wasn’t always my plan. It was more a manifestation of my desire to help change the world through science. 

Did you ever feel out of place in the circles you started moving in while growing up? 

Not really. I actually found Oxford to be an incredibly diverse place. 

Yes, I was surrounded by a lot of people who might have had more privileged upbringings than me – but I found it an enriching experience talking to them about their lives. 

I remember on my first day there: the first person I spoke to was a boy from Eton. And we had a fantastic conversation about volunteering abroad. Now, I had never done that and clearly it was normal for people in his circle. But the next year I travelled to Nepal to teach English. I always viewed meeting people who were different to me as a two-way learning experience. 

Darren Tenney, 53, CEO at ride-hailing startup Xooox

What was your life like while you were growing up? 

My family never had loads of money but they were great people, I had a wonderful childhood. My grandfather was a Hackney Carriage driver, and my father was a “cabbie” too, so you can see how I ended up being a taxi driver. 

It sounds like that was an important part of your heritage? 

Totally. I think what a lot of people don’t understand, especially in conversations today about the competition from ride-hailing apps, is that they were proud businesspeople. 

They provide an amazing public service, and you don’t hear nearly enough about all the good they do: taking vulnerable kids to school for free, helping out in the community…all that. 

You launched Xooox earlier this year. Was it difficult changing career at this point in your life?   

Around nine years ago, I could see the way the taxi cab industry was going and I wanted to do something about it – I wanted to offer an alternative service that was better for both the driver and customer. But I was totally lacking the technical know-how. I had absolutely no background in tech, so this was a total trial-by-fire. 

I spent a long time meeting people who could teach me about software development, and recruited people with the knowledge to put together my vision. 

But even when everything was in place, I would meet with investors and one of the first questions they would ask was: “What’s your education like?” And, in a formal sense, I didn’t have one! 

What advice would you give someone in the position you were who wants to get into tech? 

We’re all human beings at the end of the day. If you want to do something in life, don’t let anyone stop you – just go out and give it your best shot. 

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