Voices from Silicon Valley: how US mentoring can help UK’s female entrepreneurs

What does Silicon Valley have to teach 17 of Britain’s up-and-coming female CEOs? Rather a lot, as it happens

Voices from Silicon Valley: how US mentoring can help UK’s female entrepreneurs

At Elite Business, we’re not shy about championing and supporting Britain’s female entrepreneurs. Which is why we were all ears when we heard that in September Silicon Valley Comes to the UK had handpicked 17 female CEOs from some of the UK’s most rapidly growing tech firms and taken them to Silicon Valley to learn from some of its most influential brands. It’s not every day someone organises a trip that hooks up UK startups with brands such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Silicon Valley Bank, so we were curious: what lessons can our female entrepreneurs learn from the Valley?

Silicon Valley Comes to the UK is certainly no stranger to these kinds of exchanges, having organised an annual summit since its inception that brings together high-growth UK startups with the brightest talent and insight Silicon Valley has to offer. And whilst the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK Summit is a fairly well-established part of the the British tech ecosystem, Janet Coyle, the organisation’s managing director, believes September’s trip is entirely unique in terms of international exchanges. “It’s is the first time that an all-female-led trade mission has ever taken place,” she says.

Learning from the experiences of Silicon Valley is certainly a noble aim but Coyle is keen to stress it is about replicating the community’s success rather than creating an imitation Silicon Valley here in Britain. “We don’t need that; we’ve got a thriving ecosystem, especially for startups,” she says. “But we feel where CEOs really need the support here is in really helping them scale.”

And the trip has definitely accomplished this mission. “The feedback that we’ve had from our CEOs is incredible; it’s really advanced their strategy for going into that market,” says Coyle. “It’s given them a network of people who can really help them.”

But there’s more to it than just boosting growth for some of Blighty’s best and brightest enterprises. The focus on helping female CEOs is also part of a longer game. “Women that have been very successful in scaling their companies want to give back and they really want to help other females do the same,” says Coyle. Because of this, raising the number of female-led success stories is just the beginning of a virtuous cycle that will change the way young women engage with entrepreneurialism.

Increasing the number of female role models helps convince more young women that entrepreneurialism is a viable career choice, as is evidenced by the success Silicon Valley Comes to the UK has had taking female CEOs into secondary schools with its Founders for Schools programme. “The impact that’s had on them has been incredible and it’s already trebling their interest in going on and studying maths and science,” Coyle says. “It’s about giving women the confidence and the encouragement that they can actually scale, that they can absolutely do this.”


Leaps and bounds

Cambridge Temperature Concepts

High-growth startups working in the digital health services space have certainly got their work cut out for them but one of the biggest takeaways of the Female CEOs to Silicon Valley trip for Cambridge Temperature Concepts was that a crowded market is no stumbling block for an innovative enterprise. “A lot of the companies that we visited had managed take or create markets around what would seem to be very highly competitive landscape,” says Claire Hooper, the company’s CEO. “They’d found gaps in Apple’s game, they’d found gaps in Google’s game and, staggeringly, had found a way through. It was absolutely an eye opener.”

Working through the stumbling blocks facing an enterprise can take months or trial and error but Hooper found that the Silicon Valley startups the CEOs visited knew exactly the sort of pain points their British contemporaries were experiencing. “Suddenly you’re leap-frogging months of worry and are being given actionable solutions,” she says. Already she has been able to put a lot of this insight into practice and it has allowed Cambridge Temperature Concepts to dart forward at lightning speed. “It has probably taken six months off the time it would have taken us to launch in the United States next year, maybe more,” she says. “We will measure that in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue going forward.”

And while question marks are still raised about attitudes toward gender in Silicon Valley from time to time, Hooper feels that the sense of community around women in Silicon Valley is very well developed. “The received wisdom is that men have their own networks; they’re very connected and they help each other out,” she says. “In Silicon Valley women are doing the same thing; they’re as connected as men.”


Supercharging startups


LoveHomeSwap, the home exchange holiday site, is no stranger to Silicon Valley, having spent plenty of time State-side growing its US operations. But that doesn’t mean Debbie Wosskow, the company’s co-founder and CEO, has been there and seen it all. “Silicon Valley is just such an incredible wattage of energy and I always feel like you plug yourself into the mains when you get there,” she says. Rarely do entrepreneurs on trips abroad get much of a break from constant meetings and strict agendas to think much about the broader context of their enterprises. “So to go there to be given that perspective was just an amazing gift.”

Another important lesson Wosskow thinks Britain can take from Silicon Valley is a sense of scale. “We just don’t do scale like they do over there,” she says. “And so to be able to hear from Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon and Google was amazing.” One perspective she has found particularly useful is how internal culture significantly influences an enterprise’s ability to scale. “Reconnecting the idea of culture with growth and success is very useful,” she says. “I came back with a lot of insights which had a real impact upon my business, about who I’m hiring and what I’m doing.”

Lastly Wosskow believes exchanges like this that help to bring women together from either side of the pond are absolutely invaluable. “Sometimes other women making this journey are quite hard to come by, so the more fellow travellers you can pick up on the way the better,” she says. She feels being around such inspiring female success stories and meeting high-profile women who’ve had such a broad range of experiences only serves to enrich the international female entrepreneurial community. “It creates the shared perspective, connection and optimism that we all need, so why not support that?” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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