Experiences of a female entrepreneur

Sarah Wood co-founded video ad tech company Unruly in 2006 with Scott Button and Matt Cooke. It has since grown to become one of the world’s most innovative ad tech businesses and in September 2015 was acquired by News Corp. This article is a transcript of her speech at a Leap 100/The Entrepreneurs Network breakfast on 3 December 2015.

The following blog first appeared on The Entrepreneurs Network website.

It’s interesting being asked to talk about “Trailblazing Women: Challenges Facing Female Entrepreneurs,” because for the first six or seven years working at Unruly gender wasn’t something I considered. I wasn’t really aware of the broader context because I was just getting on and building a business.

I had come from a career in academia, where there were lots of successful female lecturers and at school, I was taught by female teachers – including for maths and science. So it never really occurred to me that gender might be an issue. 48 per cent of our team at Unruly are female, including half our senior management and half the board. It was only in 2011, when we were securing a Series A investment round to help us expand and diversify our product, that I realised something was different. Until that point, I had been buried in work, building out the publisher network, building an ad operations team, design team and marketing team. When I resurfaced, I saw that other companies weren’t like ours. And it was only then that I thought gender might be an issue because our team, with a female founder, looked very different from other teams in tech.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time with other female entrepreneurs – who are incredible and hugely inspirational. They recognise how difficult it can be, especially when it comes to funding. It was during our funding round, when we met many venture capitalists, that I realised that, as a female, you are looked at differently, and unconscious biases come into play, but it highlights one of the great things about running your own business: people underestimate you at their peril. So there is a lot of unconscious bias.

Since then, I haven’t let stereotyping affect me. I speak a lot within the advertising industry about gender issues facing women as they move through their careers. In advertising you see so many talented women at the start of their careers, but when they leave to start a family they often don’t come back. There isn’t the flexibility of working hours, childcare is perceived as being too expensive, there are too few female role models, and there aren’t enough supportive managers.

I always recommend the benefits of getting networked with other women and this has been an important part of my own perdonal journey. Some of my best friends are female entrepreneurs and businesswomen who I respect and learn from – I was lucky enough to meet Divinia Knowles of Pact Coffee back in 2010 at the London Tech COO Roundtable. Edwina Dunn has been a huge inspiration and the brilliant Deborah Wosskow, CEO of Love Home Swap, joined me on a panel just yesterday for City Unrulyversity – a pop-up university for entrepreneurs, which I run with Cass professor Caroline Wiertz. We bring academia and business together to help the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

Which brings me to another point: people sometimes struggle to grasp my transition from academic to entrepreneur. It’s not the traditional path they expect from a tech entrepreneur. So it turns out I’m the wrong gender and from the wrong profession – but that just goes to show that anyone can help to build a successful tech company if they have the right team around them.

And this would be my message to anyone setting up a business: have a good team around you – both the team without and the team within. Work to make your team as diverse as possible, because then you can connect with as many different people as possible. Diversity is a highly strategic and under-rated business asset. If Scott, myself and Matt were all alike, we wouldn’t have the same impact. When you have a diversity of people, of styles, ages, backgrounds and skills, it makes you more powerful.