Women in tech: the Cyber Runway and a beautiful mindset
Women in tech are severely underrepresented. We spoke to three women who started their own cyber-businesses in the UK, and then got help from a cyber-specific business accelerator program called Cyber Runway, run by a company called Plexal.
We asked Clare Ryan, CEO at ITUS Secure Technology, Sarah Knowles, CEO at Shift Key Cyber, and Melissa Chambers, CEO at Sitehop, for their views on the current world of cyber – and the industry’s attitudes towards women in tech.
In Part 1 of this article, the founders spoke about the slow pipeline of women coming into tech and particularly cyber, due to the educational steering of girls and young women away from the hardcore sciences. In Part 2, they discussed just some of the sexism and patriarchal issues they had encountered as women in tech, and female tech founders particularly.
In Part 3, we asked them about the experience of setting up their own cyber-businesses – and in particular, what they thought they’d gained from the Cyber Runway program.
Women in tech: the pipeline problem
Stepping onto the Runway.
What stage in your business were you at when you joined the Cyber Runway? Had you tried to setup tech businesses before, and if so, what was that experience like? And do you think there’s equality of opportunity for women in tech who want to become tech founders?
We launched Shift Key Cyber prior to joining Cyber Runway. It’s fair to say it’s probably a challenge for any business starting up, regardless of who your founders are. But I suppose that we approached it with some achievable goals and objectives in place. That’s just good business practice. Did it happen because we were women? I don’t know. Is it just a case of having worked in industry for so long that we know what good business sense looks like?
I’m not sure whether there’s equality of opportunity for women founders or whether there’s just a lot of opportunities for tech businesses in general right now. There’s more support out there than there used to be, but I don’t know if it’s specifically available to women founders. I think there’s just support for businesses now. Certainly, more than I’ve ever noticed before.
Yeah, I don’t recall getting anything like the kind of support that we’ve gotten from Cyber Runway before. That support has been absolutely massive. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to move so quickly.
And it’s not just that the timing was right for us, because so we were only six months old when we joined. We knew exactly what we wanted to produce, and we had the technical ability, and some experience doing startups before. But the timing of Cyber Runway and the training and the stuff they did, it was impressive.
I’m originally from the States, and there aren’t nearly as many programs supporting businesses, (not when I was there). I’m thinking accelerators have become the thing to do in the last five years, maybe? So it probably is picking up in the States as well. But there’s a lot more here in the UK. There seems to be a lot more government funding in the UK than I’ve ever seen in the States before.
You know, I always say I wish people in the UK appreciated their NHS more (National Health Service – socialized healthcare system), because I’ve seen the other side of that coin in the US. And the same is true in business support. I hope founders in the UK appreciate all of the programs that are here, because it’s really nice to have a helping hand, to have somebody open the door for you, and just let you grab those opportunities with both hands and run with it.
Cyber – a whole different ecosystem.
We had our business up and running as well. And we had played with a couple of accelerators. But there’s a real difference when it comes to cyber startup compared to building just an ordinary tech startup. So I thought Cyber Runway was really, really strong on the length of time it takes, some of the additional hurdles that you face when you’re in the cyber industry.
Because even the tech startup accelerators still talk about “Where’s your pipeline?” and “Get the product ready for market.” Can’t do that with this type of product. And it’s a very different ecosystem, and the trajectory for your business to take off has a much longer lag phase that you have to get through and so many more growth points before you’ll be able to really build that customer base.
And I think the Cyber Runway infrastructure was really unique in dealing with that and bringing the people together and actually telling you “This is okay. This is the norm, and this is what’s expected in your sector.” That was a real strength of the program.
Locating the Runway.
How did you find the Cyber Runway? Were you specifically looking for something like it?
I’m in Sheffield, and we joined a local accelerator, but it wasn’t specifically for cyber. So everybody was at lots of different stages, and I almost didn’t do it because I’ve been a founder before, so I thought “I don’t need this.”
But in fact, it was really useful because it put you in a room with a bunch of other people to whom you had to clearly articulate what it is you were doing. So that opened my eyes to accelerators generally. And then one of the other founders that I met doing the local accelerator said, “Oh, you’re in cyber, I’ve just read about this thing called Cyber Runway.” And so I checked it out and applied.
I think we saw a post about it on LinkedIn. And initially, yeah, we were kind of like that, too, thinking it wasn’t for us.
We started the application, and then left it, thinking it was probably more for businesses that were a bit more established than we were – we were probably about six or seven months in at that point, and actively trading for about four or five of those months.
And then we got a call to say “You’ve started an application – are you going to submit?” So we had a call with a couple of the people there and decided to give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen?
It was quite an interesting journey, and not the one we were expecting. But the value that we’ve got out of the program has been phenomenal.
At the point when we joined, I wasn’t working full-time in the business, I was only part-time. Joining the Cyber Runway launch gave me the confidence to decide I needed to be in it full-time – and the business has been supporting the two co-founders since July, 2022.
More, more, more?
It seems to have had different positive effects on everybody. Clearly, it’s doing something right. More of the same, we’re assuming, would be a good thing?
Definitely, I would say they need to carry on with it. And a great thing is that it has three different levels, so it can help you when you’re starting out, when you’re striving to grow, and when you’re aiming to scale.
There definitely needs to be more awareness of it. I actually came across it at a conference in Northern Ireland. It was a higher education conference, and I was only there because I used to work for that particular university.
I wasn’t aware there were cyber-specific accelerators until then, so it would definitely be worth singing more about, and getting more into the ecosystem and enriching it and going further with it, because that’s what it’s designed for, to get into all the regions. So definitely, yes, more would be good.
Is there anything you’d change about the Cyber Runway experience?
I would like to see more females in the mentoring roles. Cyber Runway has fantastic mentoring that runs alongside it. But actually, it was still very male-dominated. And if we’re trying to encourage more women in tech into the program, then those of us who’ve already been on the program could productively come back and give more mentoring and pay back into the ecosystem.
So they can see you, and then aspire to be you?
Yeah. Making strong connections through the Cyber Runway is incredibly valuable. If we can encourage more strong female tech leads to do that, that would be fabulous.
I’ll do it! I’ve already told them. They know.
That value of making strong connections is proved by us, of course. We chatted even at the graduation day about supporting each other’s businesses. So there’s lots of opportunity for businesses to work together, to suddenly get a cascade effect. You can use it to scale.
Cyber Runway as a pool is looking to make sure that each of the members that come into contact on the program are aware of each other’s organizations. When it works really well, when an organization is in high demand, and people really want to be part of it because they can see all the incentives, I think that lifts everybody together.
We’re all in different businesses, we’re not competitors with each other. But to be honest, even if we were, there’s enough to go round. So you know, let’s give each other that helping hand.
A beautiful mindset.
There’s every possibility this will come across as a sexist question. Does that strike anyone as a particularly female mindset? The idea that there’s enough to go round, so let’s help each other, rather than the mindset of endlessly wanting as much as possible?
Yes, it’s a female thing, because men generally would just go “It’s all mine! And I’m going to take everything, and dominate the world!”
I think that’s probably why female-led businesses are so successful. They have a different approach to going after the business. And that’s what I think Melissa was saying in Part 2. She doesn’t need to be a world dominator, she’s quite happy to use a tributary approach, and actually get in through all the different ways and take more business that way.
We don’t have to be the unicorn for this year or anything like that. But we’re all aiming to be profitable. And that’s the different mindset that women in tech, and female-led tech companies have.
Rather than burn through cash, never achieve a profit, but have unicorn status, we’re aiming for profitability, and sustainability, because we care about our employees, who feed their families and pay their mortgages. It is a very different mindset.
30 November 2023
29 November 2023
28 November 2023