Silicon Valley export Eileen Burbidge is one of an increasing number of high-flying individuals dividing their time between the hoodie-wearing tech startups in Shoreditch and the policy-setting big wigs in Westminster.

In her day job at investment fund Passion Capital, the 44-year-old decides whether to back the dreams of entrepreneurs with a pot of gold that runs into the tens of millions but on the side of that, she’s taking tentative steps into UK politics.

eileen burbidge jpeg
Eileen Burbidge is a partner at Passion Capital and an increasingly political woman ©Francesco Guidicini for The Sunday Times

It’s no secret that the UK is yet to create a company on the same scale as US giants like Google, Amazon or Microsoft, but UK leaders hope to change this with the help of individuals that have a firm grasp of building technology companies, possibly having done it in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in Europe.

Last month, prime minister David Cameron included Burbidge in his influential Business Advisory Group, while chancellor George Osborne named her as the UK fintech ambassador, tasking her with championing the nation’s flourishing fintech scene, which includes London startups like Transferwise, Funding Circle and Nutmeg, on a global scale.

“I was flattered, very surprised and completely shocked,” explains Burbidge, sipping a vodka and lemonade at the Ham Yard Hotel in London's Soho, which just so happens to be where I met Jaan Tallinn, her former colleague from her Skype days, earlier this summer. 

“The Treasury and the chancellor thought it would be good to have a champion from industry to show how great fintech within the UK is,” explains Burbidge, a Conservative supporter who has invested in several UK fintech firms.

Referencing the Business Advisory Group, a confident and enthusiastic Burbidge says: “I think it’s a really flattering list. Most of them are corporates, right? It’s BP, Asda, Easyjet, Lloyds, Santander…and then, like, Passion Capital.

“I think the PM realised the digital SME sector is going to play an increasing role overall for business in the UK and at least one voice at the table to represent that industry would be useful.”

Eileen walks alongside the prime minister at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham ©No. 10
Eileen and London Mayor Boris Johnson ©Alain Falys, YoYo Wallet and Firestartr.co 

Burbidge, who has worked at Apple, Yahoo, Sun and Skype during the last two decades, is by no means the only one attempting to straddle the startup world with Westminster (see next page) but she’s the talk of the town at the moment.

The ambitious woman who grew up in suburban Chicago is well liked among the UK tech community and admired by many of the founders she’s invested in.

James Chappell, cofounder and CTO of fast-growing cybersecurity startup and Passion portfolio company, Digital Shadows, is overjoyed to have Burbidge on his board. 

“She’s a great member of the team” he says. “When we’ve had difficult questions to ask of ourselves as a business she’s been there and she’s really helped us out and got stuck in.”

Burbidge, who sits on the board of close to 20 startups, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty with her portfolio companies.

“A lot of board members who are investors tend to take a hands off approach and get involved when things go wrong whereas I think she’s been quite proactive throughout, really helping us steer the ship in the right direction,” said Chappell. “Interestingly, she got more involved in our marketing than I thought she would. She ended up redesigning our powerpoint templates at one point, which was quite unexpected.”

Her friend and colleague, Melissa Trahan, head of talent at Passion Capital, told me that she immediately warmed to Burbidge.

“My first impression was that she was someone I wanted to spend more time with,” says Trahan. “I was struck by her confidence, intelligence and candour, and instantly knew that I would learn a lot just by being around her.”

She’s always three steps ahead of everyone else, Trahan adds.

Tiger upbringing

The computer science graduate embraces her “nerdyness” and believes she’s ended up where she is largely as a result of her upbringing.

“I was a child of immigrants raised on the tiger mum thing,” she explains. “I really was the classic geek. I had braces, glasses…the whole nine yards. I had a great circle of friends but I wasn’t athletically inclined and I wasn’t into sports...I was more bookish.

“I was very good at maths and my parents told me I could be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I did computer science because it was easier than the other options.”

While at the University of Illinois, Burbidge met her first husband, a computer engineer named Kevin that she was on and off with for 10 years while living predominantly in Silicon Valley. “When I came to London is when we split,” she explains. “Our plan was to come over together but it was my decision to not have him come.”

Since arriving in London, Burbidge has married a Brit (who she is now separated from) and had four children: three boys (9, 7 and 5) and a girl (3).

“From a personal life point of view, I think I have 10 year phases,” explains Burbidge. “I don’t think I personally believe in one person for the rest of your life.”

She enjoys the flexibility that being a partner at a venture capital firm allows her. By and large, she can set her own schedule, meaning she can spend time with her children and do things like the school run, which sometimes involved a quick stroll across Hampstead Heath in North London to the children's private school, which she can afford thanks to some relatively big stock wins.   

Skype Shenanigans

Burbidge made her first million dollars in 2000, aged 28, following the IPO of software firm Open Wave, where she was head of business development.

She made the move to London four years later in April 2004 after being offered a job at Skype, despite receiving an offer from music identification app Shazam at the same time.

Skype CEO Niklas Zennström tasked Burbidge with leading the video platform's product team – a role she carried out for eight months without being paid. 

But the ambitious businesswoman - who gave up her home, a Porsche 911, and a husband when she left the San Francisco Bay Area for Blighty – lasted just over a year at Skype before she was fired by Zennström.

“He [Zennström] felt that I was not singing from the same hymn sheet as him and he let me go,” she admits. “Do I think he made the wrong decision? Yeah. I think I was pretty critical to what we were doing but even today he’d probably choose not to work with me again but that’s okay.”

Although Burbidge and Zennström didn’t see eye-to-eye, there were plenty of people at Skype, particularly the engineers in Estonia, who liked Burbidge, including Skype cofounder Jaan Tallinn. 

"I did not work with her that much since she was in London, while I was in the Tallinn engineering team and there was one layer of management between us," he told me over his new messaging app, Fleep. 

"I do remember my discussions with Niklas and Janus though where they were on the edge about whether Eileen was adding enough value for the (allegedly) significant compensation she asked for."

Eileen on a Skype offsite day at a mine ©Priidu Zilmer 

After leaving Skype in April 2005, Burbidge went onto work for Yahoo! Europe for two years as director of communication products.

But it wasn’t long before she was working with some of her former Skype colleagues again.

In 2007, she became an advisor to the Skype engineers that set up investment fund Ambient Sound Investments following Skype’s acquisition by eBay.

“I still had really great relationships with the Skype team in Estonia and that’s how I started doing investing,” explains Burbidge.

“They had five percent of the business when it was sold to eBay (for $2.6 billion or £1.6 billion) and they set up a private fund. They were based in Tallinn so they were kind of asking me if I could take a look at deals and founders in London.”

Serial entrepreneur and investor Tallinn added that Burbidge was valued more in Estonia than in London, particularly by certain people. "Toivo Annus (head of engineering at Skype), especially, liked her," he said.  

While at Ambient Sound Investments, Burbidge met her now Passion Capital partner Stefan Glaenzer, who was an angel investor looking to professionalise his investing activities, which included backing online music service last.fm (one of his portfolio companies) - bought by CBS Interactive for £140 million in 2007.

“We [Ambient Sound Investments] made four investments in London and three of them ended up being co-investments with Stefan,” says Burbidge. When the pair realised they both liked the same kinds of deals, founders and propositions, they agreed to go for lunch.

That lunch must have gone well because in 2009 they opened a startup space in Clerkenwell called White Bear Yard, which they used to house the companies they’d invested in as individual angels. 

Burbidge and Glaenzer began raising the first Passion Capital fund in 2010. At the same time they brought in their third partner, Rob Dighero, who was CFO of QXL, which acquired Glaenzer's company, Ricardo.de.

The first Passion Capital fund of £37.5 million was officially launched in 2011 and the second £45 million was launched in May this year. The British Business Bank, funded by the UK taxpayer, has contributed to both funds, pledging £17.5 million towards Passion's second fund. 

After four years in business, Passion announced in May that it had invested in 42 startups, touting that they had a combined valuation of £407 million. It receives somewhere in the region of 2,000 startup pitches a year. 

Passion partners: Stefan Glaenzer (left), Eileen Burbidge (centre) and Rob Dighero (right) ©Passion Capital 

The attention that Burbidge gets from founders, politicians and the press would likely stress many people out but Burbidge appears to be in control.

She cites her desire to overachieve as one of her best traits, along with the ability to handle stress well and remain calm in almost any situation.

All things considered, you could argue that she’s destined for a peerage and a more significant role within UK government.

Trahan believes her boss would ultimately like to get more into UK politics, adding that she thinks "it will happen some day".

“Eileen cares deeply about making London a go-to place for entrepreneurs to build their businesses, and being an operator herself, she understands the challenges of building a tech company more than most politicians would.

“She would be (and already is) an incredible advocate for technologists and entrepreneurs, and it would be great to see her influence grow through an official political role. But it would be tricky to pull her away from her current work - no one loves being in the thick of it more than Eileen.” 

Hard facts

Age: 44
Nationality: American and British dual 
Children: 4
Home: Highgate, North London
Salary: Undisclosed
Big stock wins: Skype ($1m), Open Wave ($1m)
Education: Computer science degree, University of Illinois
Board member: DueDil, Digital Shadows, wireWAX, Pusher, Mondo, Kovert Designs and others.

Quick fire 

Couldn’t live without: Blackberry
Now playing: Smoke Filled Room by Mako
Car: Prius+ (7 seater). Used to own a blue Porsche 933 (1996 model) and a red Yamaha Seca II
Favourite place in the world: Doesn’t have one
Employment (not comprehensive): Verizon, Apple, Sun, Open Wave, Skype, Yahoo
Favourite food: Steak tartare
Best personality traits: Inquisitiveness, empathy, wanting to be an over achiever, ability to handle stress well and remain calm in almost any situation
Worst personality traits: Too curious, never switch off, not letting people too close, never satisfied, internalising too much

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