We spoke to Suzanne Ashman-Blair earlier this year in the midst of her very busy schedule. Ashman-Blair is a partner at LocalGlobe with previous experience working at the impact fund Social Finance. She has covered a wide range of areas in her career, from healthcare to agriculture and more.
Having previously worked in the social impact space, Ashman-Blair is particularly aligned with businesses that have a positive impact on society. Her current work at LocalGlobe also looks into this area, where she is able to work closely with angel investors to access the right business founders. LocalGlobe's portfolio includes UK tech scene darlings like Citymapper, Improbable, Transferwise and Zoopla
Suzanne gave us some detailed insight about her career to date, her passion for diversity and inclusion and her views on having a balanced team when investing in companies.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Hannah Williams, staff writer, Techworld: Could you just tell me about your career to date, and how you ended up in venture capital?
Suzanne Ashman-Blair, Partner, LocalGlobe: So I've been at Local Globe for just over three years now and before joining the team here, I worked at an impact fund for about five to six years.
I really, really enjoyed it. I covered areas from healthcare - we did lots in the US elderly care space through to criminal justice - where I guess, I don't see many venture investments in that space now, but it was great, great training. It was a new impact investment firm and when I joined there were eight or so people. It was great to see it grow and expand; by the time I left there were offices in London, in the US and in Israel.
I slowly came to the conclusion that to solve lots of these really acute social problems at scale, technology was either the answer or at least part of the answer, and that's how I ended up working in venture.
So when you talk about trying to solve social problems at scale, what exactly do you see that as? And what would you say the problems are?
The way I tend to look at those areas is really around what are the areas in the economy that have really, really low productivity? Those are areas where it feels like there's plenty of room for improvement. Just look at how much money it used to cost to buy a phone, and a camera, and all of the things your iPhone can do right now for huge amounts of money.
We've managed to condense all of that cost into something cheap and reasonable that fits in our pocket and the same, definitely can't be said for healthcare or education. These are two examples of things that have got in real time, much more expensive over the last 20 or so years, so what I tend to look for is, what are the things that are in real time getting more expensive?
Then looking at the areas where productivity is really low, so agriculture is another one that has exceptionally low productivity, particularly in the UK, but across agriculture in general. So, looking for those kinds of areas and actually, when you break down those areas with low productivity, a lot of them are only kind of impact social spaces, it's agriculture, food, healthcare, education, child care.
For me, those then become the really meaningful big problems to solve for the next generation of founders. I think founders today have done amazingly well in solving problems in the straight software space, but the next generation are going to have to solve problems that are even more complex than the problems of today and messier. If you're founding a business in one of these areas, it's also been a regulated space, which means you're going to have to interact with government, there are often issues around regulatory capture, or incumbents, so it sort of wires the system to their advantage.
So it's going to take really, really impressive, ambitious founders to solve these kinds of problems. But that's a really exciting opportunity, if you work at a venture capital firm, to look for founders that want to solve these like giant, giant problems.
How do you go about looking for these founders and where do you source them from, especially in the UK?
It's a mixture of different sources. We work quite closely with angel investors who often invest in businesses even before we do, and there's some great angel investors around, we obviously work with our peers, we work with other firms in the UK, and beyond the UK.
And then we also do outbound sourcing, so I spent quite a long time looking at elderly care marketplaces, we didn't end up making investments, but I met with probably half a dozen to a dozen teams, all trying to solve that problem. So once I've prepared roughly what I think I'm looking for, this is what excites me about the sector or these types of businesses then you'll go out and search for them. Often just cold emails where people say: 'hey, I see you're working on something in that space and would love to meet up'.
Then the final way we see founders is inbound. Either they're reaching out to us directly cold, which we're totally comfortable with, or they're reaching out to us through someone we know. I'm deeply relaxed about the cold email. I cold email founders frequently the opposite way around. So I don't mind at all when they cold email us without the warm intro.
How would you say the industry has changed since you entered, especially in the technology area and VC itself?
I think London continues to develop as a tech hub, but we're all seeking the emergence of other regional UK hubs. I mean, if you look at Oxford and Cambridge, they have more unicorns, and Berlin has more unicorns than Paris. It's not all about London anymore, but London is certainly continuing to develop at pace.
It feels like there's more capital, I mean there certainly is more capital and there's data to back it up. There are more firms and there are more people that you can have a conversation with, certainly more than there were three years ago and that has to go to the rise of founders.
It feels like London is where maybe The Valley was in the mid 80s, but obviously we're still on a pretty steep trajectory.
How important would you say diversity and inclusion is for the industry, so that’s not just on moral grounds but for the success of business dealings as well?
Clearly, having a diverse and inclusive team makes a good team and a robust team, and that's going to be important for us across all of our portfolio companies.
I think there are some areas where it feels like we're making quite a lot of progress. So within the venture industry I'd say there's been a lot of focus, and I feel like there are many more women in venture now than there were three years ago, so we've made strong progress there.
At a general partner level, there are still clearly too few women; there are a handful of female general partners in London and it's important to have the decision makers being kind of a diverse group, not just at associate level, and that's not to knock the importance of having kind of entry level talent coming through that's diverse, but I feel like the needle will really be moved when the people at the heads of funds are also diverse as a group. But I think that VC is changing and feels like it's changing pretty fast.
There's a lot of support certainly for female founders, but it doesn't feel like that's shifting quite as quickly. I still see many more all male teams and mixed gender teams who like female led businesses, certainly when it gets through to later rounds of financing. It feels like, you know, female founders are very few and far between. It's a great space. I think that's changing more slowly.
In terms of technical talent within portfolio companies, that still has a very, very long way to go.
We might have more female CEOs than we did previously, but we're not seeing more female CTOs. I think that's the area where there's the most progress still to be made.
One thing we're really conscious about with our diversity and inclusion work is not to simply focus on the gender split, which is something particularly Julia [Hawkins, another partner] and I do on the investment team that we care about deeply. So we set up Femalefounders.vc because we think it's important for female founders to meet women partners. But we know that diversity is beyond that and when I looked down, not just our portfolio, but startups across London, the area of diversity where it feels like everyone is actually the weakest is on the socio-economic ground.
Basically, tech companies in London are packed out with people who grew up in London, and therefore can make the jump to London, and you went to university, even enrolled where it's not obvious that a university degree should be a requirement to do it. And so that's really our status at the moment, kind of how do we bring more diversity, not just across gender, but across broader demographics? Just because that's where we feel like the tech scene in London is weakest.
When was Femalefounder.vc set up?
It was set up probably 18 months to two years ago now, we’ve run a number of events. We’ve done some bigger events and a small event where it’s just founders meeting decision makers at funds, so small one-to-one settings.
Going back to what you mentioned about the balance between female founders and male founders, is that something that you tend to look into across the team of startups? Do you tend to look for a balance across the team before you invest?
It is. We record the gender balance of founding teams, but we invest so early that often, it's really just founders plus maybe one or two employees, but what we're really, really clear about is, if you don't get that balance right in your first 20 hires, it's going to be like pushing water uphill, which is basically impossible. We're like you have to get it right the first time because no one wants to join a team that's really imbalanced when it has 20 people. And so we make that point incredibly, clearly to a founder, which is you have one shot at setting up this nice balanced team, which has a good and inclusive culture.
And actually, the vast majority of founders are really open to that, even if they haven't thought about it before.
On your point that there needs to be more of a shift towards helping female founders, what more can be done to improve that situation from your point of view?
So I think the single biggest barrier in early stage investing is a lack of female angel investors. And that's not to say that male angels only back male founders or female angels should only back female founders, but there is certainly a gap around female angels.
I think that for a whole variety of reasons, people point to just a comfort level with risk, and perhaps that's part of it. But I think the piece that feels more, kind of important to me, because it's changed is that we often see angels who are angel investing, because they have options in a company that did well. And then they have benefited from their share holding companies, but where most people's wealth and technology comes from is actually not from their salary, but from their options in a business.
And we know, certainly from the US, and it's my strong gut feel that the same is true in the UK, that not only is there a salary gap between men and women, but there's an options gap as well. So my strong gut feel is women in equivalent roles do not have the same options and packages as their male peers. Like why does that matter? Because when the company is successful at exit or it goes public, if women are not benefitting to the same extent, in that value creation, they're less likely to be able to put that money back to work in the system.
So, I mean, that's on my long to do list for this year is to go through and say okay, we're all very, very focused on the gender pay gap, but what's the options like, because I think that's one of the blockers for more angel investors.
Overall, what kind of companies do you like to invest in? And what’s your strategy for the year ahead?
We invest in the earlier stage, so the most companies I love working with have the best founders and so working with the best founders trump any particular sector for me.
I mean, I personally really enjoy looking at the regulated spaces that have been largely untouched by the first wave of tech, whether that's, healthcare, or child care, or micro employment opportunities, or space and nano satellites, through to insurance, or the gig economy workers. I generally like businesses that sort of touch people's everyday life, which feels broad but it impacts people.
My strategy is always the same, find more great founders. Help them get from seed to the best possible series A. It's an absolute delight to work very closely with great founders over say 12 to 18 month period so more of the same is my plan for the year.