Suki Fuller is the cofounder and CEO of Salaam Ventures, a London-based fund that makes early-stage investments in ethical technology startups.
Fuller started her venture capital career in 2017 when she cofounded Salaam Ventures after years of professional experience in technology and helping founders with public speaking and telling their company's stories. She is also the founding ambassador of the FiftyFiftyPledge and a strategic advisor with a focus on human-centred innovation and design.
Below is a transcript from the above video, edited slightly for clarity.
Hannah Williams, Techworld: Firstly, can you tell me a bit about your career to date and how exactly you ended up in Venture Capital?
Suki Fuller, Salaam Ventures: I don't think anybody's career is linear. Mine is very much non-linear, and I'm very much not your typical person that gets into venture. So, I originally started out in chemical engineering.
Then I moved into intelligence, so I became an intelligence practitioner across national security, law enforcement and corporate. And then just by way of chance, I fell into venture - and while I still do competitive intelligence, I also do venture - and that was quite by accident just by knowing lots of people that worked within the social media space in the early days of Twitter and blog worlds and all sorts that were going on in the US around the mid-to-late 2006. So when Twitter started is really when I jumped into more of the tech sector.
How would you say the industry has changed since the beginning of your career?
I would say technology is very much fuelling what's going on within the business world. Everybody, to some degree, can say their company is a tech company, because if you have a business online, or you're doing ecommerce, everybody is now claiming they're a tech company.
And I would say that while there is a lot more acceptance of tech, there is still sort of this pie in the sky looking at it as though it creates conflicts and changes everything in the world, when in fact it comes down to the people. Really it is about what the people are doing and how they're designing the tech, whether or not it solves a real problem.
Going back to what you mentioned, you've been in the technology industry for quite some years and also now developed into venture capital. What's the importance of diversity and inclusion in the industry?
I always try not to use the word diversity anymore, I really do try to use the word variety. And that is mainly because the majority of people that have the power have a tendency to kind of close their eyes and roll their eyes the minute you say diversity. And the word has become very diluted.
So you have people that when you say diversity, they just think gender, and for me, I always think of it in threes. I like the number three, apparently. I think of equality as being gender, and while we know there are people that don't really identify with any gender, that are non-binary, that's just in order to explain it to people in a very simplistic manner. I say equality is men and women; it's what you're born and while you can change that after the fact, that is just your biological state when you're born. And then diversity, or variety, as I like to call it, is the things that are attributed to you. So there's your race - that's diversity, that's variety, because everybody's human, there are just different types of us. And then inclusion is the things that anybody can have. Anybody can be blind, anybody can be deaf, anybody can have any sort of mental disorder.
Those are the most simplistic terms. And that's how I explain it so that people can understand the basic level. Also, I think it helps with explaining it to young children, when they are coming into that age of awareness that there are things that are different. So whenever we're speaking to children, and we're talking about getting into tech, we put it on that baseline, and then they really have some sort of cognitive understanding of what those differences are.
What more can be done to improve that? I know you've really gone in depth and said that there is more to it than just diversity and there's more than meets the eye, but what more can be done to improve it and are things getting better?
That's an inflammatory question, because it depends on the day. I mean, sometimes you wake up and you think, this is really bad, nothing's changing. I think the number of female founders that get investment is 0.02 percent for women of colour and it's about 2 percent for women in general, and that hasn't changed, it's actually kind of got a little worse.
But at the same time, once again, I'll go back to my threes. I run this thing called a 50/50 pledge with a friend of mine, Chris Tottman from Notion, and he is a white, 50-year-old male VC. And we run this initiative, and it's about getting more women into VC.
It's about making the numbers more equal. And one of the things that we have is called the awareness, the advocacy and the action, and it also ties in with the Tech London Advocates WomenINTech initiative. Those are our three aims so that's worked at across the board, because once you raise the awareness of somebody, they can't say they didn't know.
There's enough publicity out there. There are enough initiatives by governments, by nonprofits, by global organisations talking about female entrepreneurship and how we improve those numbers, as there are more women in the world than there are men. So why are we not having more capital?
If you choose not to be aware, you're basically just putting your blinders on to keep your power. And then you have the advocacy. And once you're aware, you're either going to be somebody who just doesn't care, so you're not going to advocate for change, because you have too much power and you don't want to give it up. Or there's people in the middle that just sort of go either way, depending on the day. And usually for men, it is once they become fathers, or they have a significant female in their lives as an adult, other than that their mother, and all of a sudden, they become very much aware. And they start advocating because they realise they see it within their own family.
Then you have those that have always been advocates since birth. They've had a mother, and seen how hard she worked or they've had sisters and they've seen the struggle that they've gone through. And so you have those three types of people that where either they're advocating, they aren't, or they're just like, 'I'll do it whenever is appropriate for me.' And then you have action. And action comes down to the people that have said, I'm aware, I'm advocating and I'm going to help take action because this is not right.
And that's where I think we are right now in society. I think, looking back over the last few years, there has definitely been more of an awareness around female entrepreneurs, about how things are changing and how the changes need to come about. And in the US, I would say that was more in the area of politicians. You could see it happening with Hillary Clinton's campaign, even though there were other women before her that campaigned for the presidency. But it was the fact that her visibility was a lot higher, and that raised very much more awareness.
In the UK we had Margaret Thatcher, but it was always very much more class driven. You see it now in business. And we had our own little drama about the pay differences at the BBC. We've seen changes, and probably in the last year seen more advocacy, more female networks rolling up, and more people talk about women not getting investing.
And then also at the end of last year and this year, you've seen more action. People are saying, you have a report, that's great and you have an initiative but we're still not getting money and you still have the same people sitting in the boardroom. And it really needs to be that the people that are writing the cheques and deciding who gets the money are more inclusive. It needs to have women, it needs to have people of colour, it needs to have people that have disabilities, and it needs to have people that are different in the way that they think as neuro-diversity needs to happen.
I was recently talking to the founder of a startup venture fund called Fuel Ventures, and they mentioned how they've decided to go through anonymous pitch decks, basically just scratching out completely unconscious bias as they would not even see the image or the name of the founder that comes into the company until they actually get through to the stage of coming for the meeting.
But the question I was asking and thinking, should it actually have to get to that stage? Fine, you're doing something positive, you've realised that there could be that unconscious bias, but why should we even have to get to that? Why can we not say okay, whether you’re a black female or a white male, we just like your business idea so we just want to invest in your company. What do you think about that? Do you think the actions that you mentioned, rightfully as well, are happening and it's taken a good turn or will we just carry on being traditional?
When you say traditional, tradition has always been dictated by the person or the people that have power. So it hasn't been inclusive from the beginning. But that's in any structure, it doesn't matter where you are in the world. I look at it like this: if you go to China, which is a very homogeneous society, if you're a white female, with blonde hair people stare at you. If you're a black female, people will stare at you. And if you are in Tanzania and you're a white male people are going to stare at you. Maybe not so much, but people will stare at you, because you are different.
And in those societies, you're actually seen as the minority. Whereas when you're in more western countries, like the US, Canada, or the UK, as a person of colour, you are viewed as the minority. So it really is about those societal norms in those sorts of different cultures. But at the same time, with unconscious bias, while I understand why people blind, I don't think it's very effective. Because if an idea is good, it doesn't matter who pitches it. There are nuances in a business that are there because of the experience of the person that built the company.
So you can have somebody come along and pitch a really great idea. And think it's really good, but there's something missing here, because it really is also about the person. I'm still a little bit on the line about blinding, because I can understand taking out somebody's name if they're applying for a job. When it comes down to a company, there is something about the ethics behind the person, there is also something about how they came to fund that company, and how they came to found that company. It's about their life experience, and that goes into giving you more insights into how that company is going to grow.
Whereas, if you don't know anything, it can always look perfect on paper.
For yourself, and for the company, what sort of companies do you guys like to invest in? And what’s your strategy for the year ahead?
We're really early stage. I'd say we're more angels than anything, and we're more connectors. Because we don't have big pockets we haven't raised around ourselves. We're trying to avoid that, because we'd be beholden to other people.
But we have a tendency to focus on health, mainly because that's one of the areas where people don't fund as much; they do fund but not early stage. So we do health tech, we've done beauty - but usually all natural beauty, like my lipstick - and healthy food. We have a tendency to focus on more of the natural side of things. And of course, I have a love for deep tech so I am looking at AI, deep learning, machine learning - the things that are driving technology and the ethics behind making sure that it's more empathetic and more inclusive.
We don't need any more soap dispensers that don't recognise people of colour's hands. We need to make sure those are inclusive from the beginning, so that your app on your phone is good for somebody who has vision problems and the device has Braille on it, all those things that people don't think about, like the next Google Glasses being developed for people with eye impairment versus just somebody who wants to look cool. Those are the things that we're really looking at.
Are there any criteria that you guys have for the founding team? Or, are you pretty open with that?
We're pretty open. We do like to have more inclusive teams. So, if you have an all-male team, the first question is going to be why don't you have any other members on your team that are not male? Because when you're developing something for any industry, you should have a more inclusive team, because you're going to get insights that you won't get as a male founder. Even if you're developing a razor for a guy, you should have females on that team. Why? Because sometimes as a woman, you use the guy's razor, and sometimes they can give you more insight on people that have more sensitive skin, because there are men that have sensitive skin. So you know if a woman uses it and says this doesn't really work too well for people would sensitive skin, that's just more insight.