I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Irra Ariella Khi. We met on the terrace of the Oxford and Cambridge Club - a tranquil oasis in the middle of London! She is an Oxford Graduate, a former fashion model and co-founded digital company Soul of Fashion Platform. Irra is a founding member of the International Conclave of Entrepreneurs (ICE) in London, and is passionate about identity and cyber security - oh and she also played Bond Girl for the Founders Forum alongside Jason Gissing (Ocado) and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia)! Her story is one of rule breaking, passion and purpose and is truly inspirational.
Current Job I am CEO of V Technology - a cryptographic company which works like Paypal for Passports
First Job I ironed clothes after school for our neighbours - how glamorous is that!
Favourite productivity tool Omnifocus. It's pricey but worth it - it's an App based on the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, helping you capture and sort your to do list
Favourite book The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
How do you switch off? By playing piano or dancing
Guilty pleasure Watching Netflix whilst eating carbs (currently re-watching Suits from the beginning!)
Female inspiration in business Bindi Karia. She is my inspiration in business full stop, and happens also to be female and awesome!
Favourite places in London The 5th floor cafe of the Waterstones in Piccadilly (secret geek haven), Mews of Mayfair & the inner courtyard of The V&A museum - a favourite place for me as a parent - it surrounds you with culture and inspiration, and turns into a kid-distracting paddling pool in the summer.
Top networking tip Always be offering something first – by embracing a 'pay it forward' attitude, good people will fill your world and things will come back to you like a boomerang!
Fashion model, mum, entrepreneur, web media / app co-founder and cyber security crusader - how did you get to where you are today?
It sounds like a random collection of things but there is a method to the madness! Oxford was all about being clever and as a child of immigration I was set on paying my own way through. After being scouted and doing some modelling jobs I realised that fashion can pay extremely well and I wanted to pursue it whilst I was still young enough! I moved to Hong Kong (where my look was rare) and created numerous opportunities to learn about the industry and build a strong portfolio of work.
Some might think that fashion and tech are polar opposites, how did you transition from fashion to a tech start-up?
When I returned to model in London, I met the entrepreneur circle of friends socially, and went on the first ever ICE trip. I was inspired by the businesses that they were building and decided to launch my own based on my domain fashion knowledge - Soul of Fashion - a B2B video marketing platform for up and coming designers. Despite raising money, we quickly burnt through it and failed to get the market fit right. It was around this point that Myla was born, and I took a break.
What pulled you back in to start-ups?
My first foray back into business was through ICE and the Founders Forum. I was approached by George Berkowski to work with IceCream app - which helps you to free up space on your iPhone without losing precious photos or videos. I didn't stay long, but it was a fantastic introduction back into the fast moving, risk hungry paradigm of entrepreneurship and start-ups.
Why did you pivot to cyber security?
It was at this point that I was looking for an answer to a much more basic and global problem - what kind of world did I want my daughter to grow up in and what was the biggest threat to all of us as people. My initial involvement in cyber security came about as a single mum. On the first date I went on after having Myla, I caught the guy trying to put something in my drink. I went to the police armed with his dating profile details the next day and was horrified to be informed that they couldn’t do anything as they said it was "not his real identity'. This realisation, that the large majority of what we do is now outside of the protection of our immediate networks, and that I am unlikely to know the people my daughter will likely meet digitally was a huge wake up moment for me! That was when I started working in cyber security and identity.
What is the vision for V Technologies?
The vision for V Technologies is to find a solution to reconcile the internet age and digital natives with accountability. Three out of every four people in Britain have their identities stolen or misused, and those statistics are the worst in Europe. Therefore, the mission for our technology is to conclusively prove that you are who you say you are, as well as proving that no one else is, whilst giving you the relevant authorisations. Hopefully this solution will form part of the contribution to solve the dangerous scale of identity problems which we face in the world today.
The “click” - 30 seconds that changed your life
It was the day I went to the police: I was hungover, livid at being spiked, and imagining my daughter facing the same situation. It was my aha moment and I was hell-bent on solving identity. I couldn’t let it go (unlike the police), I had to sit down and work it out.
What is your motivation?
My selfless motivation is a vision for ensuring that people - including my descendants - are safe in the new digital world. Selfishly my motivation is a desire to leave a lasting changing legacy and be a part of something bigger than myself. I feel that this project might have enough positive impact for it to matter in the world. If there is a technological change and a new way of solving a very old problem, I want to be remembered as one of the first players in the market.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I anticipate the biggest challenge will be integrating with the current regulation and older identity companies, and working with the UK government in a strategic and positive way. I want to find a niche where technology, disruption, and progress go hand in hand with national security, and I want to be perceived as someone trying to help the situation rather than tear it down.
What was the key factor in your success?
I have a healthy disregard for fear and failure: according to my friends, I take 'a hell of a lot' of calculated risks, and I'm never afraid to try new approaches!
What is the current state of play in cyber security solutions and who is at the cutting edge of innovation?
Speaking of the UK, one company is currently responsible for 95% of identity checking and is used by all the major banks. However, the current Fraud statistic that 3 out of every 4 UK citizens are getting their identities misused prevails. At the cutting edge of innovation, the UK government is the second in Europe after Estonia to pilot an online identity software programme. It's called Verify - aimed to be more comprehensive and scalable, and it's currently in beta testing, with the aim to roll out to government services. It smartly fractions personal information across 9 independent providers, to avoid any one company knowing how the identity ties together and becoming 'big brother'. Despite this, we are in the age of unprecedented cyber crime against identity, for which these traditional checks are inadequate: we simply haven’t solved it yet.
What is the role of startups, enterprises and the government in addressing cyber threats?
Start-ups often have this audacious attitude of 'I will just come and disrupt'. But I believe is it important to co-operate with the existing structures, and be a respectful player in the eco-system. A lot of fresh start-ups have grandiose visions and throw up more questions than answers, but it's not wise. Being more humble helps: a lot of smart people have often already done a lot of work, so don’t be dismissive of it! Play nice in the sandbox - be open, share your tech and findings, but be politically astute, and protect your IP.
Women in Tech
What is your opinion on the focus and direction of the women in technology debate?
We are definitely focusing on the gender imbalance part - however, I think we should put more emphasis on our attitude and on changing our own dialogue about women's roles. I absolutely loved the Always TV ads and social media campaign #LikeAGirl - challenging the societal norm that doing something 'like a girl' is a negative - asking "why running like a girl can’t also mean win the race". As a mum of a little girl who will enter the workforce at some point, I again feel strongly that it is not the lack of women in technology that is a ceiling but these dangerous ingrained perceptions of what being 'like a girl' actually means. We need to re-educate ourselves - and to check our peers -and ourselves- for those negative connotations.
What business support networks do you value?
ICE of course. For me, they are actually family - a fellow ICEr and I had the first ‘ICE baby’ , and 2 of her 4 godparents are both ICE members. It goes beyond family and business - it is so, SO important to surround yourself with a tribe of non-judgmental people, who are like-minded mentalists also taking a lot of risk!
What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
Something I learnt from Janet Hanson (founder of the female network 85Broads and my first employer) is that women and men tend to build networks differently. Women tend to have deeper relationships within a smaller group, whereas men cast a wider net. The problem is that a lot of business opportunities might not be in your immediate network, so it's important women know this and branch out as much as possible!