Neeta and I met for breakfast at Finch's Pub for a very long overdue interview with Breakfast with Tiffany. Neeta is the founding CEO of New Entrepreneurs Foundation, where I was privileged to be part of the 2016 cohort. I will be forever grateful to her for allowing me to embark on a different career, as she was the one to extend an olive branch when I failed to get in with my original application and she gave me a second chance by inviting me to interview – the rest is history! We talk about her career as a corporate entrepreneur, an investor and a change agent; the origins of NEF and its successes to date, as well as her advice for founders of the future!
Current Job Chief Executive of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation.
First Job Aged 12 doing the 4-7pm evening slot after school each day in my parent’s corner grocery shop in Crouch End, North London.
Education Masters degree in Chemistry from Oxford University; MBA in Marketing from Cass Business School; Sloan Fellowship in Strategy and Leadership from London Business School.
Go to meeting spot Finch’s pub
Favourite book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford; More Human by Steve Hilton. The latter really resonated with me as it reflected on how we are de-humanising our society in the name of technological progress: making homes, buildings and offices attractive to look at but unsuitable for living and working in; making customer support totally virtual, thereby alienating and marginalising those who cannot participate. Lots of really interesting questions about where our society is moving.
Necessary extravagance I subscribe to about a dozen magazines – a lot of business magazines, The Spectator, Harvard Business Review, The Economist but also Vanity Fair, Private Eye and so on!
Favourite productivity tool My watch. I only have 30 min meetings whenever I can due to my very short attention span!
Top networking tip You have to be there in order to meet people, so show up and be present.
Can you tell us about some of your experiences prior to New Entrepreneurs Foundation?
I was lucky enough to begin my career in tech at BT and technology has traversed my career ever since. In 1995 came my first career pivot - my first management job at Legal & General. I was fresh out of my MBA, the Internet was just taking off and I was excited by the prospect. I was head of brand advertising and communications, in charge of a £40m budget and 47 staff. I always used to be described as an agitator within companies later coined an innovator, and I thought we should give the Internet a go! I persuaded the CEO to give me the budget and 2 people to work on it with me. He asked me to step down from my current role, which was a huge corporate job for a FTSE 100 company, if I wanted to pursue this hunch. It was a big risk - I thought it over for about a minute and decided to jump in with both feet. We launched the first ever personal finance website in Europe at a time when there were only 300 URLs registered in the UK. That website won 9 awards and beat the likes of Nike and BA to become the e-commerce company of the year in 1997 – something I am still very proud of.
That kicked off my interest in the power of the Internet and digital technology. I subsequently joined The Financial Times as part of their digital personal finance team and then ran FT.com. That set my pathway of going into companies and turning around their digital presence. It also set my own understanding of my attitude to risk – I am a high risk taker – although the older I get, the more measured the risks become. The ability to embrace risk has allowed me to jump into my own ventures even though they failed and to always look out for the next opportunity.
What is New Entrepreneurs Foundation and its philosophy?
We are a UK educational charity with the aim of developing the entrepreneurial leaders of the future. We are not an accelerator or an incubator – if anything I describe us an accelerator for the individual. Our belief is that if you select bright people who possess an entrepreneurial mindset, place them in an entrepreneurial environment where they can learn from people who have done it before, offer formal training in tools and techniques and, finally, give them coaching and mentoring from people who can help them, they are more likely to not only start their own ventures but are also likely to be more successful. This was the thesis on which NEF was launched. Five years on we have proven the thesis with some exciting results which are published in our annual report.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneurial leader today?
My line manager at Legal & General, who was one of the first female IT directors in a FTSE 100 company in the 70s, once told me she would give me just enough rope to hang myself with before she will come to my rescue. It wasn’t meant to be negative but rather advice to suggest you should always try things but make sure you have a fall back. That has been my philosophy in life – give it a go. Nobody dies in the job we do as we are not in the medical profession. If you have an idea and you are passionate about it, do it!
What would you like to be remembered for?
Having had a positive impact on the companies I have worked in as well as on the individuals I have engaged with. I hope that the companies would say that Neeta came in and shook us up and made us think in a different way even if it was uncomfortable at the time. For individuals to say that she helped me think things through, moved my ideas forward, supported my ambitions and pushed me to think beyond my boundaries and comfort zones.
New Entrepreneurs Foundation
What has been the evolution and milestones to date of NEF?
It has been evolution not revolution. NEF was launched five years ago based on this hypothesis that Oliver Pawle, Founder and Chairman, had, and in an entrepreneurial fashion we just did it and tried it. Some of the new NEFers coming through don't realise how entrepreneurial and light footed we are. For the first cohort, workshops were being designed a week before they were delivered, we didn’t have venues or providers and there wasn’t a formal coaching or mentoring programme. What this ‘pioneering’ cohort got was very different to what the class of 2017 is going through. The programme has evolved over time in an iterative way, we do reviews at the end of each year and ask participants about what they think and then we change it for the following year.
What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for NEF?
One of the difficulties we have is measuring impact on a programme that is about developing skills. NEF is about changing attitude and confidence - how do you measure that? We are not an accelerator so we can’t just measure startup KPIs. It is one metric but not the only one we care about. We borrowed some of the impact metrics from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business programme because part of their criteria is how the founders felt their skills had developed and we added our own criteria.
We now have two sets of KPIs, one is the hard data – how many startups, how many are still live, how much money have they raised, how many jobs have they created. We have to report that and we measure it rigorously every year. The second element is a study about how the participants on the programme have developed in terms of their own confidence and skills. There is a structured quantitative and qualitative methodology designed by UCL and we have just completed the second phase of that. We are trying to ascertain if the programme helps NEFers to develop skills that will help them with their entrepreneurial career, build networks and lastly the confidence to feel they can do it.
I am pleased to say the answer is yes to all of the above – the results are really encouraging. On the hard data - there have been 5 cohorts, 155 candidates have launched over 100 businesses of which 63 are live, and they have raised nearly £11 million in early stage seed funding and created over 650 jobs – that is quite amazing. What is incredible is almost 40% of the cohorts have launched a business considering we take people in with just ambition. We have nothing to benchmark against. There isn't an analog organisation but the perception data is also looking good.
What are some of the future ambitions of NEF?
We have proven the hypothesis and now we want to see if it is possible to scale without losing the quality and personal nature of it. We are now at 43 people in the 2017 cohort. We could never scale to 100 in a single cohort as I feel we would lose the hands-on nature of the programme. With our Trustees, we are looking at various options by which we could scale the programme and reach a wider audience. These discussions are really at a very early stage so watch this space!
Women in Tech
What would your advice be to graduates?
It has to be follow your passion. If going into banking is what you personally feel you want to do - you should do it, there will always be jobs in banking, consulting, industry and other sectors. It is about self- awareness. What makes you happy and what environment do you want to work in? Think carefully about that. Follow your passion and make sure it has a purpose.
What tips would you share with female founders looking to start their own business and subsequently raise finance?
Do it. There is a lot of support out there. There are some amazing women coming up in the entrepreneurship space. Be as confident as is needed. Mirror investors. If you have a detailed, cerebral, quiet investor respond that way. If you have someone that feeds off energy give them that energy. I've seen men do it all the time in meetings and interviews and women don't do that because they feel it would be rude.
How can we do better to attract and retain more women in business?
More role models are needed and media do have a role to play to showcase them but it is deeper than that. Structural change is required. It starts in the home and then in schools. Teachers should encourage STEM subjects; we need to create a narrative that says if you get a degree in physics it doesn't mean you have to go and teach physics. We have to show girls the different paths their careers can take.