Cardiff Business Club interviews: Sherry Coutu CBE

Date Posted: 16 October 2018 Cardiff Business Club interviews: Sherry Coutu CBE

The second event of the 2018-19 Season took place on Wednesday 10th October, with the Hilton Hotel playing host to over 120 business leaders from across the capital.

Addressing the Club was Sherry Coutu – heralded by WIRED magazine as one of the most influential tech entrepreneurs and investors globally.

Before taking to the stage, Sherry spent a few moments to be interviewed by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins and Kara Buffrey from Clearly PR & Marketing Communications on behalf of the Club.

Here’s what she had to say:

You have stated in previous interviews that Dame “Steve” Shirley had a huge influence on your early career. She was famed for setting up a digital business in order to appoint women, so you could have a career as well as a family. What impact did that have on you?

It had a profound impact on me. First of all, the exposure to Steve Shirley allowed me to think that I could be an entrepreneur and I don’t think I had ever had that thought before.

It also opened up my eyes to the fact that women could have a career at the same time as being a mum. My own mother had stopped working for several years and that had influenced my own thought processes. I always thought I would stop work, have the kids, do the mum thing then go back to work.

I was unaware of the hundreds of thousands of women who combine the two and I liked that you could do the school run, computer code for a few hours, then go and pick the kids up.

I was also surprised that Steve had changed her name because when she signed her letters Stephanie, nobody responded to her, but when she changed it to Steve people did respond. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that that would be necessary.

Do you think things have moved forward since then, as much as what they should have done?

God yes, but so much more can be done. One of the things that motivated me to starting Founders for Schools was discovering things that you don’t think are right. Did you know that in 50% of the state schools in the UK that not one girl takes physics at A level?

I’m aware that 92% of the job vacancies are in STEM, and if there is some systematic bias that are causing girls in particular to drop out of subjects that are in high demand, that makes me really angry.

It doesn’t have to be the case because you look at research that shows the number of girls studying the academic subjects in the UK dropping off, but in other countries it doesn’t.

I knew that I personally was very influenced by role models, so I thought if kids met people in their community that have a passion for STEM, maybe that would make a difference. We have discovered that it does in fact make a huge difference.

If all it takes is somebody being kind for 10 minutes, then why wouldn’t you do that as part of your community. That made me think that maybe there was a role between technology and brokering. It wasn’t going to be a huge drain on a business persons time, that’s why I set up Founders for Schools.

You work with companies such as RaspberryPi and BBC Microbit, which are exposing children to the idea that technology can be used to help them express themselves personally and in a creative way.

Absolutely, it’s just making things a different way. We had seen a decrease in the quality and quantity of people applying to the computer programming course at Cambridge. We thought it’s because people are just using these things (phones) they don’t know how to pull them apart and make them anymore.

We wanted to make it super easy, so we made a game out of deconstructing a phone. Some people use language to communicate and others use computer code to communicate.

100% of the net new jobs come from companies less than five years old, yet if you look at the careers fairs at schools they are the old shrinking companies that might not be that much fun to work at. The difference is that teachers had heard of them and they were marketing to the schools.

The really interesting companies weren’t there because they weren’t known, because they were growing quickly. I thought how do you make the invisible visible? We wanted to increase the productivity like apps such as LoveFilm and LinkedIn.

Do you think with so many organisations that are less than five years old this is why we are facing a significant skills crisis as the traditional role we were brought up with either no longer exists or is in demise and is this affecting STEM?

I absolutely don’t know why people aren’t going for the STEM subjects because that’s where all of the jobs are. But I do think the talent crisis is caused by these small companies that are taking off and restructuring industries.

People aren’t sure what skills are highly relevant and they are listening to educators and parents who are unaware of the local labour demographics. If you look at Uber and the transport industry, who would have anticipated that?

Without using technology, it’s hard to improve customer experience. It has a lot to do with productivity. Growing companies are focusing on a single use case for an individual consumer and making the experience much better.

Also, 60% of the jobs that children will hold have not even been invented. If 60% of jobs haven’t been invented how you answer the question what do you want to do when you grow up?

What’s the solution?

Let’s get the people who are creating the jobs into the classroom.

The average number of jobs held between graduating and retirement is now 25 with seven different identifiable career strains. If that’s the case, then young people really don’t mind what their first job is because it will be their stepping stone.

But that means that you need a navigational aid and a curiosity. That’s why resiliency and problem solving is so important.

You can also be retrained, but that takes a mindset and an approach, and I think that’s what we should be teaching kids in addition to the academic subjects which are a hugely important foundation.

The media always neglect that more jobs are going to be made than lost with the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For every job that is destroyed more than one will be created. And if we have trained in something that is disappearing doing a course may be necessary.

When somebody like Zoopla came onto the market what impact did that have and why did it do so well?

Zoopla was focused on B2B and B2C, so they had services for estate agents and consumers. But they did the same thing; they created a service that was entirely focused on the person. They made it easy to see what was important: schools, crime in the area. All of the stuff you wanted to know, we let you know.

We really upped the game in that industry. Zoopla then went into a number of other close verticals: heating, broadband, telephone etc. When you think about it from the consumers point of view, it’s exactly what all of the disrupters did.

What’s the most exciting thing you’re seeing in the sector in the moment?

The application of AI and machine learning in two sectors is really interesting: health and education.

The ability to spot patterns and heal people is unprecedented. The ability to do it better using machines that are focused on solving a single problem is incredible. You can create services where untrained people can become experts overnight. It appeals to both my entrepreneurial and investor hats.

In the education sector, it’s interesting because you can make hundreds of improvements and get rid of the costs that are born in the system. When you get that happening in a couple of different sectors its very stimulating.

There are absolute glimmers of brilliance and I’m very excited about the application of AI for good.

As a tech investor you must be asked how Brexit is going to affect the tech sector. Cardiff in particular has seen a significant boost in its tech sector status in the last three years. It’s really encouraging to see; do you think Brexit will have a detrimental effect to tech?

I think talent is the biggest issue that I have with Brexit. The biggest problem of late has been access to people with skills, hence my obsession with skills in schools. But that’s gone up from being on the minds of 82% of CEOs to 93% of CEOs in the last three years so they are absolutely worried about access to talent.

Retaining staff who are from Europe and attracting them is absolutely harder because they don’t feel welcome here. If my number one problem as a business is talent and you have made it harder for me to get talent, it may be easier to get talent in Europe.

That could damage us. There are businesses everyday establishing offices elsewhere. Which is all the more reason to do work in schools and universities.

We are going to need to home grow our own, but the skills that were okay to graduate with five years ago maybe aren’t okay now as the world is configuring faster and faster than the educational system at the moment.

We can however, supplement what’s going on in schools and change things overnight.

Work experience is crucial. It is the single most important thing for kid’s attainment. If you survey business leaders, they rate any child with work experience more valuable than somebody with a university degree or great grades.

If you get broad participation from the companies offering work experience it’s very achievable. There are over 1.1 million children in our school system and there are 5.7 million small medium and large businesses, you would need three hours of supervision for each business per year. That’s all.

Of everything you have done and achieved and have mapped out over the next couple of years what’s the one piece of advice that you would give to any other leaders and entrepreneurs out there?

Solve a problem worth solving.