The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024

Hope for women in tech, come what May

Jamie Hardesty explores community developments and trends among female North East tech pioneers and toasts the success of two businesses in securing pre-seed funding
A Women in Tech North East networking event

Before International Women’s Day earlier this year, I wrote a piece for The QT addressing the lack of female representation in the North East’s high-growth tech sector.

“It isn’t impossible to be a female tech founder in the North East but it is unusual,” was one of my many observations.

In the article, I bemoaned the lack of female developers operating in the region, the difficulties women face in launching and funding tech start-ups and the general shortcomings of the ecosystem in supporting female tech success.

‘The North East is failing when it comes to female operators in tech,’ I said.

I did, however, highlight some positives. For example, I mentioned important work from key female North East tech leaders, recognised credentials in digitally adjacent roles and acknowledged some early-stage initiatives looking to address barriers to entry in the sector.

Yet in the conversations which followed the piece, most agreed on there not being enough examples of female-led tech breakthroughs in this part of the world.

Moreover, people agreed that we can drastically improve acknowledgement and visibility of those who actually are creating successes.

Lisa Eaton is the founder of Newcastle-based company Fabric

It was a meeting at the start of this year which spurred me to write the article. I’d met Lisa Eaton, founder of marketing e-learning business Fabric, who had successfully raised angel investment to grow her digital offering.

Lisa commented that she was entering a new world and having to learn quickly; she had previously enjoyed much success leading a digital agency but confessed that launching and growing a tech product was ‘a different ball game altogether’.

Most start-ups fail, and all too often founders face arduous and lonely journeys in trying to realise their dreams. Having a community to support you or being able to converse with, relate to and learn from someone who looks like you, or is similar to you, can be game-changing for founders. Except, in Lisa’s case, she realised that she was firmly in a minority.

Solo female tech founders successfully raising investment don’t exactly grow on trees in North East England.

Since writing the article, I’ve been working on proactively supporting female-led tech companies in the region, as well as keeping a keen eye out for news and developments in this area.

What I really didn’t want to happen was for it to suddenly get to March next year and me to write the same article about women in tech, highlighting shortcomings and feeling as though things have stood still or regressed.

Though if this month is anything to go by, perhaps I won’t have to. May has presented much momentum and cause to celebrate for women in tech in the region. Indeed, we know the bar is low but it would be remiss of me to underestimate or sweep by some of the notable developments we have witnessed.

Rojin Yarahmadi (right) co-founded PolyBox with Nikolaus Benopoulos (second left) four years ago

Not one, but two female-led tech start-ups announced exciting pre-seed fundraising rounds this month. Both based in Newcastle, PolyBox Solutions raised £500,000 to grow its martech (marketing technology), AI and data platform, while Noggin raised £710,000 to launch a new price comparison platform, aimed at supporting the ‘credit invisible’.

There have not been many North East tech start-up fundraising rounds so far this year. The fact that PolyBox and Noggin HQ have managed to convince investors to back them suggests both businesses have the potential to solve their customer’s problems and establish themselves as high-potential, credible employers with headquarters in the region.

It’s even more pleasing that we are talking about female-led start-ups, disrupting mostly male-dominated tech trends and disproving notions that it’s simply too hard for female founders to succeed.

As two women from the North East, we’ve had to overcome significant challenges to get to this stage. But as a result, we’re extremely intentional in our approach. And we’re unwavering in our commitment to do right by people

Laura Mills, co-founder of Noggin HQ

Rojin Yarahmadi, co-founder of PolyBox, originally hails from Iran, she came to Newcastle for a university education before starting the business with Nikolaus Benopoulos. The investment comes locally from Northstar Ventures, in partnership with Creative UK and angel investors.

Rojin said: “One thing that feels so nice is how welcoming this community was. Four years ago, when I arrived, I remember getting lost on my way to university. I took the Metro in the wrong direction and [it] took me hours to get home.

“Now, four years later, this city feels like a second home to me. I am so happy and honoured by all the help we have received over the past few years. Thank you so much [for the] Newcastle start-up ecosystem that helped us get here.

“We are hopeful to reach our goals and achieve the best results, so we can thrive in the North East and help make this community bigger.”

Evangeline Atkinson (left) and Laura Mills moved Noggin HQ from London to Newcastle

Childhood friends Evangeline Atkinson and Laura Mills have moved budding fintech business Noggin from London to Newcastle’s Toffee Factory. Both originally from the North East, the duo secured their capital from leading investors, including Oxford Capital, Bethnal Green Ventures and SyndicateRoom. No mean feat, as Laura, the chief operating officer, describes.

“As two women from the North East, we’ve had to overcome significant challenges to get to this stage. But as a result, we’re extremely intentional in our approach. And we’re unwavering in our commitment to do right by people,” she said.

Helping females rise to tech sector challenges has been a driving force in Women in Tech North East’s mission. The month of May saw the network achieve a major milestone, as it grew into becoming a Community Interest Company (CIC).

The organisation now hopes to play a more significant role in shaping the North East’s tech landscape for the better.

Rachel Pattinson, co-director of Women in Tech North East, explained: “Becoming a Community Interest Company formalises our work and future-proofs our ability to drive positive change in the tech industry.”

Emily Brontë once wrote that ‘May is the month of wishes, the month of hope’. While I maintain what I said back in March, that ‘better isn’t enough’ when it comes to female tech success in this region, we aren’t without hope. The bar can be — and is being — raised.

Two pre-seed start-up investments may not change the world today but if you’re a woman looking to launch a start-up and raise money in the North East tomorrow, you won’t be in quite as small a minority as those who came before you. That’s worth championing; may there be much more to come.

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