Female Founders: Seema Khinda Johnson of Nuggets On Why We Need More Women Founders, and The Five Things You Need To Thrive as A Founder
Remember — this is incredibly hard work. It’s not for everyone. I remember someone telling me, “If you want to work the longest hours and be the lowest-paid — be a founder!” But if you’re the right sort of character, there’s nothing quite like it.
Don’t try to be something you’re not. You’re enough as you are. Just be your true self, and believe you can do it.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Seema Khinda Johnson, Co-Founder & COO at Nuggets. This award-winning, decentralised, self-sovereign identity and payment platform offers exceptional protection for customer data, as well as a frictionless customer experience.
Seema’s achievements are widely recognised across the industry. In 2020, she won Deutsche Bank’s Female Fintech Competition, and Women in Payments’ Unicorn Challenge. She was awarded the Booking.com Technology Playmaker Entrepreneur of the Year, and listed as one of the Most Influential Women in Payments, by PaymentsSource.
Before founding Nuggets, Seema spent more than 20 years leading teams and delivering large-scale commercialization, products, campaigns and projects with brands like Skype and Microsoft.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
To be honest, there was no master plan. It’s been an organic journey, really. My first job was with a digital agency, as a production coordinator. I found I loved working with other people to make things happen. I basically followed that love, and gradually progressed to the point where I was leading product and go-to-market for various businesses — from start-ups to global companies like Microsoft and Skype. That was 17 years of my career — delivering whatever was the next exciting project.
Then in 2015, something happened that was quite small in a way, but ended up changing my life. My husband Alastair’s credit card and personal data were used fraudulently. Obviously, that was frustrating for us, but it was also part of a much bigger picture of ever more serious data breaches, and endless commands to change your passwords. There was an escalating data security problem, with no proper solution.
Al’s experience showed us how little control anyone has over their own data. And we agreed this was the problem we wanted to solve. Our answer is Nuggets, which we set up in 2016.
We’re on a mission to help businesses protect their customers’ data, and give individuals back control over their personal information. Everyone should own and control their own data: that’s the belief that powers Nuggets.
Nuggets is a platform that lets you pay, login, or verify your identity without ever having to share or store your data with anyone. Not even Nuggets!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We decided at the start that we wanted to use the Ethereum blockchain. But none of us knew any developers in that world. So I just decided I’d email Vitalik Buterin (one of the Ethereum co-founders, as you probably know). Everyone thought that was ridiculous, he’d never respond. But 20 minutes later I got a reply, with a recommendation of who to speak to. It was a great lesson that you can make pretty much anything happen if you just go for it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Looking back it’s hilarious how badly I underestimated how hard it would be to realize the Nuggets concept. It’s way, way more demanding than I thought. I also imagined that my role would be like it had been in established businesses. I just didn’t realize that I’d have to put my hand to so many more things than the ones I’d been trained in. That’s what makes it so difficult — but also so rewarding.
Not all mistakes are funny, of course. But I’ve discovered there’s always a lesson to learn, and a reason things happen. You probably can’t see it at the time, but it becomes clear with time. I’ve learned to roll with the punches. The universe has my back — there are no mistakes, only nudges to keep me on track towards where I need to be.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I honestly don’t think we’d have got where we are without Alastair — my husband and business partner — and us working together. We have two young children, and we worked from our kitchen table for the first two years, burning through all our savings. It took a lot to get past all the “No”s and keep pushing forward.
When co-founders work, they really work. When you can’t see the wood for the trees, your co-founder can give you the perspective you need. Of course, when it doesn’t work it can be disastrous. Co-founders pulling in different directions can destroy a business.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
It’s no secret that tech is a male-dominated world — including the way companies are funded. In the US, only 2.2% of venture capital has gone to female-founded startups. And yet, female founders build companies with serious value. Some of the recent figures are really revealing:
- Female-run startups generate 78c in revenue for every dollar of investment raised — as opposed to male-run startups which generate 31c.
- Women-led teams deliver a 35% higher return on investment than all-male teams.
- Companies with female founders perform 63% better than those with all-male founders.
There has been progress recently — the playing field is slowly leveling. But there’s still a long way to go. It would be fantastic to see more women getting access to VC money, to help female-driven startups grow. And we need more female role models and leaders in tech generally. The more we can raise the profile of women in the industry, the more we can inspire girls and young women to pursue STEM subjects as a route into tech.
Of course, it’s not just about executive-level roles. We have to achieve greater equality at all levels, with more female managers generally. That will expand the pool of women available for every level of authority.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Make more money available to female founders. That means a few different things:
- More women and people from diverse backgrounds as Angels/VCs sitting across the table
- Higher tax breaks (SEIS and EIS) for funding underrepresented founders earlier
- Fund female and diverse founders
- Promote women and overcome the ‘broken-rung effect’. There are disproportionately few women in managerial roles, which means fewer women to promote into executive roles. More women at managerial levels will inevitably lead to more women in the C-suite across every sector — making decisions on who to fund, partnerships, etc.
Yes, there’s a long way to go, but I’m optimistic. Women make most family financial decisions. We control over 30% of the world’s wealth — and growing.. But we’re still massively underserved — which is a huge opportunity.
Part of my response is to make myself visible. By speaking, networking and finding a brilliantly supportive and inspiring network. I’m determined to help others the way I’ve been helped, and lend the same support to other female entrepreneurs at different stages of their journeys.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
The data shows that diverse founders and teams are happier, and deliver better results and returns. The ones who get this will thrive. Those that don’t will no longer be relevant.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
I think some people believe it’s just a matter of creating a pitch deck and getting funding, then it’s all rock-and-roll, long lunches and yoga, the odd panel appearance, followed by a massive IPO.
The reality is bloody hard work, basically. Long hours, cash-flow stresses, feeling isolated, effects on your relationships and mental health. It’s tough.
But of course, it’s also massively rewarding — as long as you have the right support from your team, family, friends, other founders and investors.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s true that being a founder’s not for everyone. It’s up to you to decide if it’s for you — but the thing is to go in with your eyes open. And you need a wide range of skills. Multi-tasking, leadership, decisiveness, methodical patience, and an ability to pivot when needed. Especially in tech, where things happen so fast. You need to be a bit of a risk-taker, and ready to just go for it and try things. And you have to be a natural optimist — you’ll face plenty of obstacles and people telling you it won’t work.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1: You need to make as many connections as you can, and build a network of relationships. They’ll support your business as it grows.
2: Never underestimate the support other people will offer if you reach out. Other founders, sponsors, mentors — I’m always amazed at how generous people are.
3: Be ready to do a bit of everything. You’ll have to learn fast about how fundraising works, about cap tables, financials, operations, product — the whole lot. There’s always more to be done.
4: Remember — this is incredibly hard work. It’s not for everyone. I remember someone telling me, “If you want to work the longest hours and be the lowest-paid — be a founder!” But if you’re the right sort of character, there’s nothing quite like it.
5: Don’t try to be something you’re not. You’re enough as you are. Just be your true self, and believe you can do it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Nuggets is all about making a better world. Because we’re here to give people ownership and control of their own data. We’ve built a real-world solution that lets people do all the things they need to — pay, login, verify their ID — without sacrificing that control. This makes an enormous difference to individuals and businesses alike.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s the same thing, really: taking back control of our data. Everyone should own and control their own personal information. Privacy is a fundamental human right. And it’s being stripped away. It’s time to change the way we store personal data.
If companies don’t have to store sensitive data, it’s not there to be breached. Consumers can still buy what they want, and use the services they love. But without worrying about their privacy. Instead of handing overpayment and personal information just to use an online service, they get to decide if and when to share their data. And do so on their own terms.
For consumers, this move to self-sovereign ID and data will make life simpler, faster and safer. For businesses, it will spell the end of costly, damaging data breaches — as well as massively reducing fraud and false positives, and the number of sales lost to complex checkout processes.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Fred Wilson (AVC). He has an amazing wealth of experience, and I’m a huge fan of his blog.
Also, Crissa Veliz, the author of Privacy is Power.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
This series was inspired by Female Founders First, a program by Barclays and Techstars designed to provide female founders with resources to grow, scale and advance their businesses.