‘Your background doesn’t mean everything.’
Riham founded MeVitae, an AI tech company in HR, in 2014. The start-up was subsequently supported through Capital Enterprise’s Green Light Programme investment readiness programme and raised £0.5 million this year through the London Co Investment Fund. It has four staff with three non-executive directors.
Riham grew up in Paddington, and has transferred from a PhD in Neuroscience at Oxford to a Masters to become a tech founder.
“…we got called into Microsoft which was the entire purpose.”
Where did the business idea come from?
It’s a weird story. My co-founder, Vivek Doraiswamy, wanted to get a job at Microsoft. I was studying neuroscience at Oxford at postgraduate level at the time. He was in computer science. I said ‘do you know how many people want to get into Microsoft? It’s a ridiculous number, especially for software engineers’. So, we thought of other ways he could hack his way into Microsoft to get him a job there. We spent a weekend building Vivek’s CV as an application. We then put it up on the Windows Store to try and grab their attention. The app got rejected, so we edited it to allow anyone to put their CV on the app — a CV in your pocket kind of thing. All of a sudden it became viral and we had 50,000 downloads in a few weeks and we got called into Microsoft which was the entire purpose.
We then started researching the HR world and really how fragmented it was with little diversity in the workplace. The pipeline just looks wrong from every angle. We thought ‘can we disrupt it, because we know how to build tech and we know how to build it fast’ and that was the start of MeVitae.
What challenges have you faced?
Jumping from academia into the tech start-up world is very different. As an academic you are a specialist. In a start-up you are a generalist. Academics are research-oriented. In start-up world you’re executing and learning.
It’s ironic. The one job I always promised myself I would never do is be a businesswoman or entrepreneur. That’s the one job I did not want to do and look at me right now.
Four years ago, I was very introverted. I had to learn how to network, how to think like business, how to sell, how to do presentations and how to pitch to investors. It’s been a steep learning curve from my end, a hurdle to overcome.
A lot of women struggle with networking because you are in an environment with a whole bunch of men. You either sit in the corner or talk to people that you know or other women. You have a perception that CEOs are confident and risk-takers and you have to be like them to actually succeed. It is not like that at all.
“Yes, we are rare. You can’t think about it constantly or allow it to stop you!”
Do you feel that anything in your background has been either an advantage or disadvantage in your start up journey?
I consider myself a hybrid now. I understand tech and how to pitch and present tech to non-tech people, which is a great advantage when selling to HR directors.
Another advantage is my neuroscience background. There are some really strong benefits of having an academic mindset. The negative is thinking like an academic slows you down in the start-up world. That doesn’t help when you’re in a fast-paced environment.
My family are from Sudan. I came here when I was one. We have a very strong work ethos. My family always told me to be ambitious and not to give up and not to doubt myself; that definitely has an impact. My family would give me a Barbie doll and I’d also play with Lego.
I was one of the rare BAME females in class at school and University doing engineering. It’s still the case in the start-up world. Yes, we are rare. You can’t think about it constantly or allow it to stop you.
How have you overcome challenges?
Being surrounded by people that have done it before and succeeded helps a great deal. The team and I have monthly meetings with mentors.
I set myself challenges to make sure that I overcome them, for example if I am in an event I make sure I speak to as many people as possible and won’t leave until I found interesting connections.
I keep learning as I go along. If you saw the pitch deck that I first created it was the ugliest thing ever and I was so proud of it. But you improve with trial and error. You have to get out there, test the water, see what people think and not be afraid to try.
Can you remember a day when you thought about packing everything in? What was it that kept you going?
Yes, several times. I will give you a classic example. In 2015, a year and a half into the company we were running out of cash. We couldn’t raise investment as we didn’t have a full product or clients. So the only option was to go for a further Innovate UK grant. I literally thought ‘I’m going to risk everything we have on a grant application’. I did nothing else every day for 3 weeks. Fortunately, it worked. But at that moment I thought ‘if we don’t get it, that’s it, it’s over’.
“You think, I could just get a full-time job. What am I doing? Why am I torturing myself?”
Then you realise it’s your passion. There is so much we want to do, so much we wanted to achieve. And the whole point of the company is to give people a chance in their career without biases.
Was there a moment where you thought ‘this is going to work’?
When we tested out with clients the first couple of times and we started to see the results. It increased diversity numbers. They hired people they never thought they would hire. It was faster and more accurate. This is the moment we’ve been working towards. It was a bit of a shock after four years. Because you never know what happens.
It’s a bit like building a rocket to go into space. You know in theory it will work, but until you see a lift off you don’t believe it. It worked and we had a hallelujah moment.
What’s the best advice you have received?
I could write a book on that!
Don’t lose yourself in the process. You change a lot as you develop and grow. I’m in my 20's sitting in front of an HR director in their 40's or 50's telling them their systems are out of date. It’s quite intimidating sometimes. Keep believing in yourself. Make sure you don’t get frustrated. Keep calm and collected. That’s the best advice I’ve been given.
What are your dreams/ plans for the future?
I thought I had my dreams and plans set out before doing a PhD with the aim of becoming a professor in neuroscience.
But now my goal is to make sure that my company helps hire people and gives people equal chances and opportunities in the hiring world.
“It’s more about proving and sharing that everyone has gifts and how they can unlock that.”
Is there anything you wished you had known before?
I wish I could learn faster — we could unlock so much potential and grow faster.
Our brains are still in the sub-optimal phase. If only there was a way to speed up our learning we can discover so much more and it will have so much potential in society. I’m waiting for that day.
What could existing founders/companies do to make their workplaces more inclusive for someone like you?
There are different techniques to increase diversity from what we have seen in the industry. The first one we try is to anonymize applicant CVs. We did a lot of research into this, including scanning recruiter brains and eye tracking to see where their eyes were looking whilst reading CVs. They do spend most of their time on applicant name, company name and job title. That’s it and nothing else is being read. And if it’s a senior role they don’t even care about the education. The way a CV is being laid out at the moment doesn’t help.
The other step is the classic starting from the educational perspective. Getting more women in STEM is a key component. It starts from the bottom up, from parents, teachers, schools and up the hierarchy. Having mentors to drive you to help you understand what you want to do.
A lot of research shows how diversity has so much potential for the workforce in tech companies, also at board level worldwide.
Why do you think it’s important for tech companies to be diverse and inclusive?
Diversity and inclusion in numbers: 35% increase in revenue if you have a diverse workforce (McKinsey). You get diversity of thought and thinking outside the box if you know how to manage people with different opinions. Everyone wants to increase it, but they don’t know how. The benefits are clear for start-ups, scale ups, corporates, individuals and the government. It’s all about awareness.
What is your message to inspire other under represented founders?
Don’t be afraid is the first thing. Give it a go. Everyone has good ideas. The only difference is that some people execute them.
People in their 20's like me- this is the perfect age to do this, to experiment, to try new things. You don’t really lose anything. There’s so much to gain.