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Eileen Burbidge To Take The Tech City Chair – Replacing Joanna Shields – Is This A Political Succession Plan?

Tech City; not necessarily a natural habitat for London’s top tech brass?

So farewell then Joanna Shields, and welcome Eileen Burbidge; whilst the latter probably needs no introduction to ground level Tech City aficionados, the former may not have been quite so much on start-up’s radars.

Baroness Shields of Maida Vale, in the City of Westminster, as she was appointed just over 1 year ago, has been the driving force behind some of “Tech City’s” most notable achievements of the past 3 years; since being appointed Chief Executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation in 2012, declaring London to be the “next Silicon Valley”, she has enhanced an already impressive CV which included spells as head of Facebook in Europe, and CEO of social networking site Bebo.

It’s just that with tens of millions already in the bank (she didn’t take a salary as Tech City Chair, although she was offered one), Shields may not be perfectly in tune with the average bootstrapping start-ups daily struggle for survival and recognition.

The achievements? Amongst others, there’s the Future Fifty, a programme designed to identify the UK’s fastest growing tech businesses and support them as they grew into enterprises worthy of a public listing (IPO); the fast track “high growth segment” at the London Stock Exchange which has allowed start-ups like Just Eat and Zoopla to list in double quick time, achieving “Unicorn” valuations of over £1 billion in the process; WePROTECT, a collaboration between governments, law enforcement agencies, and industry to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, and Hour of Code, an initiative launched by Code.org to try to further digital literacy which has already reached 3 million people in the UK and 40 million people worldwide.

All positive developments, exactly the kind of initiatives, dare one say it and taking nothing away from their efficacy, that might be rewarded with a role in government? And so it has transpired; in May this year, shortly after the general election, Shields was appointed UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security in the Conservative Government, serving as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The career trajectories of both Shields and Burbidge are not at all unlike. Both also share the distinction of being vocal, powerful, women, in a sector that is occupied mostly by men. Both have shown that being a woman need not be an impediment of any kind. Burbidge has even been known to list it as an advantage.

Shields was headhunted by the Conservative government and persuaded to become Tech City’s first chair; former advisor to the Prime Minister Rohan Silva is said to have been instrumental in making the appointment happen. She left her position as Vice president and Managing Director of Facebook in Europe, Middle East and Africa and declared “London is the gateway to the world. It should not be a stepchild to other cities. It should be in its rightful place as the centre for innovation, the digital industries. The time has come.”

Shields had taken something of a battering when it was revealed shortly before she left Facebook that the company had paid just £200k on estimated revenues in the UK of £20.4m (it’s been suggested revenues could really have been as high as £175m). She described the situation diplomatically as “really, not nice”, adding “what’s missing from the story is why people do it. The reason those companies make those decisions is because of the investment environment and the tax environment. In the past we [the UK] have not thought that way, we have not created the policies to encourage the investment. We’re doing that now. The Government is doing that now.”

Previous to Facebook, Shields was President of People Networks at Time Warner’s AOL unit, having been instrumental in the sale of Bebo to them for $850m, as the company’s CEO. Baroness Shields was born in Pennsylvania and after graduating from Penn State University, she began her career at Deloitte, before joining a Silicon Valley start-up in the late eighties.

At the time, she says, she became convinced that tech would change the way people lived their lives, and interacted with one another. Shields’ firm belief is that as a society we mustn’t become lost in or overly reliant on tech; “Its human bonds that make us who we are”, she says. On women in tech, she says: “I believe strongly that it is the responsibility of women across the globe that have achieved success in the digital and IT sector to give something back”. Or to “send the elevator back down”, as she puts it, quoting Kevin Spacey, another American who, thanks to his largesse, has come to be seen as an establishment figure in Britain.

Take the right turn at Silicon Roundabout and you could end up here?

Eileen Burbidge is cut from a similar cloth, but at the same time she is rather more down to earth. Graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in computer science, she cut her entrepreneurial teeth at Apple, Sun Microsystems and Palmsource before underlining her start-up credentials by switching to Skype, where she was Director of Product and the company’s third employee. Burbidge was ultimately let go by Skype after less than a year; she has said that she worked unpaid for the first 8 months of her time there, and described the experience of working under CEO Niklas Zennstrom as “a bit unpleasant”; “I remember there was a lot of pressure”, she says.

Burbidge subsequently joined Yahoo Europe, before founding her own Venture capital firm, Passion Capital, headquartered at White Bear Yard in Farringdon in the heart of London’s tech start-up district.

Whilst the chances of catching Joanna Shields striding down Old Street, pitch deck in one hand, Apple Mac in the other during her reign would have been small to non-existent, Burbidge is one of Tech City’s most familiar faces. She sits on the board of home grown start-up Mendeley, has funded (through Passion Capital) the likes of GoCardless, DueDil and Thread, and has always made herself available for questioning or for public service, be it through interviews with Tech Crunch, panel discussions, trips abroad with the UK Government as their Special Envoy for FinTech or as part of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.

In short, Burbidge has successfully positioned herself as the natural heir to Shields; rather than being parachuted in, however, as Shields was, a huge hitter taking on a new challenge, Burbidge has experienced significant ups and downs in her career and feels, perhaps, a bit more like one of Tech City’s own. No disrespect to Shields intended, she leaves behind her a clearly defined role and a position that will be craved by anybody with significant tech credentials, eyeing a move into politics.

Burbidge has made no secret of her support for the Conservative party, and signed an infamous letter to the Guardian newspaper shortly before the general election pledging her support for their small business initiatives. Is there a danger then, that the tech scene is becoming overly supportive of what this government are doing? “Tech City” can feel a bit too much like a PR campaign for the Conservative government, albeit a successful one, supported strongly by the office of London’s (Tory) mayor, Boris Johnson, with tax break schemes such as SEIS and EIS underpinning much of the campaign’s success, when it should be putting the interests of London’s tech scene first.

Will all of this change if the next London mayor turns out to be Sadiq Khan, not Zac Goldsmith, or, longer term, if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party wins the next general election? Undoubtedly it will. At this stage, nobody really knows how Tech and Politics will mix long term. Tech is too important to Britain’s economy to become a political plaything, therefore it is imperative that it maintains its independence and that politicians rely on its success, not the other way around.

For now, a successful tour of duty as Chair of London’s Tech City is likely to be rewarded with promotion to higher political office, this much we know. Burbidge’s time at the helm will tell us if this represents a self-fulfilling prophecy, or if the position is demanding and judged on merit. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, will be when the time comes to appoint Burbidge’s successor. In the absence of a clear frontrunner, there may well be hundreds of young, enthusiastic tech entrepreneurs eyeing the role with interest. That is if it still exists, and whether it is or not may well be up to Burbidge and how she performs over the next few months and years.

Meanwhile the search for a unicorn goes on, whilst over in Silicon Valley, the conversation has turned to “decacorns”; companies with a valuation of $10bn or more. Is there still a lot of work to be done before Tech City needs to start thinking about where it stands politically?

 

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