The thing about London; it’s full of smart people. Everywhere you look, on the tube, the buses, in the taxis and Ubers; every office and every shop is crammed full of smart people, going about their business.
So, when a new phenomenon, the world of tech start-ups, starts to grow up around the Old Street roundabout, it’s right that the world should sit up and take notice.
But what nobody could have expected is that one of the smartest of them all – the current Chairman of the IoD no less, would be following the scene closely, and, after leaving public office, get stuck right into it.
Lucky, lucky bob, then because this quirkily named Shoreditch, London-based HR tech start-up, originally founded in Tel Aviv, and heavily backed with Silicon Valley VC money, may have just bagged the new belle of the start-up ball by appointing one of London’s top business people, Lady Barbara Judge, to yet another Chairmanship.
bob is unique in that it is a “disruptive tech” platform that provides a suite of products to solve inefficiencies around HR admin that its founders say no rival platform can match.
That will please small business owners, for three main reasons; they can log time off, report on and document employee engagement and on-boarding; manage their employee benefits e.g. the complexities of organising and managing employee reward schemes, pension auto-enrolment, PMI, and Group Risk; and introduce friendlier “soft-skills” functionality, helping them to understand and nurture their company culture.
This Tuesday, the HT was exclusively invited to the IoD to find out more.
Lady Barbara, perfectly presented as always in trademark black with a white neck ruff, not a blonde hair out of place (modelling helped her pay her way through university), appears from deep within the bowels of the Institute of Directors, and whisks me into a private dining room, asking me if I want tea or coffee.
She takes care to acknowledge each of the staff, asking them how they are, and makes one or two stops to say hello to the other diners, who would doubtless drop whatever they were doing for the opportunity to bend her ear for a few moments about the businesses they are discussing between themselves.
A few hours ago, she tells me, she touched down on a flight from Japan, where she has been advising TEPCO, the largest electric utility provider in Japan and the 4th largest in the world, running both fossil fuel, and nuclear power plants.
“I always go to Japan”, she tells me – check Lady Barbara’s Wikipedia entry and you will see that underneath her occupation, listed as “lawyer and businesswoman”, under the “known for” section, “nuclear power” takes pride of place.
Perhaps the distinction “nuclear” is unnecessary; Lady Barbara, born in New York City but residing in London since 1993, has enjoyed a stellar career, at the very, very top.
As well as being the first female “Chairman” (she always refers to the role that way) of the Institute of Directors, she has also served as Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Chairman of the UK fraud prevention service CIFAS, Chairman of the Pension Protection Fund and UK Ambassador on behalf of UK Trade and Investment. She was also the youngest ever commissioner of the SEC; only the second woman ever to be appointed to the role.
She’s no stranger to the media either, having been an executive director at Rupert Murdoch’s News International.
Today we are talking pensions however, and tech. Why? Because, after years of unstinting service in the public sector, Lady Barbara decided she needed a fresh challenge – and she has made what might, on the face of it, appear to be a left-field choice. In fact, like most decisions she makes, it looks to have been a very shrewd move.
She is taking the role of Chairman in an HR focused company where disruptive tech meets the world of pensions, and specifically auto-enrolment.
Which brings me to my first question. Somebody who has occupied as many high-profile roles as she has, after stepping down as Chairman of the Pension Protection fund, could easily have taken almost any role, at any level of seniority. So why bob?
Because of the founding team perhaps? Serial entrepreneur and bob CEO Ronni Zehavi sold his last business for $300m; Israel David CTO, is a former Silicon Valley start-up founder, Amit Knaani CPO is one of Israel’s most renowned Product Managers, and Andy Bellass, CSO, is an expert strategist and serial agency owner. Not a bad team to find plying their trade at the WeWork offices on Corsham Street, a stone’s throw from the “Silicon Roundabout”.
There is the obvious pension synergy, too, plus the fact that in June bob completed one of the UK’s largest ever seed-funding rounds, of $7.5m, led by Silicon Valley based Bessemer Ventures, with Robin and Saul Klein’s seed stage VC Local Globe and a host of notable angel investors (including Transferwise’s Taavet Hinrickius) also joining the round.
Quite simply, she tells me; “I wanted to do something different, and frankly I’m very impressed by Israeli tech.”
And well she might be – “Silicon Wadi”, as it is affectionately known, Israel’s tech corridor situated just outside of Tel Aviv, is thriving, but companies that truly want to scale fast often find themselves re-locating to the US or UK in pursuit of the funding and opportunities to fuel their ambitious plans for growth.
Ronni Zehavi, bob’s CEO, explains Lady Barbara, “came to see me – and he embodied everything I was interested in around tech”.
It doubtless did not escape her attention that bob’s flagship product is not just an HR-tech platform that “sorts all the people stuff for smart modern businesses who love their staff”; it has been specifically engineered to tackle pension auto-enrolment – a recent directive states that all businesses must have auto-enrolled their staff onto a pension scheme by April 2017. The clock is ticking, and small business owners know it.
“I decided I wanted to try start-ups”, Lady Barbara says, and to her credit she has already done the obligatory start-up chic photo-call in Old Street, where her distinctive, immaculate quasi-hipster dress sense blended right in.
“I used to do technology and work with private companies” (another string to her career bow is a stint working in Private Equity in the US and UK, and her son, “the smartest person I know” runs a Private Equity firm – more of that later), and I like it – it’s young, modern, the people are active, vocal – the world is changing and young start-up companies are at the forefront of that, obviously”.
Lady Barbara’s work ethic is legendary – she never stops and it is her oft-stated desire to “die at my desk”, although not until at least the age of 89, so she can work for longer than her role-model and hero, her mother, who worked until she was 88, finding jobs for students as an associate Dean of the New York Institute of Technology.
Zahavi was introduced to Lady Barbara via a mutual acquaintance and called her to arrange a meeting – luckily, Lady Barbara says, Zehavi and his company embody everything she likes to see in a company.
- “I like to work with people I respect”
- “They must have ideas that I identify with well”
- “They must have gravitas”
“Both employers and employees are going to struggle with auto-enrolment”, she elaborates, but it’s so important that workers feel they have a vote over their futures. Getting people enrolled takes time and effort and manpower, but this (bob) makes the whole thing so much easier.
And Lady Barbara, if anybody, should know. Besides Nuclear, Pensions is next on the Wikipedia “known for” list.
“The platform caters to all the needs of any company – insurance, employee benefits, the hiring process – it’s fantastic, in fact, and very user-friendly”.
Although the Bessemer investment happened before she joined, Lady Barbara says she is not at all surprised the company completed such a large funding round, so early.
“I went to Israel 1 month ago, and I met the people there – enthusiastic, intelligent, and with an in-depth knowledge of the product”, she concludes, taking a sip of hot water from what appears to be a champagne flute, dispensed from an ornate copper teapot. Unusual, but if it gets you from Japan to London firing on all cylinders, I’ll have what she’s having!
“I met the designers and they were impressive too, very well-versed in what the product needed to do, and the marketing and product teams were equally as intelligent – I like the founders and I like the team spirit.”
“When Ronni called me and said will you meet me, I said fine – I’ll meet anyone who’s interested”, she adds – form an orderly queue, start-up founders.
“I understood the concept for bob straight away, which is important – I could see the need for it, plus it seemed interesting and fun.” She is well-known for her sense of fun despite the serious nature of many of her professional roles, as well as a mischievous sense of humour, occasionally in evidence in the column she writes for Forbes, reviewing restaurants. “Food is my only other hobby”, she says.
Warming to her theme (perhaps it’s the hot water) Lady B starts to speak in the kind of language that any techie company founder hankers after; “disruptive tech only occurs when there is an underserved market and then you have some kind of catalysing event – such as auto-enrolment”
“The circumstances are perfect for such a product. I noticed it when I was at the PPF”. She served 2 terms as Chairman there, the most permitted.
It turns out she is no stranger to fund raising either, having helped raise a £100m pound fund-of-funds back in her Private Equity days. “We raised funds in the UK, and we invested in US technology venture capital funds. We did very well, but in hindsight we made a big mistake; we floated our fund of funds and in the end, it was subject to a hostile takeover.”
“So anyway, I understand the space; I hadn’t done anything for a while but I had been looking at the private sector since the 90’s, really, and it has gotten more and more interesting.”
“So far, the start-up experience has been great – I’m already looking for another one, she adds mischievously, but, I suspect, entirely truthfully.”
Bob, she says, will “expand rapidly in the UK, and soon do another round, I’m sure, and I’m sure it will be over-subscribed too – then we’ll look at overseas markets.”
Wouldn’t that be complicated, I ask innocently, what with the different governments, bureaucracy, different business cultures…
I receive a withering look for my troubles – my first of the interview. A later dry comment, “we’re much more tolerant about dress sense now here at the IoD”, has me silently berating myself about my lack of a tie – and best leave the skinny jeans in Hoxton next time?
“It’s not confusing, it’s the appropriate next step – there is a huge opportunity in the Far East – I go there all the time – employee’s rights are expanding and they are taking more interest in managing their own futures – it’s happening right now as we speak.”
It’s worth mentioning at this point that this interview is being conducted to the shrill trill of what seems like an orchestra’s worth of mobile phones going off – besides the 2 Blackberry’s (one private, one work – cue the obligatory Hilary Clinton gag) on the table Lady Barbara’s bag vibrates merrily, and at one point an aide arrives with an iPhone, which, she says, she doesn’t like to use as a phone but likes as a camera. Her favourite phone for chatting is an old Nokia she has handy, which she declares is her favourite ever phone.
Old School – perhaps that’s why she decided upon England as the place she wanted to raise and educate her son – the tradition?
“It was sort of like that but also I wanted to raise my son away from New York where the subject of conversation is always about money – I wanted him to understand that there is more to life than just money.”
Be that as it may, Lloyd Thomas, her son from her prior marriage to American Lawyer Allen L. Thomas, has an excellent head for numbers, she tells me. He is a chartered accountant and runs his own Private Equity Firm, Athene Capital, applying a decade of experience gained at the likes of Deloitte and EQT Partners, and overseeing an all-star team.
There is a certain kind of American Woman, I suggest to Lady Barbara, that seems to just make it in London’s Tech City. Joanna Shields, the ex-chair of Tech City, now a member of parliament, and current chair Eileen Burbidge, to name but two.
“Why are we Americans doing so well? Well, we have great work ethic”, and warming to one of her favourite themes, females in the workplace and female entrepreneurs, she adds; “women are interested in new things – women can make things happen.”
Amen to that – but can they arrest what I detect is a slight depreciation, in the appreciation of the tech start-up scene, which seems to be going through a worryingly quiet period. We don’t seem to be celebrating disruptive tech quite like we used to?
Lady Barbara supplies the answer to that question; “it hasn’t dropped off at all, not at all, it’s just that we don’t need a celebration right now”.
The celebrating part is over – now it’s time to get to work, she is saying. This is the Head of the Pension Protection Fund telling tech start-ups to wise up and get street-smart! You have to love the chutzpah.
She allows herself a slight dig, as a member of the baby-boomer generation at so-called millennial culture. “They have to grow up”.
Even at this stage of her career, Lady Barbara is rolling up her sleeves and unfurling another chapter in her remarkable career. Pension-tech. Only her.
“IFA’s charge a lot of money, you know, and they offer very little transparency – the beauty of a platform like bob is the total transparency you get. Millennials like to have a view of what is happening at all times. I’m very optimistic.”
And like all truly smart business people, she ends with a sales pitch. “At bob we’re getting bigger and we’re getting better – we’re much more well known than we were and that’s because we’re answering the questions of today’s and tomorrow’s HR.”
“For the user, the platform has the perfect blend of attention, and affection. Yes, I like that description”.
And that, you sense, is indeed, exactly how Lady Barbara Judge likes things done – with a woman’s touch.