From bioengineering to breaking down bias

Nov 9, 2020

Growing up, Riham Satti knew one thing was for sure – she wasn’t going to be an entrepreneur ...
Riham Satti

This article is taken from the latest D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). Click here to view the full magazine.

Growing up, Riham Satti knew one thing was for sure – she wasn’t going to be an entrepreneur …

And yet, she is now CEO and co-founder of MeVitae, a tech startup on a mission to remove cognitive and unconscious bias from recruitment. She’s also a business mentor at London Business School, a top 100 influential UK tech business leader and a TEDx speaker. Funny, how things turn out.

With a background in bioengineering (including a Master’s from Imperial, no less) and an MSc (Res) in Neuroscience (from Oxford – we’ll forgive her that one), Riham aims to understand how things work and then make them better.

Following “a bunch of mishaps and serendipities,” Riham has become a startup founder, champion of diversity and mentor to young entrepreneurs.

 

Growing up, what made you want to be a scientist and engineer?

I wanted to be everything; you name it, I wanted to be it. One thing I didn’t want to be was an entrepreneur.

I had doctors in my family, I had engineers in my family, but no hybrids. Medical engineering at the time was such a new space. There weren’t that many medical engineers, right? Some clinical engineers were working in the NHS, but medical engineers were rare at the time.

At 16 I started to think, what amIgoingtodowhenIgrowup? Medicine and engineering were both on that list. Is there something out there that combines both? Amazingly, Imperial had that combination – I was so excited because biomedical engineering was such a hybrid role. I got to understand anatomy as well as how to build electronic stuff and robotics, it was … a dream!

Were there any other influences that inspired you to get into these fields?

I have a medical condition, it’s cardiac-related, and I always wondered, how can I fix me? How do I get better? How do I do it effectively? How do I build the next pacemaker? I thought: I’m going to be my own cure. I was driven to build technology to solve big challenges and help society.

Why did you choose to study at Imperial?

Being a Londoner, I wanted to be in London. Reputation and academic excellence were also key as I wanted to go into academia. I wanted to do a PhD so I knew I needed to get into a top institution to do that.

It was also the lecturers that Imperial had. I’m still in communication with quite a few of them because they were a true inspiration. These are people I’ll never forget, who showed me the beauty of technology and medicine. To be honest, those are the reasons why I picked Imperial. You had the best!

You went on to do a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. How did you go from bioengineering to neuroscience, and what was the career path you were looking to go down?

When I was at Imperial, neuroscience was one of the things that always crept up. I like to answer big questions or try to answer big questions. I never can, but always try!

Understanding how the brain works was a very big question in my head (excuse the pun). It’s a bit like astrophysicists who are trying to understand the universe. The brain is like the universe to me, and I always wondered: how do these wires work? How do they connect? Is there a circuit? Some of the projects that I did in my undergrad drove that. I thought, okay, a PhD might be the way to go, I could answer some of those questions.

When did you move into entrepreneurship? And what made you decide you wanted to start your own business?

As I said at the very beginning, I wasn’t interested in entrepreneurship; that was the one thing I knew I didn’t want to do, so that’s fate for you!

It came as a pure accident. At the time, my co-founder was talking to some friends and discovered that every student finishes university with a whole bunch of stuff that they don’t want or need. A friend had a flat-screen TV, which back then was pretty expensive, and I was like, “You don’t want that?”

He was willing to give it away for free, and I thought: how many other students are willing to give up stuff that they didn’t need? I said to him: “Why don’t we just build a website out of it and see what happens?”

We built Swapplr and had people trading on there. I bought a bike there. But it was purely an accident, pure serendipity. I wasn’t planning on starting a company out of it.

Did you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
Yes, it was contagious. When you’re doing a PhD, you specialise, then you specialise some more and then specialise again. One thing I didn’t know back in the day was I’m not a specialist, I’m a generalist. I’m one of those people that likes to do different things. Having studied medical engineering, I would have thought I’d have learned that. It isn’t until you’re building logo designs, doing some marketing and getting involved in the tech, that you realise that actually, I want to do a bit of everything.

How did you go from Swapplr to MeVitae?

We needed to make revenue. I considered advertising, but didn’t want a bunch of adverts on my website! Investors would ask: “How are you going to make money?” and I came up with the most stupid answers, like: “Facebook doesn’t make money, they’re fine”. I was so naive, and I think they were just like: “Okay, this girl is not serious at all.” I had to go back to the drawing board.

We were debating, do we continue with Swapplr? Do we go get jobs? At that time Vivek, my co- founder, had just finished studying computer science and wanted to get a job at Microsoft, which turned out to be the start of MeVitae.

We were thinking: how do you get a job at Microsoft? How do you go through the non-traditional routes to get a job? We thought: Vivek knows how to build tech so could he build an app for your CV? Where you can just put your CV in an app format, put it on the Windows Store and see what happens? He did that initially, and Microsoft came back and said: “This app serves no purpose to anyone at all, we can’t publish it.” We opened it up to the public so they could put their own CVs on there, and thought maybe then it’d be accepted.

I got an email from Microsoft saying: “Your app has been ranked the top Windows Store app” and we had 50,000 downloads in a few weeks. Before you know it, we’re at Microsoft’s offices to discuss what we’ve built. Being an academic, the first thing you do is research, so I started researching the market, to understand what it looked like, and realised how fragmented it was. There are companies on one side, candidates on the other and recruitment agencies in the middle and it was just a big pipeline mess. With an engineering background, you think: “This needs fixing,” so that’s when MeVitae kind of started.

So, the initial idea wasn’t based around diversity and inclusion?

That’s right! My entire journey is a bunch of mishaps and coincidences. Diversity kicked in a couple of years ago when I realised that things weren’t equal in the hiring world and that the solutions to try and make it equal weren’t technical solutions. Unconscious bias training wasn’t always effective. I thought: how do we use our expertise in this space? Our team members, like building tech and solving problems, and that’s how diversity and inclusion started to come into play. Now it’s become the core of what we do and what we stand for – fairness, equality, truth and problem-solving.

How did you find the process of going out to get investment?

Raising investment is hard. I’m not going to lie. It takes a lot out of you. At the time we were raising investment and trying to get clients as well, I would go into a meeting, meet an investor, then I’d spend the train trip back home thinking: what have I done wrong? What have I said? What haven’t I thought about? How do I improve?

You have to do that over and over again, so you need to build up a thick skin to push yourself forward. If you can’t take criticism, then it’s a big problem in the investor world. But do you know what? I grew the most in that time. It’s so important not to just take money for the sake of money but to take money because people believe in what you’re doing and what you stand for and that they can contribute directly to your growth.

How does the tech aspect of MeVitae work?

In the HR world, there are things called application tracking systems, and that is how a lot of organisations manage their hiring processes. MeVitae plugs into those systems and then sits in the background trying to debias everything. We do this in several ways. First is what we call blind recruiting. The system takes someone’s CV, analyses it using natural language processing technology, and analyses things onaCVthatcanrelatetoabias– someone’s name, gender, location, activities, hobbies – then the software will redact all of that stuff. You end up with a sanitised profile. This kind of blind recruiting technique allows organisations to decide who to take through to the hiring process without having these biases.

The second is a decision-making system or a talent detector that takes the CV and job description and uses the web to try and understand what skills that candidate possesses without them explicitly saying it. It’s a matching tool that will analyse university website information, books and articles to try and funnel out the top talent. We’re trying to refocus employers’ and recruiters’ eyes, so they spend less time on the biased information and more on what counts.

What is it about having a diverse team that makes it more efficient or perform better?

Because we all think differently – some people are strategists, some are more statistical and some are more creative. When you group people together who have different strengths and weaknesses, you can have stronger benefits just as a result of that. That’s just purely how our brains are wired. Everyone thinks differently and everyone adapts differently to different situations. Bringing those people together to brainstorm solutions and to come up with ideas can create a lot of innovation and solutions within organisations. That’s excluding all the bottom-line benefits organisations receive.

When starting a company, how do you make sure you’re building a diverse team?

As you start scaling, tapping into different networks and making sure that you’re building a strong team that has different areas of expertise is crucial. You also need to make sure you surround yourself with advisers and mentors who have done it before, and those people should be diverse – not necessarily in terms of prescribed characteristics, but diverse in terms of their experience and expertise.

Once they’ve created a more diverse workforce, what should companies do to create a culture where staff want to stay?

I think the answer lies in the organisation’s culture and its values. A lot of people talk about fit, right? They say you need to have a good fit between the employer and the candidates, for example. Now, to retain top talent you have to first hire the right talent. There’s a study by Harvard Business School that says 80 per cent of employee turnover is due to bad hiring decisions, so you have to hire the right people to retain them. Assuming that’s done, the way companies engage with employees is very, very important. Employees want a sense of belonging, a sense that they don’t feel like human capital. If you treat people like people, they are more empathetic, they’re more sympathetic, and they’re more loyal as well.

Is there a standout bit of advice that has been imparted to you?

Don’t be afraid to fail. When you’re an engineer you’re trying to be perfect, when in entrepreneurship it’s the opposite. You experiment, you try new things, you push the boundaries, and you try and do it quickly and fail fast.

I love the phrase: FAIL = First Attempt In Learning. If you’re learning fast, you can execute faster.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being an entrepreneur?

I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur and now I love being an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d do it all over again if I could; it’s rewarding because you’re doing what you love. I know it’s so cliched, everyone says that, but when you’re building your company with your ideas and objectives, you’re in control and you have a sense of what you’re contributing to society. You can’t get better than that.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

Oh, I could write a book on that! I needed to believe in myself. I wasn’t a risk-taker before I was very risk-averse. I was always doubting myself: am I doing the right thing? Is this the right track?

Sometimes just a bit of confidence, even if it’s the “fake it ’til you make it” kind, is all it takes to get you started and make a difference. And don’t forget to remain true to yourself.

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