In the second issue of D/srupt we chat Silicon Valley, Google X and the dot com boom with Imperial College London Alumn Wendy Tan-White.
Originally published in issue 2 of D/srupt, Imperial’s magazine for student innovators and entrepreneurs.
Everyone knows Google. But not so many people have heard of X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory that brings together the best entrepreneurs and innovators to create groundbreaking technologies and impact the lives of billions. So when X was looking to hire a new senior leader, they chose Imperial alumnus Wendy Tan-White MBE.
X thinks big. Very big. Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have always believed in investing some of the company’s resources in hard, long-term problems. In 2010, they formalised this commitment with the creation of a new division formed to work on ‘moonshots’ and the resulting projects have been nothing short of astonishing – from paving the way in self-driving cars, to giant balloons delivering internet access to remote areas, and even smart contact lenses aimed at making healthcare proactive rather than reactive. With this level of vision and ambition, the position of Vice President at the moonshot factory was going to be a tough one to fill.
Wendy was the ideal candidate for the job, with a BEng from Imperial in Computer Science (1992), her entrepreneurial background working on the EU’s first online bank, Egg, and having started her own company, the first software-as-a-service websitebuilding tool, Moonfruit. The success of these companies led Wendy to become a General Partner at both Entrepreneur First, a world-leading accelerator and talent investor, and growth capital fund BGF.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?I’ve always valued technology and innovation because both my parents were in tech. My dad studied as an electrical engineer and computer scientist and my mum was a midwife who then went back to university to do maths and computing. They retired as a CTO and big data expert respectively.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I’ve always loved space; I was a big sci-fi fan. I love writers like Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson who wrote Snow Crash. I suppose I’ve always been very future-looking. The thing about sci-fi is sometimes it runs a hundred years ahead, sometimes it’s five thousand years ahead and that timeframe of thinking makes you feel everything is possible. I got the entrepreneur bug in 1997 before the dot-com boom in 1999. I’d worked in my first early startup, Egg, and I realised that you could take new technology and use it to enable change for millions with the internet.
What was the best thing about being an Imperial student?
Being in London for the first time was exciting. London is a unique confluence of tech, media, food, art and fashion. It’s a melting pot of hybrid creativity. I was also very lucky because when I started at Imperial, there was no such thing as the world wide web. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee had only just come up with the HTTP protocol, but I already had access to what was early internet from my room in Falmouth & Keogh halls of residence. I had an old, dumb terminal connected to the local WAN in
Imperial that was linked up to what was then JANET and the precursor to the internet.
I was already playing adventure games with people around the world in those days. That was in 1990! I was fortunate to be studying computer science in that era, especially being taught by professors like Susan Eisenbach, Jeff Kramer and Jeff Magee. I didn’t quite understand until later just how unique that experience was. I think that’s the thing about being a student: you don’t always see that you’re in a time of fundamental change.
What does being an Imperial alumnus mean to you?
It’s difficult not to be increasingly proud of being an Imperial alumnus. Watching Imperial’s impact on the world stage, not only because of the research and innovation breakthroughs, but also the expansion of its alumni network and its impact, the expansion of campus and facilities and also its relationship with policy and government. I give back to the Imperial community as much as I can. I sit on the board of the Department of Computing and support new research professors like Daniel Rueckert and Will Knottenbelt looking at biomedical imaging with machine learning and
quantitative analysis and crypto. I also work closely with Professor Maja Pantić who supports X’s Women in AI programme. I sit on the board for the Dyson School of Design Engineering and have been impressed with the entrepreneurial talent Professor Peter Childs has supported. It’s a privilege to support Alice Gast, David Gann and John Anderson in their endeavours.
If you could say one thing to current Imperial students…
It would be: we know that technology is changing the world faster than it’s ever done before so they should be thinking about the impact that’s going to have. It’s one of the things we care a lot about at X too – the implications as well as the applications of technology. We’re trying to positively impact billions of people. Imperial students have an opportunity to do this too and create their own moonshots.
What exactly is a moonshot?
At X, we define a moonshot as starting with a large problem that, if solved, would improve the lives of millions or billions of people. Second, we propose a radical solution that could lead to a 10x improvement on the way things are today. And third, we’re looking for technology breakthroughs that make us think these radical solutions are actually possible. We’re looking to have a positive global impact so we’re looking to create breakthroughs that can be distributed globally too.
What is your role at X?
My formal title is Vice President. I joined to add a perspective outside of The Valley to the next evolution of X. As I’ve settled into the role, the teams are describing me as ‘Moonshot Coach’ or ‘Mentor’. The aim is to support and partner with Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots and CEO of X. As his title suggests, X is a very different place. We want to encourage imagination and creativity and so, starting at the top, this sends a cultural signal that we’re a unique organisation and we want people here to feel they too can be unique. X was looking for somebody that had experience ranging from engineering and computer science to entrepreneurship and investment. It also helped that I have experience mentoring teams, as I’m now mentoring a range of robotics and food-focused projects at X. These projects are some of our more mature projects, which means that they’re iterating on their technology prototypes and are exploring how they can apply these technologies to broader ecosystems to help solve real problems. For example, how might we use new technologies to produce food more sustainably and with a more positive environmental impact? These kinds of systemic questions play to my experience. Our methodology is very much about experimentation. Technologists especially can get fixated on having to reach milestones. At X, we still have milestones but they’re less important than the hypotheses we’re trying to test. We’re focused on learning, so hitting the milestone is less important than thinking about what we’ve learned and where we’ll go from there. This attitude means we’re always in a growth mindset.
What was your reaction when you got the job?
The thing that really confirmed my excitement about the role was when X invited my whole family over to the moonshot factory in California from London. I have a 14 year old and an 11 year old, and my husband is a general partner at Entrepreneur First, so a move to California was going to be a big shift for our family. When we all went into the moonshot factory and they saw the Loon balloons and the drones and the creative space, they were just as excited as me, so I knew then it was the right move and we celebrated together.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
Six months in, it is genuinely my dream role, and it comes down to the mission. X is about solving really hard problems and having a really positive impact on the world. I joined because I want to solve huge problems and I believe that X is doing that, while at the same time creating sustainable, valuable businesses. Over the years I’ve done a lot of work in government – I’m still on the Alan Turing Board and the Digital Economy Council for the UK – and I’ve always been interested in how tech can really enable citizens. X is similarly mission based and focused on its impact on humanity. I think that’s pretty unique in business.
How would you describe Silicon Valley?
1. Optimism. 2. Depth of expertise. In the UK I’m the first internet generation, so I do a lot of mentoring and investing. In Silicon Valley, as well as people like Astro, I’m mentored by a guy called Ed Catmull, who’s the former President of Pixar. There’s a depth of expertise and experience that makes me feel younger and gives me an opportunity to continue to learn and grow. 3. The weather. And that’s not flippant. I think when you wake up every morning and the sun is shining, and then it’s cool in the evening, it gives you a different outlook on life. Everybody goes hiking rather than going for coffee so it’s just a very different experience. The coastline is amazing too. I’ve always found the sea very grounding, so to be able to get to the sea really fast too is incredible. 4. The depth and breadth of talent. There are so many people that come from all around the world so the talent and the drive are incredibly high.
Tell us about the first company you founded?
The first one I founded from scratch was Moonfruit. We had the vision of letting people who couldn’t code build and publish online and it was very visual. I had two co-founders. One, in fact, Eirik Pettersen, was a really good friend of mine at Imperial. We always said that when we graduated we would end up doing something together, and then around 1999 when the dot-com boom was coming, I was like: “Eirik, I’ve got this idea, come out and be my CTO, come and do this”. He’d actually just taken some very lucrative job in the bank, building software, and he said to me: “Look, if you can get the funding, I’ll do it, I’ll jump”, and that’s what happened. And my husband, Joe White, was my other co-founder, but I married him three years later.
What would your advice be for anyone starting a business with a friend or partner?
I think you have to really try to understand the strengths and weaknesses between you and be clear on how complementary they are. Here’s the thing to remember, especially with people you know very well: when things are good, your differences can be really complementary but when you’re under pressure, those things can polarise you. The other piece of advice I have is to get a really good coach, somebody that can reflect back to you what’s going on. Everybody has a blind spot, so even the best, best, best, most experienced entrepreneurs and CEOs in the world often have a trusted mentor or coach to help. This is what I’m trying to do in my role here at X, working with the leads of the projects, reflecting back, asking questions and checking what they are trying to test.
What’s the best bit of advice that you’ve ever been given and who was it from?
Norm Meyrowitz, the President of Macromedia Ventures in The Valley, once said to me: “Don’t mess around with the puck in front of the goal”. This hockey analogy has stood me in good stead because decisions are some of the hardest bits about leadership. If you’re lucky, it’s 70/30 knowing what you should do, but most of the time, it’s 52/48 and you’ve got to make a decision and live with it… so I like the sentiment of not messing around. Just make that decision and move on.
What are your three bits of advice for a new startup?
Test and validate your ideas as fast as possible. Everybody thinks they’ve come up with a great idea, but you really need to go out and look at the impact and see if some of the assumptions you’re making are true – otherwise you could end up going down a rabbit hole for a long time. The other important thing is to build a team around you that can really execute. You can’t do it all by yourself and one of the things about leading and building a business and team is you’ve got to be able to persuade other people to come join you and fill in the gaps with skills you don’t have yourself.
What do you look for when investing?
The people who always stand out are ones with talent, ability and charisma – people who have great ideas and are ambitious enough to make them actually possible. I also love hybrid thinkers. People who can take an idea from one area and apply it to another. People who can do lateral thinking and shift their perspectives, which is something we’re always looking for at the moonshot factory too.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Oh, I love St Ives in Cornwall. My husband’s family is from there and I love the breathtaking coastline and all the art. There was a massive art movement there in the 1950s; people like Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron. There’s also a guy called Bernard Leach, and Shoji Hamada who came over from Japan, and they’ve created incredible hybrid ceramics. I love art and design. I actually went to Central Saint Martins to do a design MA after I went to Imperial. I need to go and get a good dose of design and sea at the same time. It feeds my soul in a different way to Silicon Valley.
If you could have dinner with one person, from history or the present day, who would it be?
Interestingly, this has nothing to do with tech. I love the writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She wrote Fleabag and Killing Eve and I love the way she is so honest about herself and about humanity. I love the way she accesses the foibles that we all deal with in such a funny and breathtakingly acute way. I think it’s amazing. When it comes to women having impact on the world, she’s got a really fresh, interesting voice.