The Female Lead

Female Leaders: Priya Lakhani

Priya Lakhani OBE is Founder CEO of CENTURY Tech, an award-winning company that helps schools harness the power of artificial intelligence to provide each child with an education personalised to their strengths and weaknesses. Founded in 2015, CENTURY improves outcomes, cuts teacher workload and gives teachers greater data insights to allow them to perform better as educators.

Prior to this, Priya started her career as a barrister before starting her own Indian cooking sauce company in 2008. Priya has been a member of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Entrepreneurs’ Forum. She authored a children’s book, Zarin’s Perfect World, which was published in 2014. She was awarded Business Entrepreneur of the Year by the Chancellor in 2009 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2014.

Where did your passion for entrepreneurship stem from?

I have always had an entrepreneurial streak, something that started in school and has stayed with me throughout my life. I was the kid at school selling Chomps and Curly Wurlies from my locker and my brother and I used to drive around buying the products that large bulk retailers couldn’t shift and sell them on for profit.

When I finished studying to become a lawyer I applied this mindset to getting work experience with the big law firms. I turned up uninvited to an awards do and buttonholed the big wig lawyers to get shadowing opportunities – and it worked! All of these taught me that a bit of sheer determination goes a long way, but the most important lesson was to never fear failure.

Could you tell us a little bit about the first business you set up?

So flogging chocolate bars at school doesn’t count? In 2008, I left my career in law to set up Masala Masala, an Indian cooking sauces brand. I noticed that the nation’s favourite dish was curry, but the only fresh cooking sauces you could find in the supermarket were carbonara and arrabiata!

It wasn’t easy – all that everyone said was how hard the food industry is to crack, how saturated it is with ideas and that I might as well give up. But I persisted, including literally turning up to the headquarters of supermarkets demanding to see the buyers. We soon had products in nationwide supermarket chains and independent retailers. I’m passionate about changing the world for the better, so I set up our business model so that for every pot of sauce sold, the company’s charitable arm provided food, vaccines and funding to build schools for the underprivileged. We ended up providing millions of meals and 35,000 vaccinations.

You said you were laughed out the door by all suppliers, where did you find the strength to keep going?

You don’t get anywhere in life if you don’t persist, persist, and persist some more. I suppose this comes partly from the way I was raised by my parents, who wanted nothing but the best for me and always encouraged me to take bold risks and follow my dreams. But I developed thick skin as a barrister that only toughened when I took my first steps as an entrepreneur.

Every pitch you fail or idea that gets shot down develops your resilience, sharpens your acumen and ultimately leads to a more successful entrepreneur – provided that you don’t give up. This is the most important aspect of success – not giving up. Failure happens every day, even in successful businesses. We are allowed to fail at CENTURY when we are innovating or creating new product features or processes. We know this is part of succeeding as long as we learn from our mistakes and improve fast.

What inspired you to launch your second business CENTURY Tech?

While sitting on the UK Department for Business’s advisory board I learned about the problems facing teachers and learners in education – nearly 2 million pupils were in underperforming UK schools. I learned about the overwhelming challenge teachers face – our hardworking teachers, who do what they do to inspire young people or impart knowledge of a subject they are passionate about, spend most of their week too burdened with ridiculous workloads to be able to do what they came to do. It was heartbreaking to walk in to schools and hear about how increases in workload were resulting in stress and wellbeing issues for some of the most hard working people in the country.

Technology had been transforming all other sectors in society for decades, yet education remained largely untouched. I decided to pull together the latest developments in AI, neuroscience and learning science into a platform that provides each child with an education personalised to their needs and that would remove a huge amount of workload from teachers. From our humble beginnings in 2015 CENTURY has gone on to work with tens of thousands of teachers across the world, and recently agreed the first ever partnership to roll out AI across an entire school system.

“Pursue what is meaningful to you – find your passion or something which really lights you up and excites you – and run with it"

How have you found navigating the male-dominated tech world as a female CEO?

Women with strong skills and great ideas will succeed in this industry. There definitely are occasional problems, and we need to do more to make sure girls are aware of the opportunities tech can offer them, but I have never felt like I have lost out on a deal because of my gender, and I have hired dozens of outstanding women without having to scour the earth to find them. I am honoured to work with brilliant men and women, I have been invested in by both men and women and my peer group of tech leaders is full of outstanding people from all backgrounds.

What would you say to female founders seeking investment?

Go for it! I was told numerous times my idea would never make it. I was yelled at by one (arrogant) investor and told I should give up, go home and stop wasting people’s time. And my favourite one – that “education is not worth investing in” – seriously! Are there any other sectors more worthy? And for those investors looking for large opportunities, it’s the second largest sector in the world. Granted, it’s the least disrupted sector in the world and slow to change, but the lesson here is to look for the right investors interested in this type of opportunity.

We are only where we are now because of a dogged determination to succeed. Persevere! If you get feedback, just try and learn from it and adapt your approach. You should surround yourself with an excellent group of peers to bounce ideas off of and depend on to pick you up when you hit the inevitable roadblocks. I’m so lucky to have such great investors, great colleagues and a group of founder friends like Emma Sinclair, Jeannie Arthur, Jon Buss, Gi Fernando – they and more have been vital to our success.

Asking for help is one of The Female Lead key themes. Does it come naturally to you?

I am all for having a solid network of support that you can rely on for advice, motivation and help with ideas, and I don’t know any successful entrepreneur without one. Being able to reach out to people is vital. In tech, like in most walks of life, most people are generally very happy to offer advice and my founder groups on Whatsapp have been invaluable. There has never been a question that has received no advice or help and this sort of support network is crucial. Not just to succeed in business but often just for your own sanity. Being a sole founder can be lonely!

One point to note however – I have seen new entrepreneurs be disappointed because they send emails to founders they do not know personally asking to meet for coffees and lunches in order to give them advice on their ideas. You just have to be mindful of people’s time. Most founders and CEOs are happy to answer quick questions but they are also incredibly busy and have their own challenges to overcome. One of the best solutions is to join an existing network or create your own where you get to know others and can lean on each other for help.

How can we encourage more girls to be risk takers?

It starts from day one. Research shows parents are more protective of girls than boys when playing and they stop them from risky activities in the playground, while simultaneously encouraging boys to take risks. There are some evolutionary, biological reasons for this – but in today’s age we are safer than ever before, and we can all take thoughtful risks without suffering negative consequences. Parents and teachers need to encourage girls to be less risk averse in their attitudes throughout childhood – only then will we see the first generation of women as bold and brave as the men. We should also be maximising girls’ exposure to brave, successful women, with initiatives like the Female Lead playing a crucial role.

What advice would you give to the younger generations who are anxious about the future career?

You are living in the richest, safest and healthiest time in history. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, many people lack challenge and meaning in their personal and professional lives. My best advice to young people would be to pursue what is meaningful to you – find your passion or something which really lights you up and excites you – and run with it. You will likely have a better chance of fulfilling your dream than anyone who came before you. The automation of the economy looms, but we have faced dramatic disruptions before – war, famine, industrialisation – and have managed to emerge in a better state. You can only put yourself in the best possible standing to succeed by always trying your best, learning to persevere rather than giving up when you take on a new challenge, and being curious – discovering new topics or issues you are passionate about and taking an active role in those areas.

What’s next for you?

My excellent team at CENTURY Tech is working hard on some exciting new initiatives and partnerships that will begin to emerge this year. I want to end up in a place where every child in the world has access to a top tier education tailored to them as individuals. I want us to be working with more communities in need – we have been helping to educate Syrian refugees in the Middle East, for example.

We are so lucky to work with some of the best educators in the world, while each interaction we have with pupils reaffirms our mission and makes all the late nights worthwhile. These brilliant teachers and students motivate us to keep developing cutting-edge platforms and programmes that will help children all over the world succeed.

Follow Priya on Twitter!