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Taking Stock | Interview with Tom Adeyoola

CEO + Founder, Metail

I met Tom at an entrepreneur roundtable hosted at Runway East in Shoreditch London a few years ago. Turns out we have a fair bit in common given we went to the same school in London and also studied at Cambridge University. We’re also both of mixed heritage: Tom is a half-Norwegian half-Nigerian combo to my half-Swiss half-Kenyan-Indian background.

I’ve noticed Tom put up some interesting posts on LinkedIn since the start of the Black Lives Matter protests and thought I would invite him onto the show to dig a little deeper. We cover:

  • What is driving the huge protests behind the BLM movement and why are people taking it more seriously than ever before.
  • Why Tom is writing to our old school to get involved in improving how history is taught to adolescents, especially when it comes to black history and Britain’s colonial past.
  • The great work Tom is doing to mentor young black entrepreneurs and help them access funding they often are not able to reach.
  • How Tom worked hard in his own start-up to build a fair and inclusive environment before selling the business last year. We also touch on how Tom is helping promote awareness of the ethnicity pay-gap.

I hope it sparks some good thoughts.

Follow Tom on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Listen to this interview on Spotify:


TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

Anil Stocker:

Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of Taking Stock. I’m Anil Stocker founder of MarketFinance. We’ve been around since 2011, helping small businesses. And one of the highlights of my job is talking to entrepreneurs, talking to people who are in the tech scene here in London. Whether that be fellow entrepreneurs or investors, or advisors people in the government as well, helping to grow the community. And today, very lucky to have a great guest in Tom Adeyoola who is a fellow tech entrepreneur. And also very focused on mentoring businesses that are focused on positive society, and climate, and improving climate around the world. And Tom, we also share the fact that we went to the same school here in London, and also the same university. And also that we are both of mixed heritage. My mother is Indian, but from Kenya.

So grew up in Kenya. My father is Swiss, and I know you’re also a very interesting mix, which we’ll come onto. And I wanted to focus a little bit today in the time that we have on some of the events that’s been happening over the last few weeks. Black Lives Matter. And the role that you can play as a role model, Tom, in some of this for other entrepreneurs and other people in the scene. So thanks for being on the show and tell us, so you’re from London, but what’s your background?

Tom Adeyoola:

Yeah, so my mother is Norwegian and my father is Nigerian. They met in fact in Hyde Park whilst my mother was an au pair, my dad was over here studying and the rest was history. I think there’s one other Norwegian, Nigerian, same age as me we went to the same university and that’s Richard Ayoade.

Anil Stocker:

You’re in good company.

Tom Adeyoola:

We both ended up in tech somehow.

Anil Stocker:

Great. And you successfully started a business here in London and scaled it and sold it, and we’ll come back to some of the interesting things you did there, but I wanted to start a little bit with there’s so much going on. There’s COVID, there’s what’s happening in the States, there’s now big emphasis on Black Lives Matter. There’s protests there’s counter protests. There’s a lot to keep track of, but let’s cut through the noise. What do you think are the real issues that need to be addressed here in particular in the UK and London with your experience and perspective?

Tom Adeyoola:

So I think, certainly during these times where people are in lockdown and at home, and where we’ve seen a lot of people out of work. People have had time for reflection and thinking about the world, and their place in the world, and how the world is made up. I think everything when you think about that comes back down to fairness. It’s like do you have the same opportunities that other people have? Do you have the ability to follow the same dreams and have the same outcomes? And I think certainly for me, in terms of when I look and think about fairness, I try and think about how I can have positive impact on that, and where are the best places to apply my experience and expertise. And I think when I look at the black and ethnic minority investment journey around building a business and creating a startup, the stats don’t look great in terms of access to finance for those communities.

And hence for me, certainly, I think that’s one of the big issues that I’m looking at. It’s like how can you democratize access to finance? How can you level up that journey, how can you take out a lot of the structural biases? And then the other side of the coin, which is more deeper and more difficult is around education. How can you get people to have an empathetic view of other people’s life experiences and journeys, but also how can you, from the very beginning of a person’s way in the world in terms of when they’re educated at school. How can they experience a world in a historical context that gives almost equal weight or understanding to all of the major events through your history, and the different contribution that different type of nations and ethnicities have brought.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah, so in a way, does it start with education? I want to come back to the access to funding bit, when you get to that stage of setting up a business, obviously, a lot of that is dictated by your education and what you’ve done before. I was very fortunate to go to a great university in Cambridge. And I remember looking around in my economics department, I think out of a room of 300 or so studying economics, I think there was one black person in the whole amphitheater. I think there was another mixed race person, but it was literally, it was less than five. Is there an education bit there? Is there something that has to be done within the educational system or the opportunities there do you think?

Tom Adeyoola:

Yeah, I think there’s two layers to it. You get ahead by having good education. So you jump yourself into different communities and I definitely see it in my own family. My dad worked on the buses. My mum worked in day nurseries. I got a scholarship to St. Paul’s where we both went, and I was funded for a bursary. And then I went on to Cambridge, my sister, on the other hand, she didn’t get into an independent school. She went to a local comprehensive, she didn’t do A levels and she didn’t go to university. So we had a very different life experience at that point. We completely fought, all of my friends were white. I think there were only ever two black kids in the school at any one time at St. Paul’s.

And the same thing when I was at Cambridge doing economics, I think there was one other black person on my course, whereas all my sister’s friends were predominantly black. And to the extent when we were not getting on, she would call me bounty boy, brown on the outside, white in the middle. I had both things. I had a great education, which is very different to my sister’s ability and experience that education jumped me out of what would have been a working class background. And also because I did well at school, I played rugby, I was in the first team of everything. I was able to transcend color, and almost have a quite a colorblind experience if you like because I did well.

And I remember to the extent that one time I had a board meeting for Metail, and one of the board members said, “Oh, the trouble with your exec team is that you’re all white middle class.” I thought that was very interesting. Especially as I was not white. Here are the other guys in the exec team went to comprehensives and were from very working class backgrounds. It’s interesting almost like we’d been co-opted and we’d done well enough that that’s the way in which we were seen. And my sister’s experience hasn’t been that way. She’s operated in a different sphere. And so I certainly, through my career, I’ve felt that more often than not, I’ve been judged by my capabilities and performance and reputation. And I haven’t been in that sphere where you get judged on race. So for example my sister, I can’t tell you the number of times my sister has gone to rent a property and everything’s been fine, and then suddenly the landlord gets the surname and then the property disappears. So that insidious racism which is an undercurrent.

Anil Stocker:

And they say that I think that they said that it happens also in recruitment as well, and also in fundraising in terms of who people take meetings with. So it sounds like it’s a bit more nuance. It sounds like class, and opportunity, and education is a clear way of getting out of potentially some of these pitfalls which you’ve described. And at the end of day, it wasn’t a race thing. Really. You an entrepreneur, you went to Cambridge, you start a business, but in other segments of our society, it’s a lot more explicit potentially racism or prejudice.

Tom Adeyoola:

So once you go to a great school, and you go to a great university, you jump up in terms of perceived class. And also you’re jumping into other networks where you’re then in the world of warm introductions, where somebody goes, “I vouch for that person”. So in other spheres of life where you’re applying for things, your network might not be that big or that great. And therefore your, basically, being judged exactly that. On your name, and your background, and your first impression. And whether they relate to you or not. Whereas if you have an introduction, there is a means of relating to that person. So coming back to the education thing. If you don’t know anything about people of another race, ethnicity, they are alien to you and they are different and they’re another. And in a job hiring mode, you’re always looking for how does that person connect to the company values.

How are they like me? Am I going to get on with them? Do I think they’re good? And if the more there are differences, the sort of almost the subconscious and unconscious biases around, “I don’t like that person.” So when you have an introduction or where you have somebody who vouches you, they jump you past that and leap you into a different sphere. And I think often that as you say, things cuts across both from class and it cuts across from race and the networks matter. The more you can have networks which bridge across the different groups the greater you have the opportunity for social mobility.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah. And I think that’s an important point because there’s many poor working class white people, who you could say the same thing about in some ways. And I think the race and class, people are quite confused as well. Like what is the point that people are trying to make here, but going back to what can be done at schools, I know that you’ve been recently writing letters to St. Paul’s a big independent school. What are you writing to them about?

Tom Adeyoola:

So I’m having been the recipient of a bursary, I’m actually funding about for a local black boy to be able to go to St. Paul’s because I feel responsibility to pass it on. And also the school was founded on the guiding principles that it would provide free education to 153 boys, no matter where they came from and no matter their background. So it’s underlying core principle is one of fairness and equal opportunity. So I’ve always felt that very strongly. So whenever I see that that isn’t quite right, I try and step in.

And I think there was a recent open letter, basically, challenging the school on the way in which it had taught history and English literature. And just over the overarching pastoral care around ethnic races. And there were some students who felt that they never got any idea of the contribution of black and ethnic minorities to British history until university and the real world. And that that needs to come in much sooner in the curriculum. So I’ve been now brought in to be part of trying to figure out what that means and what could possibly be done. So a working group for that.

Anil Stocker:

That’s interesting. Yeah. Because I remember we spent a lot of time learning about the middle ages or the medieval kings and queens. But not everyone studied the Second World War, or Winston Churchill, or the good and the bad things. There are bad things that he did that was not really covered.

Tom Adeyoola:

Exactly. And certainly with the empire and the colonial times, everything is built… We’ve gone through this whole Brexit period now where it’s a harking back to the great old days of empire and so on and so forth. But the bit that’s lost is how was that empire created and was that a good thing? What does that mean and what was the contribution to culture, and the wealth and how was it generated? And I think that part is lost in the way in which the debate is had. So it’s interesting to see how the Black Lives Matter campaign has really pushed up these concepts, which otherwise traditionally you could have walked past them and not really thought about them that strongly.

But understanding that there were these great people back then it’s a bit like being a Florence Nightingale. And then is it Mary Seacole, so who at the same time were in the Crimean War as nurses. I never knew about Mary Seacole until, probably in the last five years. So understanding all of these different interconnectivities of the different types of races countries, the African sub-continent, if only viewed through a slavery lens is always one of denigration. And sort of seen as a subspecies almost rather than an equal player in a lot of what was about ancient history.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah. And you’re uniquely placed because you come from both worlds. Your mixed race so you can see both sides of the argument. I made the point to my company I think in a post that, obviously, I’m not black, but I grew up with two very different cultures. And I think that does make you open-minded in the sense that you understand the pros and the cons from both sides.

Tom Adeyoola:

Yeah. And I think even more so, my mum is one of five and she came to the UK and married someone from Nigeria. Her sister, younger sister, went to Japan and married somebody from China and then her other brother adopted somebody from Colombia. So in my cousin group, and we’re all really close, we cover pretty much every continent. So the sense of understanding being interested in other cultures was there from the get go. And I really enjoy that. And I’ve always enjoyed traveling and going to see other cultures. And that’s actually was one of the things I really loved about running Metail was we had operations in India. I spent a lot of time in Korea, in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, US, Brazil being able to travel the world and see the best of what the world has to offer on its own terms, I think is a wonderful thing.

Anil Stocker:

Excellent. Absolutely. So as a business owner as a founder, as an entrepreneur, if you’re running your business now, what are the things that we can do to make a difference do you think?

Tom Adeyoola:

I learned a lot from running Metail, so inclusivity in many different lenses. So you have to start with good intentions and you have to start with values. What are your core values about how you want to organize the organization, and how you want stuff to happen? And then you need to take it forward from there and you need to be honest about, you’re always trying to learn and do things differently. So I always feel like I’m an inclusive person. I remember the day when we started working with local schools in Hackney for work experience. And we had somebody come in for work experience who was a Muslim girl, who wore a headscarf. We gave her a lot of confidence through that time, and then she ended up joining afterwards.

And then we had somebody else that she knew also join the company and learning through that experience, that a lot of the things that we thought were normalized working culture were non-inclusive. So they could not be in an establishment that only served alcohol. So if we’re going to have company meetings and they were just going to be at the pub, then we were excluding them for being a part of that. It could be in a place which did something else and served alcohol. That was fine, but reframing and rethinking how we did things. Taking out the booze element and making it inclusive, the pizza and beer, just talking about that is very male versus female. We started to look at our job descriptions and making them inclusive and unbiased. One thing I noticed during my time was I felt that a lot of the athletes as I call them the young, smart, upwardly mobile employees that you would get. Ones that reach marrying age and then family. We’d lose quite a lot of the women versus the men.

Small data numbers, but it felt like enough of a trend that there was a de-risking of career versus the men. And it was like, well, how do I fix this? We could basically make sure there was a proper support network for the women in the company earlier on, and actually ended up taking a step which seemed counter counterintuitive, but actually it was around ensuring that there was paternity leave. The only way that you would get equality, one of the important steps of equality in a career is that the male and the female take time off at the birth of a child. Because otherwise if it’s all on the mother then that career break dominates and it becomes too long.

And that puts them behind the male equivalent. So trying to basically equalize on paternity leave, I felt was an important step in trying to basically have a more inclusive and equalized male or female workforce. And by the end having started as a business, which is very male dominated because we were tech heavy in terms of developers, by the end we had at least 50/50 in terms of all of the management and up roles, which I was very proud of.

Anil Stocker:

That is impressive. That’s very impressive in the tech sector. To have 50/50 gender split. Of course, there’s a lot of emphasis now on the gender pay gap, a lot of companies reporting that externally to their boards. We report that to our board. Now we have a lot of work to do. Still I think if you combine finance and tech, fintech, that’s truly bad for gender pay gap in the sense that there’s a lot more men and women in those sectors. And you’ve started a petition, or you’ve been very vocal to support a new petition around the ethnicity pay gap. What is that?

Tom Adeyoola:

Yeah. That’s right. I think last year, well, during the Theresa May government, the gender pay gap reporting was launched and the next step was to launch then ethnicity pay gap reporting. And there was a consultation done, which was completed in January of last year, but the report never happened. So the current government that sort of been kicked into the long grass. And then through COVID-19 they suspended the mandatory part of reporting on gender pay gap reporting. So the direction of travel is worrying. So the progress should have been that ethnicity pay gap reporting was coming next. It’s not there, it’s not on the agenda. And possibly through the consultation maybe they established that the results would be almost too painful for the government. As in you would see there were very few of the ethnic minorities that had risen up to this more senior role.

So in showing percentage of workforce, a lot of the admin roles are included, which make companies look good. But actually when you look up the roles, they disappear in the same way that that’s been also true of women. So I think unfortunately that with the leveling up agenda, the government is focused first and foremost on how to resolve Brexit regions first. But at the same time, I think it’s important that we hold them to account. Ethnicity pay gap reporting was supposed to be coming. Hasn’t been coming. So the petition on making that mandatory and putting that back on the table, I felt was an important one, especially at this time of Black Lives Matter. And thankfully I think it reached the 100,000 signatory mark to ensure that it gets debated in parliament. So we’ll see what happens next.

Anil Stocker:

And it’s not just one ethnicity, right? It’s across different ethnicities.

Tom Adeyoola:

Across the list. Yes, exactly.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah. Yeah. That’ll be interesting. What’s your feeling, do you think there’ll be as big a problem as with gender?

Tom Adeyoola:

Yes, that’s definitely my feeling. We’ve just seen with their response to Black Lives Matter that Boris Johnson has called the Commission. I think it was the Blair government that said if there’s ever a thorny issue just to call the Commission. Because it kicks the can down the road and, hopefully, long enough that you won’t have to deal with it. I hate to be cynical, but that’s what I see at play here in the politics. So I’m concerned if you like about how the government is going to try and deal with this. The commission is the traditional way, but I’ve been quite excited by how Black Lives Matter. And some of the campaign that’s been happening over the last few years, certainly on climate change as well, have brought whole new techniques and have been hugely well engaged by general public. And really motivated general public that has had new impact on actually generating real change in a way that I think governments are on the back foot, and don’t really know quite how to respond.

In this moment, everybody’s at home, people are worried about jobs, et cetera. People have very much have learned over the last four years of Trump and Brexit, how to be reengaged and motivated, again, an activist. So I think if anything these issues are going to be with us for a while, and hopefully will lead to systemic change and not just tokenism.

Anil Stocker:

Absolutely, absolutely interesting. Very interesting times. And then in terms of your access to financing, are you investing in businesses that are predominantly led by ethnic minorities or what’s your strategy on helping?

Tom Adeyoola:

So the current strategy is basically to get the data on the performance of black and ethnic minority founders, which currently doesn’t exist. There is no dataset. And I think that has often been a bit of a laziness around ethnicity because ethnicity is actually a self determined categorization. So you decide what your own ethnicity is. However, when it comes to access to finance, I think perceived ethnicity matters. So what does the other person on the other table think you are and have the perception. So I think what we can do now is having spent 12 years working with computer vision and machine learning. What you can do now is basically you can take all businesses, you can go and find directors, companies, house and then you can go and scrape the internet to find images of set directors and connect the dots.

And in fact, the software to apply an ethnicity grading to an image is off the shelf. We’ve just seen that Amazon have put a moratorium on their image recognition software for the lease, but it’s off the shelf it works. We’ve got a team of master students working on it currently. And one of the master students in his interview just did it there and then with like… He did the code, and it’s like that’s the ethnicity of that person. So that dataset can be built. And I think what we hope to establish, and we were really surprised and encouraged that as we were pitching to do this research, there was a study released by the Kauffman Fellows Institute in the US using the same methodology of computer vision to find images. And it showed a 30% higher return to ethnically diverse founders over the average.

And it actually what I would expect. If there’s no market failure or structural biases then there should be the same average returns across gender, across race. And if there’s higher returns, it means that basically then there’s a whole bunch of founders… Only best ones get through. And there’s a whole bunch who could invest until we reach average returns. So the point there is to change the narrative. So all of the conversations you will have around race, and that feeling quite altruistic or charity-led of like, “Okay, let’s put some money towards sports and these sorts of things.” Going and finding out the performance, and understanding the pipeline of businesses. Again, a lot of people have prejudice views of all black businesses are hairdressers and barbershops. And it’s like, that’s not true.

So go out and get the data. And then I think you can change the narrative into one, which is about economic opportunity. So government, if you plug the gap in a diversity focused venture capital firms, so that they have enough money to invest in this many more founders, then you will get a above average return. And therefore it’s something you should clearly do because you will make money. You want to lose money. It’s an economic opportunity.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah, exactly. You’re playing on people’s rational thought because people almost see it as an arbitrage. If they see a black founder pitching for money, they know that a lot of people will just not fund this person statistically. So there is an opportunity there to almost be contrarian. It’s not good that it’s contrarian, but right now it is contrarian because a black founder might have to take X many more meetings, or has a greater percentage of being rejected. And ultimately on a national level, that’s also not productive. If you’ve got people not being able to do something because of prejudice or some hidden obstacle, it makes our overall economy less productive and it hurts productivity of the country. So that’s a very interesting way of going about it.

Tom Adeyoola:

That’s the way I’m trying to look at it. Information is power you can’t improve or impact anything you don’t measure. So do that and then show economic opportunity. And then anything left as a reason not to do something can only be related to some form of prejudice.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah, yeah absolutely. Wow. Very interesting. Really good. So you sold your business. We didn’t have a lot of time to go into it, but it was a technology so people can visualize clothes and how they fit into those clothes. And you ran it for more than a decade. How did you free up time to do all this interesting stuff, did you, you sold it?

Tom Adeyoola:

I think the unfortunate thing, or the frustration in the end, which led to thinking about selling was that we were still five years ahead of the industry. And when you start a deep tech business, we had 12 PhDs in the team we collaborated with Cambridge University, we had 20 granted patents and other 40 pending. The expectation was that the industry was going to catch up, and it was going to be innovation crazy and hungry, but the apparel industry was a declining one. So it was minus 2% year on year in the UK. And it was one of constant fire-fighting. So stakeholders would change. The focus was on reducing costs, not looking at opportunities to change and innovate with reference to consumer behaviour.

So it felt to me that we had a great company that could be exploited well, but it could only be exploited by big guys. And therefore, I didn’t think I could wait another five years. So it was a case of like it was the right time to sell the business. In hindsight, you could say now, “Oh, now we’re in a world where you’re not allowed to try clothes on anymore in the high street. I sold too soon. But anyway, que sera sera so we’ll see.

Anil Stocker:

I was going to say that now is the moment for that technology. Everyone’s buying everything online, but you never know how the world works. We could be back in the shop.

Tom Adeyoola:

I think the underlying vision and thesis was right. It’s always about timing and whether you can hit the timing perfectly so that you knock things out of the park. Certainly, I was on the board an early investor in LV, and I’ve been able to see there how a product that really hits the mark turns a business into a rocket ship. So it started with a product which was a perfect floor trainer, which needed a lot of education, which therefore ends up being quite a slow and steady wins the race growth curve. And then take all of that knowledge and expertise into completely transforming an existing product with a silent wearable breast pump that is 10 times better than the existing, and then demand exceeds supply. And you can’t make stuff fast enough like that. And then it’s harder to fail than it is then to succeed once you’ve…

Anil Stocker:

Yeah. Are you going to start another business or you’re going to keep doing what you’re… You’d be more of a mentor and an investor.

Tom Adeyoola:

I definitely have the desire and passionate to run something else again. I think having done Metail for 11 years, I felt it was a time to allow my wife to shine for a while. My wife was running the script team for The Crown and literally the week after I sold and exited Metail, she started 12 hour days doing that. And then unfortunately she lost her father in the autumn. So I felt quite like I was in a really good place being able to then support the family in a way that if it had been a year before, I wouldn’t have been able to because I was on the plane a lot and I just wasn’t around. So I’ve taken that luxury of being able to support… My wife has now just finished her stint on The Crown. So then it’s like, “Ah, back into projects.” I’ve got 12 projects on the go, which I’m excited about and engaged on pushing hard, but none of them I’m directly running and I’m definitely waiting to see what’s the right thing for me to directly run.

So it’s got to be something which has real positive impact and something that I can, that is going to be big enough. That’s one of those things. So once you run something before, I don’t want any of the pain elements that I had running Metail, I want to jump straight into the these are the bits that I loved about it and I want to get there quicker, bigger.

Anil Stocker:

Yeah. The pain is constant. So you might as well go for a big outcome rather than a small outcome. I think that’s what a lot of first time entrepreneurs learn when they look back at it. So it’s certainly something that I also think about is if you started a second business, what would be different and how you would do that differently. Well, listen, look, thank you very much, in typical fashion for this episode if you were to take stock. Taking stock of what you’re seeing, that’s going on right now in Black Lives Matter and in all the work that you’re doing, what’s the one thing that you hope will come out of all of this?

Tom Adeyoola:

I just really hope that the world tips towards building back better. I think this has been through this tragic time where so many lives have been lost to COVID-19. And we’ve had to spend so much time at home. And so many people who lost their jobs and so on and so forth. I just really hope that the time for reflection and thinking about what society is about really bears fruit as we come out. And we don’t go for a growth at all costs, but we really think about the proper existential crisis, which is saving the planet. And think hard about the proper right and fair distribution of income, and how we can potentially reduce inequality globally. So I hope, and I pray that that goodness will come out of this.

Anil Stocker:

Wow that’s a very poignant note to end on. So thank you for sharing that view and those words with us. So thank you Tom, for being the guest and we’ll stay in touch and good luck.

Tom Adeyoola:

Thank you Anil.

Anil Stocker View All

Co-Founder of MarketFinance

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