Business Leader chats with Amali De Alwis MBE about her career in tech

Amali de Alwis MBE

Amali de Alwis is CEO at Subak, the world’s first not-for-profit accelerator that scales climate impact through data, policy and behaviour change. Prior to this, she was Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups UK and CEO of Code First: Girls. Outside of the day job, Amali is a Board member at Ada National College for Digital Skills, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and Festival UK 2022. She was a founding member at Tech Talent Charter and was awarded an MBE in 2019 in the New Year’s Honours list for Services to Diversity and Training in the Tech Industry. She spoke to Business Leader about her career in tech.

You’ve had an extensive career in tech – can you tell me about your time as CEO for Code First: Girls?

Code First: Girls (CF:G) was about helping to drive effective change in an industry that is not only one of the fastest-growing, but one that I still find one of the most exciting – technology! Especially as there is no such thing as a ‘non-tech’ business these days, making sure that the industry has access to the best talent, and that all individuals can access these exciting and well-paid opportunities, is critical.

I came in as CF:G’s first CEO to build out the company, and had the privilege of growing it into a multi-award-winning organisation that not only taught tens of thousands of women across the UK to code for free, but also supported organisations – ranging from Bank of America and Goldman Sachs to Vodafone and BT – to hire the best tech talent.

It was also my first foray into mission-led companies – specifically those that generate revenues to drive growth whilst maintaining a strong mission focus.

Can you tell us about your decision to join as Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups UK and what you achieved when you were there?

I moved to Microsoft because I wanted to share my experiences of building start-ups and developing growth propositions to help other start-ups grow, as well as to learn more about SaaS and AI sectors.

Whilst there, I led programmes and teams that helped young tech businesses – primarily innovative start-ups and scale-ups operating in the B2B SaaS space to grow. The support provided included help with their technology, funding, revenue, and company building. We also had a fantastic ‘AI for Social Impact’ programme that supported companies with a social mission who utilise AI to solve society’s biggest issues.

It was a great experience, and I had an incredible opportunity to get to know thousands of founders and companies, understand their growth challenges, and develop programmes that could practically and pragmatically help them to overcome those challenges.

How has female entrepreneurship evolved in recent years?

Female entrepreneurs have always been part of society. Whilst there’s still a long way to go before they have equity in access and equal recognition of their achievements, there are successes to be celebrated.

Looking at recent years, seeing the successes of individuals such as Poppy Gustafsson of Darktrace, Sharmadean Reid of Beautystack, and Maria Raga of Depop is really inspiring. It’s a shame we’re still not seeing the deserved levels of funding going to female founders (only 2.2% of funding goes to female-founded businesses), however we are seeing the growth of organisations like Angel Academe, WeAreTheCity, and Female Founders Fund to invest and profile female founders, as well as greater awareness of the huge opportunities being missed by only investing in a biased way.

What more can be done to support women in tech and entrepreneurship?

Fund, train, and profile – that’s really what it comes down to. We need to publicly champion the women who are already working in tech and entrepreneurship, so that they are seen by investors and clients, as well as by younger women looking to enter the space. We then need to offer accessible training and support networks for those who are new to tech entrepreneurship, to help them develop as leaders and learn how to raise capital.

Lastly and most importantly, we need to fund them. It’s easy enough for those who fund to declare themselves as allies, but all that does is prove they want to be seen as decent human beings. If you are a funder, skip the lip service and put your money where your mouth is. Hunt down and then do first and follow-on investments in female founders and help them shift from being minority underdogs to major players.

You’ve recently taken up the role of CEO at Subak – can you tell me about the company and your goals as its leader?

Subak is a global accelerator and climate data cooperative that funds and scales tech start-ups and individuals who are tackling climate change through data. We were set up with the toughest climate challenges in mind, and the recognition that solving those issues at speed would need us to link tech, data, policy, and human behaviour and collaborate across the public, not-for-profit, and corporate sectors.

We believe that if one person solves part of the puzzle, we should share that knowledge so all sides can solve climate issues quicker, and we support this by offering equity-free funding, growth and mentorship programmes, as well as links into leading climate and tech sector experts. That’s why Subak’s members and fellows are, by definition, not competitors – they’re collaborators.

Taking on the role of CEO at Subak has almost been an amalgamation of several of the roles I’ve done in the past. From my early career as a quant researcher through to building a start-up and then developing programmes to help tech start-ups and scale-ups grow, all of these roles have helped me to understand not only how to build and scale financially-robust tech and mission-led companies, but also how to formulate this to help others do the same.

Looking to the coming year, my focus will largely be on driving growth and impact. We recently launched Subak’s first international node in Australia, and we’ll be launching another international node in the coming 18 months. Additionally, we’ll be onboarding our next accelerator and fellows cohorts in February, and raising a further fund as a regranter to enable us to help even more early-stage, not-for-profit climate start-ups. With climate change being the most critical issue we face as humanity today, it’s too urgent to move slowly and not commit to
as a first priority.

Regarding climate change – can businesses really make a difference?

I believe that the tech industry, and all of us as businesses and individuals, need to start paying back the cost of our successes. We have built so many amazing things, but often without considering the true impact of that growth, or acknowledging our responsibility to the communities and environments we operate in.

This is where tech can have a huge impact by supporting the funding, research, and technological development of entities tackling climate change, and by sharing data, knowledge and tools.

This sharing of data and resources is particularly critical. We have a lot to do in a desperately short amount of time, and for those who continue to focus only on themselves and hoard data and resources, this won’t only be to the detriment of the planet, it will be to the detriment of their businesses as well, with costs going up, resources becoming more scarce, increased inequality, and ultimately, the slowdown and regression of global progress and prosperity.

Your senior team is made up of industry-leading individuals – is this key to building a team that can make a real difference?

I am beyond lucky to work with a team of such talented and motivated individuals, who not only are passionate and knowledgeable about climate change, but who also understand tech start-ups, are willing to iterate and innovate at speed, and know-how to support others doing the same. It’s really critical when trying to address an issue as big as this, as it means I can trust the team to steer me in areas that I’m not an expert in and validate our strategies as knowledge leaders in their space.

I also have the most incredible Board and advisors – from Baroness Bryony Worthington who was the lead author on the UK Climate Change Act, to Michelle You who co-founded Songkick, and Steve Crossan who was Head of Product at DeepMind. These incredible individuals across climate, tech, and entrepreneurship are helping us figure out how to operate and grow effectively.

What makes a good/bad leader?

I think a good leader is someone who can create an ambitious vision for the future of a company, and then work with their teams and stakeholders to deliver to that goal in a conscientious way. They are empathic and fair, they keep an eye on how the world changes, and consider the impact of their business on the world around them. It’s not an easy balance and there are often hard decisions to make and challenges to overcome, but good leaders anchor their companies to overcome those issues and take responsibility for the outcome – both good and bad.

Bad leaders, in my mind, are those who get consumed by any previous success in a way that leads to arrogance, ignorance, hubris and short-sightedness. Those who chase success at the cost of their teams or the societies they operate in, who let their own biases and prejudices lead them, and those who forget to listen.

What are your future goals?

This is just the beginning for our team at Subak! Our community has set some ambitious goals to help mitigate climate change, and we’re here to help them achieve that. The global need for innovative solutions has never been more critical, and I believe Subak is uniquely positioned to have a meaningful and global impact on climate change by bringing together tech, policy and consumer behaviour, and helping people find the answers to the biggest climate problems.

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