Next in our blog series celebrating International Women’s Day and our partnership with Tech Nation, we talked to Alexis Smith, founder and CEO of IMGeospatial.
Nominated for Tech Nation’s Rising Stars 2.0, IMGeospatial is an automated business intelligence pipeline which provides the insurance and water utilities industries with valuable business insights. The company uses AI in unique ways to process and distribute data, revolutionising the way these industries work.
Alexis is not only the CEO of IMGeospatial but an exec board member of the World Geospatial Industry Council, Digital Champion of the UK Water Partnership and a Senior Expert for UK Governments Natural Environment Research Council (NERCs) Digital Expert Panel. We spoke to her about her career, dealing with male dominated industries and how women can become more involved in tech.
How did your professional journey begin?
I’m a dyslexic dropout! I was at university, but I already knew what I wanted to do. I was frustrated with the speed of learning and that people were there to have a jolly. So I made a deal with myself; I would drop out of university, get contacts and work as hard as I could in nightclubs and events, then when I was meant to graduate, I would start my first business.
I stood outside a nightclub for two weeks giving out flyers at 2:00 AM, in the freezing cold, for free. Whenever they wanted me there. Within about six months, I oversaw all the flyer teams and promotion of the club. Over a few years I ended up organizing all the events outside of Europe for the Ministry of Sound!
When I was meant to graduate, I started my first business; organizing bands and DJs tours. When I decided that I was getting a bit too old for that, I opened a shop in London; we sold salads, sandwiches and soups. Eventually I had eight shops and a factory. We grew that business, and then sold lots of it. I then took a year off before trying to develop other businesses like a food app.
So how did you go from nightclubs to data and AI?
In 2014 I saw flooding on the news; I was amazed we all have iPads and we’ve apparently gone to the moon, but we can’t stop water from getting into the house.
I was massively into Chemistry at school, I love things like quantum mechanics. Initially I was going to study aeronautical engineering at university, and, flooding uses the same concepts and equations.
I started reading every single paper I could find about water and engineering to understand the science behind it. I came up with a way to protect houses: but soon realised people don’t want to spend thousands protecting their houses from flooding, because the insurance company is going to pay!
We decided to sell to infrastructure instead, as a clever way of pivoting the business. But what these people wanted was a way to understand the potential pluvia hazard of their infrastructure. Now, being a dyslexic and a dropout, I literally had to look it up in a thesaurus and a dictionary, but it turns out, it was a very similar problem to what we were working on. We were working on early warning systems for flood protection at the same time as protecting houses.
So, we pivoted, that’s how IMGeospatial was born. I went from a dyslexic dropout to winning World Geospatial Startup of the year.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I’m just a bad employee, I think is the honest answer. I would be a nightmare if I had to work for somebody. I don’t think anybody would have the patience to employ me, so it made sense to set myself up. Even when I was at primary school, I was selling sweets to people. I’ve always been involved in selling stuff so it’s not a massive shock. Business is business; it doesn’t matter if you’re putting on nightclub events, selling food in a shop or you’re doing science, geospatial and AI they are the same.
What do you think have been the biggest highlights in your career?
With IMGeospatial, the biggest highlight so far has been being asked to be a senior expert for NERC because I’m helping shape the doctoral students and what they’re going to research in the future. We can help build systems that are going to have ramifications for decades.
NERC run DREAM, which is the centre for doctoral training in Data, Risk and Environmental Analytical Methods for Cranfield, Newcastle, Birmingham, and Cambridge universities. All the other experts are professors, sirs and dames…then there’s me, which is funny because I didn’t go to university! But I do have to keep a dictionary handy.
What skills do you think you need to become a successful leader in business?
The main thing is do not give up. Just keep trying, because you’re going to fail, and you’re going to fail, and you’re going to fail but you must pull yourself up. It’s how you deal with failure that’s important. We have a saying at work, it’s that we don’t have problems, we have opportunities. Every problem is an opportunity. It’s something we can all learn from. Something positive will come out of it. It’s like running a marathon, you just have to keep going.
How do you manage to pull yourself back up after a failure?
The main thing I do is cry and get it out of my system. Try not to do it in front of other people though, because people assume it’s the end of the world, when you sometimes just need to release that emotion. I also run!
The other thing is, I talk to people. Everyone runs into problems. Anyone who says they started a business and it was all fine is lying, it doesn’t work like that. Very few people just come up with an idea and make loads of money. I’ve got a business coach and some amazing executive directors. They are incredibly balanced, calm and will talk through problems with me, giving me another point of view.
What characteristics do you look for when hiring someone?
I look for somebody different to everybody else. Traditionally you’d make sure they all fit in but it’s important for data and AI businesses like us to have different ways of looking at a problem, different personalities and different attributes. Whether that’s people who might be depressed or have autism, people who are dyslexic like me, or people from different religions, nationalities or sexualities. Just different people.
Do you find that diversity is better for your company culture?
We’re all on the same page trying to help people and using tech to do good things. It’s important that everybody has those core basic values and that everyone’s opinion is really listened to. We actually do listen to people, because I don’t know everything; no one knows everything. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer, because different people have a different point of view.
But it’s not easy, you can imagine you have to be quite careful. However, I think the positives massively outweigh the negatives in the long term.
Do you find it hard working in a traditionally male dominated industry?
It’s horrendous. It’s such hard work. I’m in tech, which is one underrepresented industry, but I’m also working in the water utilities and insurance sector. I’ve got two other massively male-dominated areas on top.
At the start, in a room full of guys people used to ask me, “Who built this?” I’d say I came up with the original idea of how the AI works and they’d reply; “Yeah, but who actually came up with the idea?” That’s happened not once… That’s happened regularly.
It is changing, things are progressing and going in the right direction but it’s a constant struggle and you do have these massive barriers. There are still people that will assume because you’re a woman, you’re not clever. It basically comes down to that, and if you prove that you are clever, they hate it!
What do you think businesses can do to encourage more women to come into tech?
Understand you don’t have to be at a keyboard coding to be in tech. When people think about working in the tech industry, they think everybody codes. I can’t code, I can read it but I’m no good at writing it!
Being in tech doesn’t mean that you must be a certain way. It gives you superpowers. It gives you the ability to change things that you want to change, because everything is based in tech now. If you can come up with ideas and understand things from a different point of view, you have such an advantage over other people. Being the underrepresented women in tech gives you a massive advantage because you do see things in a different way.
Do you find a big responsibility as a woman in tech to be a role model?
There’s no conscious thought around wanting to be a role model. I’m happy to go through the pain and try to make things fairer for everybody. Not just for women, for every minority.
I don’t want to be a role model. I want to do it for other people, with amazing ideas, who don’t want to jump in and become an entrepreneur because they don’t think they can. If we can make that journey easier so people can to grab hold of their ideas and do things without having negativity around them, the world will be a much better place.
Talent Works has produced an employer’s guide which aims to help STEM businesses to attract and retain female candidates. Plus, you can find out more about the current state of women in STEM industries with a fact sheet put together by our Director and Shareholder Jody Robie.