June Angelides (Samos Investments)
June Angelides, MBE, started Mums in Tech back in 2015, while on her second maternity leave working for Silicon Valley Bank. June has since become a venture capital investor herself, at Samos Investments, and received an MBE for services to women in technology. Together we explored her experiences as a parent in tech and the considerations the industry needs to make to become more family-friendly.
Interviewed October 2020
Opening the Doors of the Tech World to Mums
Johannes Lenhard (JL): What was the goal of Mums in Tech?
Creating Space for Mums to Develop Tech Skills
JL: How did you come to start Mums in Tech. Was it based on your personal experience? What was the idea and what did you set out to do?
JA: I was on my second maternity leave, and I guess I had lots of time to think because I had a C-section for my second child. That resulted in two months of not really being able to go anywhere, with lots of time to reflect. I started to think about what I wanted my return to work to look like. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want it to be a repeat of what happened the first time. After having Adam, my first child, I had been on the venture debt team [at Silicon Valley Bank] and wanted to return to work three days a week, and was told that I couldn’t and that this specific role couldn’t be done part-time. That was a big blow to my confidence, because I loved that role; it was perfect and I enjoyed it. When I went back and did start part-time, I joined a brand-new team. That was really hard to accept, first of all, because I never expected that. I literally felt like a complete beginner. But then there were all these expectations that I knew certain things, not only because of a new role but also because as far as they were concerned, I should have come back as I left in terms of my up-to-date knowledge. But in my head, so much had changed and I had just devoted a full year to Adam, to being the best mum possible. I think baby brain had really set in and I felt a little bit uncomfortable and low in confidence.
I was very determined that this experience wouldn’t repeat itself with my second child. I wanted to make sure my brain was engaged the entire time, and I wanted to do something for me. At the time of reflecting on this, I had the realization that I was working with all these great tech companies, yet I wasn’t able to have these deep technical conversations with them, because I didn’t have the technical skills. So, still on maternity leave, I decided that I wanted to learn and see what it was like to build an app. I just wanted to go through the motions and see what it was like, so I went on Freelancer.com to hire a developer and I remember writing a message saying, “I’m looking for a developer, I’ve only got £150.” They laughed me off the site. I was completely naive, and way too optimistic about how these things work. So I decided to go one step further and wanted to learn about coding, because coding kept coming up in all of my conversations with tech founders and startups. I went on Codecademy, did a couple of classes, and very quickly realized that I wanted to learn with other people. I wanted a proper community. I wanted to have an instructor in front of me, where I could ask questions when I got stuck.
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At the time, I couldn’t find anything out there that was doing this, particularly not with a focus on my situation of being a mum. [There was Tech Mums, but they weren’t focused on programs where you could bring kids on site.] When you googled classes for mums on maternity leave, all you got were mummy and babies singing and dancing classes, or weaning classes, and I thought, wow, there’s nothing for us to learn. My initial thinking was to reach out to Amali de Alwis, who was CEO of Code First: Girls. I knew they were a girls’ coding school, so I asked if there was any chance we could do something for mums. She really inspired me to think about starting something, and also kindly organize us a space. She really helped me think through the curriculum, and shared the curriculum from Code First: Girls. I started Mums in Tech as the first child-friendly education program for mums. It was all about bringing the babies.
In my network, I had these amazing people who’ve done similar things before—starting a company, crafting a syllabus—and they helped me to do it. The most important thing, however, when crafting the program was: these are mums who are busy, who maybe have the school run in the morning, in the afternoon, worrying about how to feed this baby in the class—how do I design an educational syllabus on technology in such a way that it is inclusive, so that they feel comfortable, they feel safe?
Another thing that was important was childcare on site. I wanted mums to have their hands free during classes. It’s really hard trying to hold a baby and type. I wanted Mums in Tech to be three hours in the morning that mums could have to themselves, but with the babies. If they needed to feed, they could have the baby and then give the baby back to the nanny, but the baby is right there in the room, in a very relaxed space. I wanted people to feel that coming to Mums in Tech means we’re going to have fun, meet nice people, and learn.
For the first cohort, I had about 100 people apply and I whittled it down to 30. Very quickly, I realized that that was a lot of people to have in one room. I wanted to make sure that I helped these 30 people. We made sure that we had the right space in place—we ended up starting with meeting rooms at the Thoughtworks and M&S [Marks and Spencer] corporate HQ in central London—and most importantly, that the right people came to teach. I was expecting these engineers to give up three hours of their day and thankfully so many did, very willingly. We had the head of engineering at M&S, leading the program and in fact designing it with me. We would look at the M&S website during the program and they would show us live as bugs and interactions were happening; it was amazing to get a real feel for how they would deal with problems. Everything was very practical in this sense.
I think for the people teaching, it was fascinating for them, too, just to see so many incredibly talented women who also were looking for new opportunities. A lot of them were looking for new careers, so those conversations were happening. We were exploring whether it was possible to enable work experience for the women, which ended up being tricky at the time. That would have made the program even stronger—learning how to do a tech job and then immediately putting it into practice.
Success Stories of Mums in Tech
Erika Brodnock (EB): What were your biggest successes with Mums in Tech?
JA: If I had to tell you the story of one of my mums, the one that stands out the most is Sarah. Sarah was part of the pilot program, and as part of the pilot, we would go on field trips. So we went to the BBC, Makers Academy, and Tech Will Save Us. When she went to Makers Academy, she loved it there, and straight after the talk, she said to me: “June, I love it, I want to do it. I know now after that session that I want to code,” and she signed up there and then. For me, that was just so incredible; because she had been made redundant, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. She did the course while breastfeeding, and her husband did the first shared parental leave at Credit Suisse; he took six months off so that she could do the Makers Academy program. I just thought: wow, she is nailing it. She ended up building her own app and is still going strong while managing to raise investment (for a completely remote team of mothers, which I absolutely love).
Mums in Tech gave her a chance to have that taster, which was always the aim: to give mothers a taste of what it’s like to work in tech.
JL: What kind of activities did mums get involved in at Mums in Tech?
COVID, Childcare, and Other Challenges for Parents
EB: How would you say that COVID-19 is changing the landscape for mums? And what do we need to do about it?
JA: For as long as the schools are open, it’s okay, but I would say, when the schools were shut, it was hard. And I think many mums felt it the hardest, because they felt that homeschooling fell on them. Their work was suffering as a result and they felt like they had to overcompensate. So once the kids finally went to bed, they found that they were logging back on, and just working really ridiculous hours trying to show that yes, I have worked, even though the reality was they were so burnt out.
So for me, it was a constant balancing act. I had to be very upfront with my team and say, I’m not going to be able to work the usual hours; it’s just impossible. But we had that conversation very early, because I didn’t want to start disappointing them. I said, I will get as much done as I can, but really, in this time without our nanny, I’m going to have to spread out my work day and also my weekly schedule. Like me, I think a lot of people felt a massive sort of tug of war between guilt and their own expectations, and what they know they’re capable of delivering but can’t physically do, because there’s just not enough hours.
EB: COVID-19 obviously is only one kind of emergency, making being a mum in tech very complicated. What do you think needs to be done to better deal with such issues systematically?
JA: I think a lot of it is down to childcare. So it’s fine as long as we have schools open, and if not, I think employers should be asking the mums in their teams what they need to help reduce their workload, whether it be a nanny for a couple of hours a day with costs borne by the employers if the schools are closed. They should be offering childcare to parents so that they can work effectively, or they should tell them to feel free to reduce their day and do what they can, without cutting their pay.
EB: What about from a mental health perspective?
JB: I think everyone should be offered therapy. I don’t think I could have survived COVID-19 without my coach. She doesn’t realize how much of a therapist she’s been to me. Mental health needs to be prioritized because a lot of people are feeling isolated, on top of having this strange workload. On top of that, many people are working harder to distract themselves. I know I was doing it for a while, because I didn’t want to deal with this crazy environment that we find ourselves in, I was putting a lot more on my plate than I normally would. Because it was too much, I had really bad anxiety at the start of it. So I thought, “I’m going to distract myself as much as possible.”
In these situations, employers have a duty to make sure they are paying attention. My boss several times would say to me, “June, you’re not allowed to work on Friday, you’re not allowed to work on Monday. Don’t reply to any emails.” He was paying attention. Employers need to set an example and, for instance, not send emails at the weekend, which I really think is important. My employers don’t send emails to me on non-working days, and that helps me to switch off because I feel they are respecting my time and not putting unnecessary pressure on me.
The Key to Entrepreneurial Success for Parents
JL: So, independent of COVID-19, what are the key pieces of advice you would offer to an entrepreneur that either is a parent already, specifically a mum, or wants to become one. What is the key to success?
JA: The key is, you have to put yourself first. You need to give yourself time to regroup, because there is a lot going on. Self-care is so important. Make time for yourself, because the kids are around quite a lot. Particularly now, kids are not able to burn off as much energy as before, because all their after school activities have gone on hold to reduce transmission of COVID-19. So, when they go to sleep, give yourself that time to just be, be still, whether it’s yoga you do, or reading, or talking to friends, do something for you. I’ve started carving out 30 minutes to do something that makes me happy every day. I have blocked it in my diary, from 8:30 to 9 a.m. Sometimes it’s tidying up my room, because that will make me happy. Sometimes it is something as silly as just listening to music or dancing in my room, or it might be yoga, or it might be listening to a book, or even washing the dishes that I put off. But it’s something that will make me reduce my stress in some way.
Making VC More Welcoming to Mums
EB: Now, you have switched to become a venture capital investor recently. What is it like to be an investor as a mum?
JA: As an investor, you constantly have this fear of missing out. At the moment, we don’t have the usual events that we might go to, to speak to entrepreneurs in person. So, we’re really relying on maintaining connections to other investors or sources of deal flow. I’ve had to be creative about how I maintain that and about what channel works, [such as] having phone calls instead of Zoom calls, because there’s a lot of Zoom fatigue, and maybe having a walk while taking the call. I am trying to be super flexible so I’m not burnt out by having ten calls a day. I think it’s a time where we all have to be a little bit more flexible and open to meeting people through various channels, including Instagram, which is different. People are coming from various channels and I think just be very open to that idea that these opportunities can come from anywhere.
JL: To finish off, let’s briefly talk about the responsibility or at least the influence that investors have. How do you think VCs can support making the tech industry a bit more family and mum friendly?
JA: The best thing you can do as an investor is help founders feel comfortable; be your authentic self. Hopefully, an investor is a nice person that creates an environment where the founder feels safe. This feeling can also come from you being vulnerable as well. For example, I’ve had meetings where people are pitching, and I get my kids coming into the room, and I don’t send them off. They’re there and I get them to say hello. It’s about just being very normal about it. I also always start the conversation with “how are you?” Because it’s more than a transaction, in my opinion. You’re building a relationship, and you want to get to know them. I’ll often carry on the conversation on WhatsApp, I’ll follow them on Instagram, get to know them as people, but bring that vulnerability into the conversation early, and find that human connection.