With a discernibly American twang, tainted softly-British, New York-born Russ Shaw is, perhaps, not who one might expect as London’s tech cheerleader on the world stage.
Although, perhaps his being here is testament to exactly why the capital, a hotchpotch of international talent and innovation, is worth shouting about so loudly. He’s the founder of both Tech London Advocates (TLA) and Global Tech Advocates. The groups are hive minds of leaders, experts, and investors in the field, each member connecting to form the most influential private sector group in tech.
Shaw has earned his stripes. With a career spanning 27 years, touching almost every sector, he has certainly seen a thing or two in his time. A decade at Amex was followed by setting up the first ever online share-dealing platform. The dotcom boom preceded roles from marketing to global innovation, at firms from O2 to Skype, and many in between.
Today, after seeing the government take solid steps when he sat on the Tech City Advisory Group, Shaw’s mission is to connect those who will shape our future, and ensure their voices are heard in halls of power.
“I sort of thought,” says Shaw, “‘government and City Hall are doing a very good job promoting tech – but where’s the private sector? Where’s the diverse group of leaders from the private sector, coming together to get behind this?’ Because ultimately that’s who will build the tech ecosystem – the founders, the entrepreneurs, the investors, the big corporates.”
Starting in 2012, unheralded enthusiasm combined with an explosive network effect has spread the TLA’s tentacles into every niche, nook and cranny of the London tech scene. First and foremost a resource and support network, then came working groups and events, banging heads together to discuss the preferred direction of policy. Shaw wasn’t prepared for how popular it would be. TLA grew international legs with haste.
“We launched the TLA India group to connect Bangalore and Mumbai and London. Then two years ago I went to Beijing and set up TLA China. Now we have groups in Africa, MENA, Latin America, Ireland, Russia, Turkey – Korea in the pipeline, it’s crazy.”
Most of us will have heard that “London is Open” since the Brexit referendum, but Shaw insists there is still much to be done. There is a distinct element of lobbying to what TLA does. Before last year’s mayoral election, he and others organised a tech hustings, armed with 13 policy recommendations for the winning candidate to implement. Sadiq Khan has adopted one – hiring Theo Blackwell as London’s first chief digital officer.
“We’re very glad that Sadiq has adopted that”, says Shaw, but “we’d like him to move a little bit more quickly on some of the other ones. There’s a lot more he can do in terms of promoting immigration, and visa policy with the government. Property, in terms of getting more accelerators, incubators, and coworking spaces, because property is so expensive. We need to keep pushing on broadband speeds and reducing the amount of broadband ‘not-spots’ that are around London. It’s getting better but it’s still an issue.”
Immigration, and resultant matters around access to talent, are a recurring theme throughout our conversation. The Brexit vote, if not handled carefully, could diminish London’s status as a global tech hub. As the inevitable overhaul to our immigration system approaches, ensuring that the best and brightest can come to these shores is paramount.
Regarding immigration, both Leave and Remain supporters had viable arguments: the former insisted that being more selective with who we let in will increase highly-skilled migrancy; the latter that restricting EU freedom of movement is like losing an arm. Politics aside, the reason that it is so important is twofold: the digital skills-gap is widening to a gorge, and Britain alone cannot presently fill it. The second is the message it sends to the world:
“If you look at the London tech community, one in five is from the EU, one in three is from overseas. So if we’re sending out a message that overseas talent is not welcome, or that we’re going to lose freedom of movement, which a lot of these companies have relied on, that’s going to impact the sector.”
On the digital skills gap, the UK is lagging – last year the British Chambers of Commerce highlighted that 75 per cent of UK firms reported a shortage in their employee base. The government, to its credit, says Shaw, has been fast to react. T-levels and a curricular focus on STEM are steps in the right direction, long-term.
But, he adds, a more pressing issue is the brutal lack of diversity in tech. Some 80 per cent of tech workers are white men – a statistic that makes eighties banking look a beacon of diversity. Addressing this will help to alleviate the issues around access to talent, he says.
“Shortage of talent and lack of diversity is the number one issue that will slow us down and impact our growth. We’re talking gender, black and minority ethnic. We’re talking LGBTQ, and we’re talking people with disabilities, all of the above. What are the things that we can encourage startups and scaleups to do, so that they’re trying to go into different types of recruitment pools?”
Shaw’s “personal view,” which he puts down to his background and heritage, is a combination of quotas and positive discrimination.
“I think it has to be both,” he says. “The Norwegians, for example, now say that half of their boards have to be 50/50 gender balanced. Sometimes you might have to go to that extreme to make a difference.
“The things that have been happening over the past 12 months, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, The Presidents Club. I think there’s a real paradigm shift that is happening out here, where people are just saying: ‘this has got to stop’. We need to make the change.”