“When you go into the tech industry, there is this rulebook people tell you you should read before launching a start up - The Lean Startup, which is like this bible of how you have to take quite an aggressive and iterative approach to building your company,” Kesang explains, as she describes her journey into the technological sector. “I have had conversations and met advisors because I've had this bloody book out on the tube - it's like a little gang. In hindsight, while that book does provide the fundamental starting points for what I’m doing, I don’t fit the criteria so I've gone against that rulebook now.”
Sitting in a coffee shop in East London - a cafe that acts as the entrance to her office and befits the aesthetics of a cool, startup company - Kesang nervously toys with the sleeve of her jumper, all the while maintaining strong eye contact and giving direct answers throughout the interview. Though she appears babyfaced and laid-back in manner, she speaks with the status of someone establishing themselves as part of the next generation of women claiming space in the tech industry. At a time when most young girls are still mapping out their adult identity, Kesang had raised investment and launched her first app (a music sharing platform) at only 21 years old during her final year of university, where her involvement in the Entrepreneur Society exposed her knack for business. “That was the first time I realised I could do something for myself rather than be forced into these institutions that want you to give your arm and leg - the best parts of your life - for their companies,” she recalls. Although it folded (“it was a cool idea but it was just a cool idea, there was no thinking behind it”), Kesang learned what not to do and the importance of first-hand experience, which she places higher value on than simply “learning from what other people have written in books.”
AN INTEREST IN TECH
Crediting her parents for her entrepreneurial spirit, she remembers her childhood growing up in Oxford, raised by a Tibetan mother - an orphaned refugee who escaped the 1960s Chinese invasion of Tibet to later become a UK actress - and a Scottish, mathematician father, as being very academic. “I never thought that I could do something creative,” says Kesang, a reasoning she blames on the one-dimensional presentation of intelligence and creativity by institutionalised education systems. However, whilst creative expression did not initially come naturally to her, a move to London to study Computer Science and Business at UCL prompted the development of a passion for abstract ideas and differing schools of thought, as she became enamoured by the concept of app development. “I actually started to really love computer science. It was something that I realised was creative and is a form of expression,” she enthuses, visibly lighting up at the thought of technology’s scope for artistry.
And yet, she was met with naysayers, who struggled to grasp the connection between her appearance and her chosen career path. “People act surprised like, ‘oh, you do tech?’ ” she explains. “Going into investment raising meetings can be a struggle as people do generally look down on you, especially because they associate the way I look as not being for the job role I've got. It's only when they see credentials, such as having a First from UCL, that they start to think, ‘okay she's got something to back her up.’”
With her striking features, one would be correct in assuming that Kesang can and often does double-up as a model, as recently featured within an ASOS campaign. However to ringfence her within that label would be an underestimation of her abilities. Although she admits that initially the reoccurring typecasting might have previously brought her to tears (she describes meetings where VCs have laughed her out of the room, as they questioned her worth to projects), it now fuels a competitive fire within her to not only prove her strengths, but also break the mould. “I needed people to tell me that I couldn't do it to make me prove that I could. When you’re raising investment, you have to know you’re the shit because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”
THE PROBLEM WITH THE TECH INDUSTRY
Sadly, Kesang’s story is commonplace for women seeking funding for their startups, where research from Barclays and the Entrepreneurs Network have found females founders to be 86% less likely to raise venture capitalist funding than their male counterparts in the UK. There is still a persistent attitude within Western culture that assumes women do not belong in the technological industry, evident through recurring accounts of gender inequality and misogyny emerging from Silicon Valley, where even the tech giants, such as Uber, Google and Twitter, have recently battled gender discrimination lawsuits. Only last year, a Google software engineer was caught, within an internal memo, attributing the lacking representation of women in the tech sphere to a difference in biology between the sexes, assuming women to be genetically ill-suited to coding. “We are in very male dominated industry and I think it's important to break down barriers,” Kesang notes. However, she is quick to add that this is not representative of all experiences working in tech, recalling several instances where she has found her respective colleagues to be inclusive because “when you're talking to a developer you're generally speaking to a username anyway, so you don't know the race or gender of who you’re talking to.”
“if you look at the way the world is going, technology is the biggest overshadowing factor. So why don’t more women have access to it? It’s all about power.”
Nonetheless, she is aware of the disparity between employment rates in tech, and despite a significant push to highlight gender inequality within the sector, the issue prevails. “If you look at the way the world is going, technology is the biggest overshadowing factor. So why don’t more women have access to it? It’s all about power.” Careers within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are viewed as some of the most lucrative jobs available today and yet from the University of Roehampton have found that both girls and ethnic minorities are less likely to study these subjects in UK schools, with only 20% of girls and less than 5% of ethnic minorities taking Computer Science at GCSE.
As these numbers continue to drop into higher education, they raise important questions around the depiction of technology within Western education. “There’s this stigma around it - that you’d be sitting in your Mum’s basement, when actually you could be sitting in a really nice coffee shop because you are on a high salary, working for Facebook like a boss.”
Not every girl will have an passion for a career in tech, however, it is interesting that the international balance of female participation in computing subjects is more favourable, where girls often make up half of the codings classes in countries such as Nigeria, Malaysia and India. Considering the research from the Kauffman Foundation, that has found women-led technology companies to achieve a 35% higher return on investment, there is a necessity for the tech industry to evolve the “male computer geek” archetype into a more inclusive standard. “I think there's a new in shift in attitudes towards tech, where more women are interested in it now, as a result of better accessibility,” Kesang comments. “I just feel like we won’t see the fruits of that come in for a couple of years time, as the education system changes.”
Irrespective of any adversity within the industry, Kesang continues to play by her own rules. Now, at 25, she launches her latest venture, Trippin, an app she envisions as the ultimate travel platform. Along with her co-founders, Yasmin Shamir and Sam Blenkinsopp, Kesang has modelled the idea for the app off the typical music library design, describing it as the “Spotify of travel”, where users can save trusted travel recommendations from friends. Yet her approach to the development of this app is decidedly different from the first time round. By rethinking the methods of communication between customer and company, Kesang is altering the protocol for running a tech organisation. “We aren’t creating anything innovative in the tech realm but we are making what is already out there better,” she declares. “What a lot of tech companies don't have right now is a brand. You can have the best product that solves all your users’ needs but if you're not communicating with the customer in the right way then they are not going to use it. That’s where most tech companies fail.”
Read the rest of the interview in POSTSCRIPT’s Issue 1.