Following an academic and professional career spanning the sciences, law, banking, and business, Lily is now the Head of Strategy at Arctoris, the world’s first fully automated drug discovery platform, allowing her to bring her previous expertise and passions together.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I went to Wellesley College, just outside of Boston, which is an all-women College where I became very interested in bioethics and the intersection of science and philosophy. However, I realised after a few years of pipetting alone in a lab that I did not see myself pursuing a career as a bench researcher, rather, my talents and interests lay in applying the scientific method in “the real world.” So I worked as a business analyst in Mergers and Acquisitions law in New York for two and a half years, discovered I was quite interested in business, and transitioned in banking where I developed a love for FinTech. Being particularly interested in innovative banking models, I became fascinated with the British financial regulatory environment and decided to move to the UK for my MBA. As part of that programme I got the chance to work as a strategy consultant for Arctoris through a Creative Destruction Lab placement, which was a revolutionary moment for me and my career trajectory. CDL made entrepreneurship less of an abstract idea, and by letting me be in the room, the idea of working with startups and potentially starting my own venture became a real possibility. I enjoyed working with Arctoris’ founders and appreciated the startup’s mission to enable great scientific research through automation, something I had contended with and would have enjoyed myself in the lab. When the opportunity arose to keep supporting the founders to develop their strategy, build solid foundations for their activity, and grow their startup, I took it!
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think before being in the room where these things happen, I had a vision of entrepreneurship as being these mysterious people with ground-breaking ideas, when in fact entrepreneurship is much more about discovering opportunities to improve how things are done and to monetise those solutions based on a chosen business model.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Entrepreneurs need to be organised, not only in telling their story but also in ensuring they have all the pieces of their puzzle at the ready when required. They need to be flexible in their approach and take feedback and criticism, whether that is from their peers, investors, or customers, in order to pivot to producing the right product or service for a distinct and demonstrable need . And finally they need to have courage, the courage to take their idea forward and try it out, even if it isn’t at a perfect finalised stage.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Compared to working in big companies as I had done previously, startups are unencumbered by bureaucracy, which is very freeing and allows us to try different things and create our own playbook.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have been very inspired by the Said Business School Professors I met and was taught by during my MBA, but also by the various mentors and speakers we were introduced to during the year who were able to share their insights with us. In Oxford specifically I have appreciated the resources provided by the Entrepreneurship Centre and Enterprising Oxford, as well as various Colleges and Societies across the University.
That said, the individual in entrepreneurship that inspires me most is Sallie Krawcheck and her Ellevest initiative, which highlights the investing gap for women and is particularly devoted to increasing financial inclusion in innovative ways.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Having worked in highly regulated environments in the past, I have found the absence of bureaucracy very satisfying. I have also really appreciated the strength of support networks when it comes to startups, for example, the support we have received through being a part of the Tech Nation Applied AI 2.0 stream. Compared to working in larger organisations, I have found that people are very willing to share their experiences and give advice if I mention I am experiencing a problem at work, something they might not be as open to doing in other contexts. The most satisfying moments are when various aspects of the Oxford ecosystem come together, where people from various aspects of the town and county come together to make something larger than ourselves, for the greater good, whether that be a business connection or a mentorship opportunity.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I have learnt a lot during my time at Arctoris, mostly around communicating with diverse teams. While large companies often have to contend with groupthink, the diversity of our teams and of the people within these teams have meant that differing opinions often come up. This , while very positive, has been a challenge for stakeholder management. But what this has allowed me to do is find ways to communicate with various teams in different ways, understanding what our science or marketing teams might respond to and translating my message accordingly. In the startup world specifically, one also has to get comfortable being uncomfortable, especially as roles might be more ill-defined at the beginning, and so joining a “team” rather than a “company” has been really important in my experience. It is all about the people.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is a vibrant ecosystem where everyone knows everyone and it is very easy to meet people who have an impact ranging from the local to the international. However, the dissemination of information about various initiatives related to entrepreneurship could be improved, as well as ensuring these opportunities are shared in diverse networks.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
For new entrepreneurs I would say subscribe to the Enterprising Oxford newsletter, it is a goldmine! I would also recommend bootcamps and freely available advisory materials such as those from Y Combinator. I also highly recommend books such as Professor Hellmann’s and Marco Da Rin’s Fundamentals of Entrepreneurial Finance, which takes one through the financial process of founding a startup, from ideation to exit. It really gives you a behind-the-scenes look at what that might be like if taking your own idea forward. I also recommend listening to podcasts such as How I Built This, Future Proof from Kantar and SBS, and 20 Minute VC by Henry Stebbings. All are great sources of inspiration and guidance from people who have done it and are willing to share their learnings and stories.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Although I can see that that things are not yet fully inclusive of diverse people and lifestyles, I do not think any of the challenges I have experienced myself have been related to being a woman in this sphere, in fact people have been highly encouraging during my journey.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
As well as the resources listed above, there is an American non-profit called the Forté Foundation which offers an MBA Launch program aimed at women wishing to pursue an MBA. It guides them through the process of choosing their course and applying over 10 months in the year before applying to MBA programmes. I myself have very much benefitted from their support when I was taking the GMAT exam and applying to Oxford.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
We could really expand on the provision of bootcamps and non-degree training that women can follow alongside their work or course. We can also do more when it comes to challenging assumptions of eligibility. From personal experience, people usually assume that as a woman I do not know how to code, but in fact I did quite a bit of coding during my studies, so we need to reframe our thinking and be careful about how we evaluate women before they join and when they work in our companies.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I have two main pieces of advice. The first, for aspiring entrepreneurs – just do it! We see many entrepreneurs try, fail, and move on to try new things. So although I encourage you to do your research, be diligent, and be careful in your partnerships for funding or else, do not be so risk averse that you do not give it a shot. And do not be afraid to reach out and talk to people who have gone through this process themselves for encouragement and inspiration. The second, for aspiring startup employees, trust in your team and your gut. Sometimes things will feel right and sometimes they just won’t, so trust in yourself and those around you that you will know what to do.