Professor Trudie Lang is the Director and CEO of The Global Health Research Accelerator. Together with the board, she ensures it runs as a non-profit company. The company charges those who can afford it for the health research training and resources provided by The Global Health Network (e.g.: academic researchers in wealthy Universities, or Pharmaceutical industry researchers) in order to allow those who could not otherwise afford it and need it most (researchers in low-/middle-income countries), to access it. She refers to this as a ‘Robin Hood’ model; no profit is made and all income goes towards funding projects, training courses and workshops.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I have never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I guess I set up this social enterprise out of necessity. I started as a health researcher with interests in tropical medicine and diseases of poverty, found that as my academic work was cross-cutting and research enabling, it was impossible to fund, and so looked for solutions – sustainable income sources.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I’m as far from an ‘Alan Sugar’ type as possible. Because setting up this social enterprise in Oxford was difficult, I suppose it was important to have the confidence and tenacity to do it and keep going. I knew I needed to do something unusual and different, and stick at it because it was the right thing to do. The team at OUI (Oxford University Innovation) provided excellent guidance and support, but I had to take on being a trail-blazer. For me being an entrepreneur was about sticking at it and identifying what needed doing. So many times it was frustrating, and the easiest thing would be to give up. It was about knowing it was the right thing to do.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
When I talked to OUI about my ideas, it could have gone many different ways including turning The Global Health Network into a commercial entity that value and could be taken through the usual spin-out route. However, I was not trying to develop a commercial asset, but trying to find a sustainable mechanism for funding our aim of supporting the generation of evidence in places, communities and diseases where data is lacking to change health. In countries with the highest burden of disease, there is the lowest ability to do research. I knew what needed to be done about this: teach those who need it how to do research and give them cross-cutting skills. And so, the Global Health Network was set up to do that and it started off well but funding was really difficult. Whilst I knew it was working well, I knew I needed to find a different solution for funding.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1. Determination – Stick to your guns. If you know you have a good idea and it will work, stick to it.
2. Motivation – My motivation is to enable research to happen in places that need it. You need to from of clear motivation that gives you drive. For most companies it is the generation of profit, for me it was about supporting our work in diseases of poverty.
3. Bringing people with you – You need to find the right people to go through all the processes with, and keeping them close is really important. There were some very key people that ‘got it’ with my project.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
That its worked! Ultimately, the model has done what we wanted it to do and we are able to support the projects we want to. It’s really satisfying.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries trying to do an impossible job with little support.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
What would make a difference to your work? What do you need to make the change you are trying to make?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Being able to use the income raised through The Global Health Research Accelerator to run projects in target countries. We recently had a series of meetings in Brazil training people to do research – seeing it happen and that circular plan playing out is really satisfying.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
It was such a difficult journey setting up this social enterprise because the university wasn’t experienced in it and I didn’t have any idea either. It took a huge amount of my time, but I don’t know how I could have done it differently. The system needed to learn. Maybe I could have had more patience but I already had quite a lot of patience – it took 7 years. I’d like to have a thicker skin and not get so frustrated or take any difficulties personally.
How have you funded your ideas?
Normally with a start-up you need investors. But we didn’t need any investors because we didn’t need start-up funds. We were just setting up a new mechanism; a new vehicle to bring in funds for a service people were already using.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I don’t really know, but I think they are now setting up the systems to provide more support for social enterprises. The big things to sort out are having an accountant and legal team – it is important to find experts in the social enterprise area.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I haven’t experienced any deliberate sexism. But I’ve found that if you are being knocked back and trying to achieve something hard, it is important to not take it personally and to have a thicker skin. Being assertive in meetings is also important. I’ve had a lot of meetings with mostly men in the room who told me the system wouldn’t accommodate my ideas. It is easy to feel knocked and upset, and I think not having an emotional response is important. I’d also say don’t worry about how you are being perceived – be calm, confident and stick to your guns. You may think you are being perceived as a ‘shouty woman’, but if you are in a difficult situation you need to make your point clearly and strongly. And don’t stress about it later. I’ve found myself many times in mostly male meetings and struggled to make my point. For several years I was also the only woman in my department’s managing board, as well as being younger. Your voice needs to be heard so you shouldn’t be put off because of your difference. Don’t overthink.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Talking to other women in leadership roles is really important, and being aware of the differences women can bring – they are strengths! That should be recognised. There is something called ‘epistemic behaviour’, meaning the person with the loudest voice has the greatest influence, in a business or organisation for example. That’s a really typical male trait. The one with the loudest voice gets their way but that’s not necessarily right. Be aware of epistemic behaviour and don’t be quiet, speak up and be confident, don’t doubt yourself.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I don’t think they need to do anything necessarily different for women entrepreneurs. I think its more about opportunities for everybody. There are other minority groups that need supporting too. Supporting anybody who comes through is important.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I’d say the same thing I’ve said before – be confident, stick with your ideas, and make sure your voice is heard!
Any last words of advice?
Stick at it! Don’t take no for an answer!