Closing Tech's Untapped Potential Gap: Building an Equitable Startup Ecosystem

The numbers are in — last year, the UK’s tech sector ranked number three globally with a valuation of over $1 trillion/£826 billion, solidifying its status as one of the world’s digital giants. Amidst widespread anxieties of a post-Brexit funding downturn, British tech has proved itself remarkably robust.

But this should not be an excuse for complacency. Whatever market volatility lies around the corner, the British ecosystem will rely first and foremost on its personnel to weather the storm. With stark representation gaps persisting across gender, race and socioeconomic lines, right now our talent pool continues to be far too homogenous. Women and ethnic minorities are notably absent in British tech. Only 28% of the UK tech workforce identify as women, while ethnic diversity almost halves in senior roles from 25% to 13%.

While DEI is under attack in certain quarters, notably in the US, research clearly indicates that harnessing the potential of a diverse workforce directly correlates with productivity, revenue and employee well-being. 

Now is not the time to change course. It’s the time to lean in — because redoubling our efforts will mean better workplaces, better businesses and a better society. 

Biases Shape Access and Progression

One of the most glaring instances of the diversity issue is the lack of representation in technology leadership roles, which remain dominated by white men. While this

has received some media attention - including last year’s “milestone” that there are finally more female CEOs than CEOs named John running S&P 500 companies - most coverage hardly scratches the surface of the structural extent of the problem and the unconscious biases that stand in the way of its resolution. 

Take funding distribution, for example, where stark disparities still plague the British ecosystem. Just last year, women-led companies secured a mere 3.5% of all equity funding into UK businesses while their male-led counterparts secured 85.1%. The picture only worsens when examining funding allocation along racial lines, where between 2009 and 2019, less than 0.4% of all VC money went to Black founders.

This inhibits companies from gaining the broader range of experiences and perspectives that can make the difference between boom and bust. Research from a 2020 report from McKinsey found that diverse teams were 36% more successful than their more homogenous counterparts; meanwhile, the difference sat at 48% when gender-diverse C-suites were compared to more homogeneous ones. 

Normalising Non-Traditional Pathways

So, how do we do better? The first step is redefining our narratives around what constitutes a “successful” tech entrepreneur, which requires highlighting stories that exemplify non-traditional pathways. This is a crucial step towards building a larger, more inclusive tent. By showcasing individuals who have succeeded through diverse routes, British tech can inspire people from disadvantaged backgrounds to envision entrepreneurial career paths for themselves. And pivotally, when they do become entrepreneurs, the next step is ensuring they have adequate support systems in place.

That’s where organisations like OneTech come in. Established in 2018, OneTech is a UK-based non-profit that provides programmes, mentoring, workspaces, investment support and events specifically tailored to entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds. Partnered with the likes of Google, JPMorgan, Mayor of London, Tech Nation, and LIFT, at OneTech we’re changing the face of inclusion in the UK startup ecosystem, having helped create 800 jobs and supported entrepreneurs who have gone on to raise £34 million. 

Zoë Chapman, founder of KiddieWhizz - a handheld portable travel toilet for kids - is a great case in point. A single mother with a practical solution for parents and young children on the go, Chapman refined her business idea with the support of OneTech and LIFT, an organisation offering programmes across North and East London to help residents get local jobs in the knowledge economy. After completing our Survive and Pivot, Bootstrap School and Funding Readiness programmes, Zoë went on to secure £50,000 in backing from Sara Davies MBE and Steven Bartlett on BBC’s Dragon's Den. 

Chapman’s success story is particularly inspiring on two fronts — not only is her award-winning product a regular sellout that helps parents everywhere, but she’s also an example of someone from a non-traditional entrepreneurial background who saw a gap in the market and pursued a solution. Organisations like OneTech and LIFT are building a more inclusive, dynamic entrepreneurial terrain by helping figures like Chapman find their feet and receive continued support once they take the entrepreneurial plunge.

We all stand to benefit by doing so. A recent study from Deloitte and Wall Street Journal Intelligence found that 87% of CEOs think it is “more important now for technology leaders to understand business operations, strategy and innovation than to have deep expertise in technology systems.” Meanwhile, nearly 50% of the winners of the 2019 UK CIO100 Award — recognising the best CIOs in and from the UK — did not have a STEM background before assuming their roles. The statistics are clear: you don’t need to have a degree in computer science or engineering to make a real contribution and pave a career path in tech today. 

Next Steps for an Equitable Future

Creating meaningful change shouldn’t just be a question of formulating policies and targets— it is also a question about our collective will to evolve, adapt and champion a kind of diversity that goes beyond optics. Today, we stand on the precipice of massive disruptions caused by AI and other emerging technologies. In this uncertain terrain, inclusivity should not be seen as just a goal, but also as one of the principal motors for innovation itself. 

The future of British tech hinges on our collective commitment to dismantling barriers, fundamentally redefining inclusion and supporting founders from non-traditional entrepreneurial backgrounds. This demands embracing radical ideas and a willingness to challenge deeply ingrained biases.

The stakes are high. And in today’s unpredictable climate, inaction isn’t just wrong: it’s a bad investment.