We chatted with Riham Satti, co-founder of MeVitae, about the hurdles and high points of starting up. She tells us how she moved from academia to entrepreneurship, and why diversity and inclusion are more than just buzzwords for her company. As MeVitae plans its US launch, Riham gives us the lowdown on what's next.
How did you get into entrepreneurship?
Riham: I actually didn't want to be an entrepreneur! It’s the job I said I'd never do. My family comes from academia; they're mostly scientists. I thought I'd follow that path. Business never really interested me. Watching shows like The Social Network and hearing about entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, I thought, "I can’t be like that." Also, there are fewer female founders, which made me unsure about the whole thing so I focused on academia.
I did my undergraduate degree in Medical Engineering at Imperial College London and was really fascinated by the human brain. I then went to Oxford for my PhD at the FMRIB Lab, which specialises in MRI studies of the brain. While there, I met Vivek, now the CTO at MeVitae. We started building different things, like training sites and CV apps, but didn't think much of it. Then, as graduation approached, Vivek needed a job. He's a big Microsoft fan and always wanted to work there, but I suggested he find an alternative way of applying to stand out.
We built an app for Vivek's CV and put it on the Microsoft Windows Store. It got rejected, so we opened it up as a 'CV in your pocket' app. We left it alone, and suddenly, it won Top Windows Store App of the Month. The app had 50,000 downloads and was growing daily. Microsoft called us in, and that’s when we first got a taste of entrepreneurship. We started thinking about how to make money from it, focusing on the employer side. With the rise of Diversity and inclusion and my neuroscience background, we pivoted to tackle biases in HR.
Initially, the aim was to get Vivek a job. Now, he's the CTO and co-founder at MeVitae, and we're on to our next mission: creating fairness in the workplace.
How has your business idea changed since the beginning?
Riham: The core ethos of our business, focusing on fairness and justice in the workplace, has always remained constant. My background in neuroscience and Vivek's experience with AI models were highly relevant from the start. Our initial aim was to build technology that would mitigate biases.
However, finding the right product-market fit came from engaging with potential clients. We listened to their challenges – issues with data, candidate screening, and bias mitigation in the hiring process. We realised there weren't many solutions addressing these issues, so we adapted our approach to fill this gap.
“We didn't want to be just another ATS”
How did you start building your solution?
Riham: Before we went to SFC, we did a lot of R&D work. Being academics, we know how to write grant applications, so we submitted a lot. It's a chicken and egg space in investment – you need clients to get investment and vice versa. Grants were the way to break that cycle. We got funding from Oxford Council, Innovate UK, and the European Space Agency, capturing about £400,000 to £500,000 in grants. That gave us the runway to build the initial product, talk to prospects and clients, and see what’s out there in the competition.
The ATS space is saturated, but, especially at that time, there was very little in the realm of blind recruiting, and this became our strength. Our first product was 'anonymised recruiting' or 'blind recruiting'. The issue is CVs come in all forms. Reading these is an NLP problem, a computer vision problem, an AI problem – lots of tech challenges. Initially, we were a very tech-heavy team because we had to tackle all of these problems.
We had our algorithms audited by the ICO, and we're one of the first organisations to do that. We also worked with universities like Exeter, Oxford, Harvard, and UCL. All of them are academic research partners to push what’s out there in DEI. Clients were telling us they needed the solution to work within their existing platforms. So now we can integrate with over 20 leading ATS providers.
How do you mitigate biases?
Riham: MeVitae can redact over 20 parameters like name, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, age, hobbies, interests, and references. University names are another big one. It's not that universities are unfair; it's the stigma that comes with them. Many organisations say, “I want a candidate from this or that university,” using university rankings as their way of judging talent. But top universities don't always produce top talent.
What's needed is a strategy that asks what the talent pool is and what kind of candidates we're looking for. So, there's no point in screening out candidates based on university. This relates to biases like confirmation bias. For instance, if a candidate went to a university I have a good impression of, I might assume the new candidate will also be good. It's a stereotype.
So organisations are starting to put in policies to either redact university names or to hire candidates who haven't gone to university. It's not so much about unfairness but more about mitigating potential biases.
How do you scale the business and grow the team?
Riham: Entrepreneurship is all about trial and error. We've looked at our entire process to identify bottlenecks. One issue was the integration between sales and customer success, so we are hiring more sales engineers and onboarding specialists to address it. Initially, I handled a lot of customer success, but now we have a customer success manager who's fantastic.
Sales is a key focus. We now have an account manager and partnership manager, and we're actively hiring more salespeople. Our team has grown to over 15, and we're still hiring because we're stretched thin.
Most of our client base, around 70%, is in the US, even though we're UK-based. We generally work with enterprise organisations averaging about 30,000 employees. Larger US companies have bigger diversity and inclusion mandates, so they're a good fit for us.
We're at an inflexion point now. We need more sales staff, onboarding specialists, developers, legal counsel, and accountants. We're starting to consider expanding into the US.
“In entrepreneurship, you jump off the cliff and build your parachute as you go along”
What were some of the biggest challenges so far?
Riham: I could write a book on the challenges! The first big one was simply never having built a business before and being someone who never saw themselves as an entrepreneur. That fact alone set the stage for many challenges.
In academia, you're trained to specialise, to be a perfectionist and to aim for accuracy. Entrepreneurship is the complete opposite. You're trying to break things, be lean, and embrace trial and error. So, a mental shift was necessary. How do I think like an entrepreneur? How do I network and become more extroverted? I was introverted when I started, believe it or not. Now, you can't get me to shut up! Networking didn't come naturally, but I had to make the effort because that was the only way to find prospects initially.
Imposter syndrome is the third issue, and it's particularly prevalent among female founders, though it's not often discussed. In academia, you're encouraged to avoid risks and to make moves only after logical consideration. In entrepreneurship, you jump off the cliff and build your parachute as you go along. So, I had to embrace that leap of faith.
Then, there are business challenges. I had never raised investment before. How do you get your first client, build a scalable product, or even create a sales deck? Literally, everything was a new experience, and it was all about learning quickly and failing quickly.
I'm very grateful to have had numerous mentors around us, many of whom later became investors. They've guided us through the journey, sharing lessons from their own past mistakes to help us avoid them. Questions like how to build a pitch deck, how to secure a deal, or how to price a solution were all made easier with their guidance. Mentors and advisors have been crucial pillars in facing these challenges.
What was the funding journey like?
Riham: After we secured the grants, we did our first investment round in 2018 led by SFC. This allowed us to hire key team members like our algorithm developers. Most of that funding went into product development and expanding our development team. Then, in 2021, we did a mini bridge round. Around that time, social factors like the Black Lives Matter movement and the lockdown were causing organisations to shift their focus towards diversity and inclusion solutions that went beyond simple unconscious bias training. We saw an uptick in prospects and began to acquire more clients as a result.
What’s coming up for MeVitae?
Riham: We're at an exciting juncture. Our vision statement is all about creating fairness in the workplace, and our mission is focused on mitigating biases. We understand that you can't eliminate biases from the human mind, but you can prevent them as much as possible. Our objective is to help organisations build fairer systems and processes from the ground up. We aim to lead in the diversity and inclusion space, and we want to be the go-to name when people think about DEI solutions.
Our strategy involves not just bringing in these changes but also tracking the impact we’re making. In the long run, everything we do is geared towards that mission. That includes our plans for expanding into the US market and growing our team. We also have various exciting projects lined up for the future. I won’t divulge too much, but we’ve got a comprehensive roadmap that I believe will intrigue many organisations. We’re building as we go along, keeping our mission and objectives at the forefront of everything we do.
Where do you see the D&I space going?
Riham: There are several angles to consider. I’ve grouped them into three main categories: reporting, reputation, and performance.
Firstly, from a reporting standpoint, there are significant developments, especially concerning algorithmic biases and reporting requirements. The US is already ahead in this space, and I expect the UK to catch up soon. Reporting will likely extend beyond just gender pay gaps to include broader diversity data. With ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) becoming the buzzword of the moment, D&I is set to form a key part of that agenda. Organisations can’t simply tick boxes anymore; they need to embed these aspects into their business model.
Secondly, reputation is at stake. Organisations that report their diversity data and fail to show improvement risk damaging their brand. I see articles calling out organisations for a decline in their diversity figures, which is detrimental from a reputational standpoint.
Lastly, there’s performance. Multiple studies, whether from McKinsey, Intel, or Deloitte, highlight the commercial benefits of diverse and inclusive teams. If you look at it purely from an economic perspective, investing in diversity isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s business smart. The best-performing organisations have diverse teams, and if you want to compete effectively, you'll need to invest in diversity.
Overall, this is a growing trend that shows no sign of stopping. Organisations need to act now to stay ahead of the curve. Early adopters will attract top talent, whereas those who lag will find themselves at a disadvantage.
What’s your advice for founders who are just starting out?
Riham: I have a favourite acronym related to the fear of failing: 'FAIL', which stands for 'First Attempt In Learning'. From this viewpoint, you never truly fail. If something goes wrong, you've still learned something valuable. Building a company from the ground up has taught me more than anything else. It's a steep but exciting learning curve.
Just do it – there's nothing to lose, and there's no such thing as failure. For other entrepreneurs, particularly female founders or founders from underrepresented groups, I want to offer some encouragement. No one gets everything right; we all learn as we go. If you're contemplating taking that leap into entrepreneurship, I’d say go for it. You'll figure things out as you move along. So, take that leap of faith and just make the move.
A shameless plug here: Listen to my TED talk. Another great TED talk to consider is about 'multi-potentiality'. Not everyone has one true calling; you can combine different industries, which is what makes entrepreneurship so exciting. You learn about sales, marketing, investment, finance, HR – all sorts.
Books like 'The Lean Startup' are essential if you're new to the game. Podcasts like 'Secret Leaders' are also worth listening to. But above all, having mentors who have been there and done that – that's the best education you could ask for.