The Blog

From Academia to Ad Tech: Meet Unruly Co-Founder Sarah Wood

With studies suggesting that women managers are often believed to be less achievement-orientated, competent and capable than their male counterparts, it's not surprising that both scholars and women entrepreneurs alike often frame entrepreneurship as one avenue where women can avoid discrimination.

Working in the entrepreneurial community, however, I still hear regular complaints of gender bias: women who are dismissed as "lipstick entrepreneurs"; research revealing that male entrepreneurs were 86 per cent more likely to be VC funded than females; and statistics on just how few girls, particularly those who excelled at STEM subjects in their junior school years, become entrepreneurs in adulthood. As Mishcon de Reya director Laura Chandler recently told me, speaking in reference to her firm's Women's Forum events: "women at the top have said they had to put in more hours and do more preparation in order to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts".

So it was refreshing to hear the inspirational entrepreneur Sarah Wood say last month that for the first six or seven years in her startup, gender wasn't even something she considered. "I wasn't really aware of the broader context because I was just getting on and building a business," she says.

Wood is co-founder of the video ad tech company Unruly, which hit headlines earlier this year when it was sold to News Corp (in a deal worth up to £114m). Her comments were made during a Leap 100 Power Breakfast last month, in which she candidly spoke of her experiences balancing home life with running one of the UK's fastest growing tech companies, her role as a London Tech Ambassador and sharing her story at events like these.

And her story is a fascinating one: she's been an egg packer in a battery hen farm (aged 12), a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Sussex - and virtually everything in between. But in 2006, she and her co-founders (Scott Button and Matt Cooke) spotted an opportunity for a site that collected, and ranked, the most shared views on the internet. They found a way to monetise the concept, built a front page, built a network of publishers and clients, and grew out their team. Today, Unruly can take credit for making some of the world's most memorable ads go viral - like the Dove beauty sketches advert, or T-Mobile's dancing flash mobs.

But rarely was gender been something Wood considered over the years. It was only in 2011, when Unruly was securing a Series A investment round to help the business expand and diversify, that it dawned on Wood that something was different. She had been buried in work and when she resurfaced, she saw that other companies weren't like hers. Her team, with a female founder, looked very different from others in tech.

"It was during our funding round, when we met many VCs, that I realised that, as a female, you are looked at differently and unconscious biases come into play. But it highlights one of the great things about running your own business: people underestimate you at their peril," she says.

Since then, Wood hasn't paid attention to stereotyping. She's built up a personal network of inspirational female entrepreneurs - like the "brilliant" Deborah Wosskow of Love Home Swap and Divinia Knowles of Pact Coffee. She co-created City Unrulyversity - a pop up university for entrepreneurs, which "brings academia and business together to help the next generation of tech entrepreneurs". Close to half (48 per cent) of Unruly's team are female, including half its senior management and half the board. Wood's advice to other entrepreneurs? "Work to make your team as diverse as possible. If we co-founders were too alike, we wouldn't have had the same impact. It's diversity that makes you powerful."