It was Sir Isaac Newton who said that his success was due to “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In Eileen Burbidge, the doyenne of the London tech scene, advisor to the Prime Minister, Fintech Envoy, ex-advisor to the London Mayor and chair of Tech City UK, it was more a case of peering over the shoulder of one.
She studied computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, home of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) — a place that holds a special affection in the heart of any geek as the birthplace of the world’s first browser — originally called Mosaic, before it transformed into Netscape.
“I was in the lab that [Marc] Andreessen was in. He was a year ahead of me,” she says. Andreessen went on to found Netscape and is now one of the most respected VCs in the world.
“A friend mine took me to this room. ‘We are working on something really cool called Mosaic.’ I remember poking my head round the door, and there was someone working. I kind of shrugged and walked away.”
Not Going To Get The Breaks
It was perhaps the only time Burbidge failed to seize an opportunity.
“I can’t take any credit for studying Computer Science,” she confesses. “I was raised by Chinese immigrant parents.”
She laughs now at the stereotype, but like all stereotypes there is more than a smattering of truth. “When I started reading a lot of things about the Tiger Mom phenomenon, I didn’t really see what’s so funny about it. Isn’t this just what everyone does?”
“My parents had this view that they had to work much harder than non-immigrants. They impressed the same view upon us as kids. ‘You are not going to get the breaks when anyone looks at you,’ they would say, ‘so you have to prove that you belong there.’”
For Burbidge it was her ethnicity, not her sex, that made her an outsider. “I have had more to prove, and more to overcome, looking Chinese, than I have for being female. I grew up thinking that if I were white, I could do whatever I wanted. I thought white girls had it easy. It never even occurred to me that white girls would say they were disadvantaged.”
The Eye of the Tiger
1971: Born in Chicago.
1993: Graduates from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Computer Science degree from College of Engineering.
1993: Works for U.S. telecoms company GTE and GTE Mobilnet
1995: Appointed Market Development Manager at Apple Computer. Works on the Newton PDA as communications evangelist.
1996-2003: Rapid progression through a number of leading Valley firms including Sun Microsystems, Openwave Systems, 12 Entrepreneuring, Embedded Internet Solutions, Inc. and PalmSource.
2004: Moves to London to work for Skype as Director, Product. Fired a year later.
2005: Joins Yahoo UK as Director, Communication Products.
2007: Acts as the London-based advisor, and then full time, to Tallinn-based Ambient Sound Investments.
2009: Co-founds White Bear Yard alongside Stefan Glaenzer and Robert Dighero.
2011: Launches £37.5 million fund Passion Capital with Glaenzer and Dighero.
November 2014: Appointed tech ambassador for the London Mayor, Boris Johnson. Becomes UK citizen.
May 2015: £45 million Passion Capital Fund II launches.
June 2015: Made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours for services to business.
July 2015: Appointed FinTech Envoy by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.
July 2015: Appointed to the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.
September 2015: Appointed Chair, Tech City UK.
She graduated “embarrassingly near the bottom” and got a job in a telecoms company now part of Verizon. She ended up working in San Francisco just as the first dotcom boom took off.
These were great times for Burbidge. “I was the cliché. I was the Asian-American girl in the Bay area living the dream. I had a 911, which I loved, I had a motorcycle. I partially-owned a ski place in Utah. Life was good.”
“As a consequence of feeling so happy, thinking I was sure I would stay there for the rest of my adult life, I realized there was a bigger world than Silicon Valley. I thought I would do a year or two aboard and that would give me a nice sense of perspective. I will come back and will be even better.”
Have You Heard Of Skype?
Her plan had been to stay with Palm, but the company had no openings in Europe, so in 2004, Burbidge quit Palm and sunny California for rainy London. Before she left, she was talking about her impending departure and one one of Palm’s execs said, in a casual aside “‘Oh, you should call my friend Danny, he might have some investments.’”
‘Danny’ turned out to be Danny Rimer, one of the founders of Index Ventures, one of Europe’s most successful VC funds.
“I met Danny and he said, ‘Have you heard of a company called “Skype?’”
Burbidge says she loved her brief time at Skype even though it was fraught and ended with her getting sacked by co-founder Niklas Zennström after just a year. But some of the contacts she made, especially in Tallinn, where Skype’s engineering team was based, would help propel her into her new career. After Skype was sold to eBay in September 2005 for $2.6 billion, the four Tallinn-based engineers who built Skype wanted help in their new entrepreneur-backed investment fund, called ASI.
“They were in Estonia, they hated London. It started with an, ‘Oh could you take a look at this business plan?’ Or ‘This guy is going to be in London, could you meet him?’”
‘Thought Maybe I Could Be His PA’
“That’s how it fell into being on the investment side.”
It was also how Burbidge met one of her co-founders at Passion Capital, the £37.5 million fund she was to set up with Stefan Glaenzer and Robert Dighero.
ASI made four investments in London; coincidentally three were co-investments with Glaenzer.
“One day Stefan says, ‘we need to get lunch sometime. We must like similar kind of things.’”
So Burbidge went along. “Yes, I was being paid by the guys at ASI, but no one was going to hire me as a VC. I remember thinking I could be this guy’s PA.”
Lunch went rather better than that. In late 2009 Burbidge, Glaenzer and Dighero (who Glaenzer knew from an earlier deal) set up White Bear Yard, a co-working space in Farringdon, and started to pull together their plans for a VC fund. Passion Capital launched in April 2011.
In the five years since the fund’s birth, as the London tech scene has exploded, Burbidge has ridden the wave, taking British citizenship and picking up a Birthday honor gong on the way.
Regular Visitor to Downing Street
She was quickly made one of the regular advisors at the Downing Street Tech City breakfasts, a semi-formal group that helped steer the government initiative launched by the Prime Minister in 2010.
Perhaps it was these connections forged over Cumberland sausages that resulted first in visits to White Bear Yard by both the Prime Minister and Prince Andrew, to say nothing of a smattering of government ministers, and then a shower of government pro-bono appointments.
The first came in November 2014 when she was made tech ambassador for the London Mayor, then Boris Johnson. It was followed in June 2015 when she got a call from the UK Treasury. “The Treasury had commissioned a report into the UK’s Fintech sector. Among the recommendations was to appoint someone to help liaise with the industry — and feed back into the Treasury and policy makers about what the industry could use. They asked me if I would do it.” Burbidge snapped it up.
Then in July 2015, Burbidge was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group, a selection of 20 captains of industry. “We do a meeting each quarter which the PM hosts. The Chancellor comes from time to time.” Originally Burbidge was the only tech person, until the appointment of Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group.
And as if she didn’t have enough to do, in September 2015, following the appointment of Joanna Shields as a government minister, Burbidge was selected to succeed her as chair of Tech City UK.
For someone who is on speed dial at both No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street, Burbidge says she has no desire to follow Shields into politics. She is more than happy to help out as she can, but her passion, she says, is Passion. “I want to see London produce 100 Skypes.”
No Dreams To Be An Entrepreneur
“We do what we do as investors not because we love investing. We just want to live vicariously through our founders.
So why not stop living vicariously and live the dream?
“I am too old,” sighs the 45-year-old. “I have too many children. I can’t do a start-up anymore.”
It seems an odd comment given that according to Harvard Business Review, the average age of an entrepreneur is 40 and people over 55 are twice as likely as people under 35 to launch a high-growth start-up.
There is more to this than just her age. Perhaps it is the words of her Chinese immigrant parents still ringing in the ears of the young Burbidge — the need to be twice as good as everyone else because she isn’t going to get the breaks.
“I would hold myself up to too much pressure. I would not feel right about going home to be with my kids for dinner from six to eight every evening. I couldn’t do it to the level I hold myself to.”
The tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.