Discoco: Isabel Mohan and Lucy Cleveley.
Welcome to Work In Startups X Women In Tech series! For the tech industry in particular, the equal representation of women and men may still have decade’s worth of work left to go. With the tech workforce being made up of just 19% women, it bodes the question…what can we do to encourage more women to enter the tech industry, but additionally, what can be done to also attract women in to more senior and leadership positions. In this series, we speak to the founding females smashing those Femtech stereotypes. First up, Isabel and Lucy! Founders of Discoco, an online platform curating online courses set to demystify the world of self development and online learning – whilst injecting a bit of fun!
Hello Isabel and Lucy! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Isabel Mohan, co-founder of Discoco, along with Lucy Cleveley. Discoco.co.uk is a new platform curating online courses we love from creators we trust and taking a bit of a sideways look at the wider world of self-development. My background is in journalism and content (four days a week, I’m Head of Content at tiney, a brilliant childcare startup – Discoco is my side hustle!) while Lucy is a business psychologist and learning and development consultant. We’ve been friends for six years and had both noticed that everybody was making online courses but nobody was independently curating them so with Discoco we’ve set out to declutter and demystify the world of self-development and online learning.
1: Is there one piece of advice you wish somebody gave you at the beginning of your career?
Not so much at the beginning of my career but at the beginning of Discoco being an idea, I was convinced I would need to join up with someone more techie or business-savvy than I am to get it off the ground. I was telling Lucy all about my ideas and she was keen to get involved but at this point we weren’t actually thinking it was something we could lead together. Then I chatted to my former bosses Sarah Hesz and Katie Massie-Taylor about it – they founded Mush, the social app for mums, as friends with no experience in tech, and they told me I should just make it happen with someone who shared my vision and who I could bounce off. They talked about how early on with Mush, they would dare each other to do things – like send scary emails to potential investors! – and that the shared sense of accountability was really powerful. Ultimately I’ve realised that tech and business expertise can be outsourced and learned, but creativity and vision can’t be easily bought in (no matter what they might tell you on pricey startup incubator programmes…).
2) What’s your opinion on the state of the FemTech Sector currently?
There’s so much exciting stuff happening but it’s frustrating that men still usually hold the purse-strings in the tech world. I’ve just read The Switch by Sam Baker, who founded The Pool with Lauren Laverne a few years back, and there’s a chapter about the reception they got from male investors – for instance, many they met would say to them “Well, my wife thinks you should do this…” because they couldn’t possibly have an opinion about the potential of a female-fronted, female-targeted brand themselves.
More inspiringly, but for the exact same reasons, Bonnie Parsons, who runs the amazing dance company School of SOS, launched an all-female fund-raise a couple of years ago, slickly turning a potential problem into a USP and got loads of PR (and cash!) out of it in the process. We’re at the bootstrapping stage with Discoco right now while we test the concept, but all this is very much on our minds as female founders with an idea and brand that’s most appealing to women (although we do have a handful of wonderful male course creators on the site too!).
3) What’s your opinion on the state of gender diversity within the tech industry?
I love that big FemTech brands like Elvie and Flo have spawned from subjects that were previously taboo, like periods, the menopause and female sexual health stuff in general. I remember using quite a basic period tracker app years ago and my GP giving me a weird look when I whipped it out, like I had time-travelled to my appointment – but now they actively promote them! I’m hoping there will be more of this – FemTech becoming part of the mainstream, rather than this stuff being seen as really maverick. It would be great if there were female-focused tech brands ending up as ubiquitous as the women’s mags of the 90s, like Just 17 and Cosmo. As someone who started their career on women’s mags in the noughties, I see glimmers of the same (often slightly bonkers!) creative energy in tech, so it’s only a matter of time.
4) Looking at the rise in Femtech companies and the importance of having women within this sector, do you think it will help accelerate a change from a male dominated tech industry?
Starting a business in lockdown with very little cash, while holding down jobs, home-schooling our 5 year olds and chasing our stir crazy toddlers! There were a lot of late night walks wearing five layers and clutching hot chocolate (or gin) and using voice notes to capture our ideas, along with many long video calls despite us living 30 seconds from each other. We really wanted to launch Discoco in January, but the pandemic had other ideas – however, we were determined not to add to the stats of women whose careers have been decimated by Covid, so we managed to soft-launch it in March – but we’re still juggling the jobs and family life too (but at least the schools are open now…!). I suppose there’s a frustration from me that a lot of women who can afford to get their ideas off the ground are being bank-rolled by their partners – and this isn’t the case for us, we’re just throwing what time, money and energy we can at it, and hoping we can prove the concept has legs before we burn out.
5) What do you think we should be doing more of to encourage more women to consider a career in tech?
Demystifying what “tech” means, along with all the jargon around it. I hate to resort to stereotypes, but the fact is many women, me and Lucy included, don’t feel that they are “techie”, when actually any good idea can become a tech product with the right vision, input and collaboration. There are plenty of people working in tech who are not traditionally techie. If you’re good at something, whether it’s writing, or selling, or leading a team, you can take those skills to a tech company – they need them!
The good news is, the hunger from women to learn more about tech is there – on Discoco, for instance, some of the courses we have on stuff like web design, video and social media skills, are among the most popular, but there’s a lack of confidence that needs to be addressed. I don’t think it’s just a gender issue, but age too – many talented, experienced women are convinced there’s no place in tech for them because they think it’s a world that’s populated by obnoxious men in their twenties, which isn’t (always…) true!
6) How have you found it best to promote and nurture women in the workplace?
Wherever I’ve worked I’ve formed close female friendships quickly – this can be tricky if you’re also managing those women, but ultimately if you like and trust each other, it makes for a positive working environment – it’s that accountability thing again; you’re much less likely to lose talent if they like working with you!
It’s always been important to me to talent-spot young people with potential, I got my first job (at Heat magazine) as a really awkward 22 year old on work experience who happened to be good at writing, and that was largely because more senior women on the team (who I thought were SO grown-up and sophisticated at the time but were probably about 28) saw potential in me, so I’ve tried to do the same as I’ve got older. It’s hard when you’re busy and stressed to prioritise nurturing people, and I worry that with so many people working remotely, a lot of these opportunities will be lost. I learned so much when I started out by just overhearing conversations or by spontaneously being called into meetings and asked for ideas, and that’s really tricky to recreate virtually. This is why self-development is more important than ever – we know a lot of young people, particularly women, got into online courses over lockdown because they were slumped in front of their laptops 24/7 and had little opportunity to learn anything new at work.
7) What is your advice for female entrepreneurs entering the industry?
Find a good mentor, or mentors, who will give you advice and be your cheerleaders. I’m slightly biased but I also think investing in some self-development is a good move – it could be coaching, or it could be learning a new skill that you feel is holding you back – whatever it takes to make you feel more confident and equipped in what can feel like quite an intimidating, male-dominated world. And remember startup jargon is mostly nonsense and bluster – if people talk to you like they’re a robot from Planet Techbro, be honest about not having a clue what they’re on about and speak back to them in plain English – it’s much more efficient!