Martina King was not what I expected.
She’s the CEO of Cambridge-based machine learning company working Featurespace, which analyses the data of some of the world’s biggest banking and financial companies to detect fraud and scams.
Her stellar career has seen her be the managing director of augmented reality company Aurasma and hold senior roles at Yahoo! Europe and Capital Radio.
However, when I asked her for a surprising fact about herself she didn’t disappoint.
“My children call me the ‘CEO of fun’,” she revealed with a laugh. “Although what we do everyday when we come to work is a serious business, protecting payments, I think we can do it with creativity, ingenuity and fun.
“I will measure the quality of my day by the number of belly laughs I’ve had.”
Last year King was identified by Hazel Moore, chair and co-founder of international investment bank FirstCapital, as a female leader to watch.
It was in response to a BusinessCloud article about the lack of female CEOs at the helm of UK tech unicorns and it’s easy to see why Moore highlighted King for praise.
She’s been the CEO of Featurespace for 12 years but her journey to the top has been far from routine, forged on a combination of ‘hard work’ and the ‘ability to graft’.
Describing her childhood she recalled: “I had a wonderful childhood with parents who didn’t put ridiculous expectations on me. I was always incredibly energetic and go-getting.
“In terms of my career aspirations I came from a world whereby the aspiration of the majority of women was to be a Mum and run a home. I could never have imagined the young Martina doing what she’s done.
“Whenever I’ve been asked to do something there’s an in-built spark that means I want to apply creativity to it. I want to make it better, more exciting and different. That’s the spirit in me. I’ve been able to imagine a future and be able to take steps to fulfil that.”
One of her first jobs was as a telephone sales canvasser at the Observer newspaper before spending 10 years at the Guardian, where she ended up running the ad display department.
She said the experience taught her the importance of sales.
“You can’t have a commercial business without there being customers who are happy to pay for the service that you provide them,” she said.
“In my early days at Featurespace I spent most of my time on the phone or out of the road speaking to people.
“It baffles me when you speak to leaders who don’t spend time with their commercial team and find out what’s going on in the market.”
King spent six years at Capital Radio where Chris Tarrant was the star DJ before she became the first UK MD for Yahoo! Europe.
“It was 1999 as the hype (around the internet) was starting to climb,” she recalled. “You had to work for a year before your shares came in and the dot.com collapse happened in month 11 and a lot of people left.
“The founder of Yahoo, Jerry Yang, said to me ‘Martina, here are the keys to Yahoo in the UK, I’m off to the US. If you’re still here when we get out the other side then great, if you’re not then it’s been good working with you’.”
In the end King stayed at Yahoo! Europe for five years.
“I loved that time,” she said. “We had these amazing assets with the promise of the internet and what it was going to bring. At the time it was only taking under one per cent share of advertising.
“So many companies went out of business at that time. It was very perilous.”
King followed that by spending the next eight years building up her non-executive career, including spells at Johnston Press, Cineworld and Debenhams.
It was then that she joined Featurespace, which is leading the UK and US governments and banking institutions in stopping the scamming wave affecting millions of customers.
The company has 80 customers and recently helped NatWest to improve its financial scam detection rate by 135 per cent.
“We want to protect payments globally,” she said. “The statistics are eye-watering. Scams are causing untold financial loss and heartbreak within families but we have a technical solution to that.
“Our mission is to make the world a safer place to transact. Featurespace has dedicated itself to being the best in the world at solving that problem.
“AI is on everybody’s lips at the moment but 12 years ago it was largely restricted to academia. We were a pioneer. We were trying to work out how the world was going to embrace machine learning and then build a business around that. Having technology for good in the world was very important to the values of the business.”
The latest set of accounts show Featurespace had a turnover of £23m and 400 ‘team members’.
“In terms of the global market we’re still a small player so there’s so much opportunity for Featurespace to grow,” she said.
King doesn’t like to describe herself as role model but her colleague on the call interrupted to say that she was.
She’s a passionate mentor and is determined to reverse the statistic that means only 2 per cent of VC investment goes to female-founded businesses.
“I’ve watched many sectors change during my career,” she said. “The newspaper industry was an all male domain and it’s multi-faceted now in terms of the balance of the sexes.
“In terms of the media industry there are probably more women working in it than men. The retail industry has always had a lot of women in it but they haven’t always been in senior positions.
“Over my long career I’ve seen sector after sector tumble and I think technology is on its way.
“I don’t see myself as a female role model. If others do, and I can support and help them along that journey, that’s really important. I work on the basis if I can do it, anyone can do it.
“I want to be approachable. We don’t have any offices at Featurespace. We have an open desk policy. I work in a DeepTech environment and we have a lot of shy people.”
Featurespace has raised £132m in investment but King said a lot of work still needs to be done.
“Investors like to follow patterns of success therefore that pattern of success has a history,” she said. “It’s a prior and the prior is it’s mostly the guys that have been able to make the money for the investors.
“If you don’t have a pattern of investing in female-led companies that adds extra risk into that investment.
“There’s fantastic evidence to show that female-led companies and diverse leadership teams are far more successful overall for investment.
“When I was at Featurespace in the early days that evidence didn’t exist. I want our investors to have been so proud of backing Featurespace in the early days. If I make them heroes in their industry then that becomes a new pattern for other investors to follow.”
King, who has two children aged 25 and 23, is also determined to help young people to love themselves more.
“Ultimately life is about trying to live it as positively as you possibly can,” she said. “It comes down to two things. To be loved and to love back. And don’t be too hard on yourself. Youngsters can be too hard on themselves. Some things can go wrong and it feels so crushing but actually that just happens every day.”