Martha Lane Fox: 'I used to think the internet was just a tool. Now I know it can change society'
The co-founder of lastminute.com made a fortune in the dotcom boom – then nearly died in a car crash. Now the Government wants her to get us using the web
Wednesday 10 March 2010
Martha Lane Fox bursts through the door of the caretaker's office in a Birmingham council block. "Hello, I'm Martha," she says with a brisk smile and outstretched hand.
After a morning spent meeting single mums and silver surfers who have just mastered the internet, the formidable Lane Fox is on a mission to get the caretaker to encourage more of his tenants to get online.
The man looks baffled and just a little terrified, but dutifully promises to do his bit. This is typical Lane Fox, and she herself admits to this useful mix of energy and bossiness.
When she was growing up, her father, Robin – a classical history professor at Oxford and a gardening writer – used to describe her as a mix of Rabbit and Tigger, from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. "Rabbit was always putting up signs saying 'Keep to the Left, signed Rabbit', and telling everyone what to do. So I was like Tigger and Rabbit, because I had all this energy but was just really, really bossy." Now 37 and the Government's digital inclusion champion, does Martha Lane Fox still share these characteristics with the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood? "Well I'm Tigger with a stick now, aren't I?" she says, pointing to the white cane lying under her chair, a legacy of the 2004 car crash that nearly killed her.
It is now 12 years since Martha Lane Fox became the poster girl for the internet, after she set up the travel website Lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman in 1998. She was feted as one of a new breed of internet entrepreneurs, just before the dotcom bubble burst.
But in 2004, only five months after she surprised the business world by stepping down as Lastminute's managing director, she was almost killed in a crash while on holiday in Morocco. The rented four-wheel-drive vehicle in which she was travelling swerved off the road and hit a tree, throwing her out of the back seat and onto a rock.
It has been a long battle back to health. Lane Fox shattered her pelvis, broke 28 bones, and suffered a stroke.
Although her body is full of titanium pins and plates, the only obvious legacy of the accident is the walking stick. However she frequently mentions how the accident has sapped her strength. She walks quickly albeit with a slight limp, and admits to not enjoying the end of last year because of the "physical struggle to cope".
She is still one of the most recognisable business people in Britain. But she is now putting her energy and high profile into her new role as the Government's digital inclusion champion, responsible for getting everybody in Britain online by 2012.
Lane Fox waived the salary of £30,000, which came with the job. It was supposed to take two days a week, but in practice Lane Fox, also a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer and at Channel 4, spends far longer on it. She said: "Nine to five, that's just not the way I work. I am happy to work all the time if it's something I am passionate about. The only thing that holds me back is this thing," she says pointing again at the stick.
Lane Fox's challenge is to persuade the 10 million Britons who have never used the internet, particularly the 4 million from the most deprived backgrounds, to get online so they are not left behind by the new digital world. Today, she will tell the fifth National Digital Inclusion Conference what progress has been made.
The digital task force that Lane Fox now chairs has estimated that getting everyone online would save the Government up to £1bn a year in customer service costs, and boost the economy by more than £20bn. Lane Fox herself learnt first hand the power of the internet during her two years in hospital recovering from her injuries. It became her portal to the outside world, enabling her to research her treatment, keep in touch with friends, and shop online.
She said: "I have been surprised at the profound effect the internet has on people's lives. When I took the role I didn't give it much thought: it brought together lots of things I'm interested in – the internet, excluded groups, consumer behaviour.
"But it has really surprised me how many people have said to me that the internet saved their life. I used to think of the internet as a tool for people to use. I didn't really understand how it could reduce deprivation. So I'm now quite passionate about the opportunity we have to create lasting social change by engaging people with technology more deeply."
Next month, she hopes to announce a big step forward in her campaign when some of the biggest companies in the UK pledge to train their own workers to use the internet.
As a starting point, low earners such as checkout staff, shelf stackers and call-centre workers will be taught how to get online. Their employers will also contribute to a volunteers' network of trainers.
Lane Fox believes that this sort of personal introduction to the internet is vital.
"I think it's all about the individual who sits down with you," she says. "It needs to be someone who knows you, like with gardening or making biscuits, who can show you how to use the internet to find recipes. It needs that personal connection.
"I say, don't talk about the technology first. The internet can be scary for people. That's why I've tried to say to people,'let's flip this idea around'. If people see for themselves what the internet can do, then they will take it on from there themselves," she says. Critics of the digital inclusion drive argue that simply getting people online will not solve the problems of inequality, and complain that Lane Fox's £2m budget will not be enough to make a difference.
Lane Fox said she is lobbying government as well as "anyone else who will listen" to try to push along the process. But she warned that the best way to get those missing 10 million people online was not through expensive central government projects. "It's not all about money," she said. "It's about community projects and people spending a bit of time to help someone they know use the internet.
"If everybody would just train one person they know, then it would make a massive difference," she adds.
Dotcom pioneer: Martha Lane Fox
*Born: 10 February 1973
*School: Westminster School, London
*University: Magdalen College, Oxford, studying Ancient and Modern History
*First job: Management consultant at Spectrum
*1998: Co-founded Lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman, a colleague from Spectrum
*2000: Lastminute.com valued at £733m at the height of the dotcom boom
*2004: Nearly killed in a road accident in Morocco
*2005 Lastminute.com is sold for £577m to Sabre, the US owner of Travelocity. Lane Fox nets a further £13.5m from the sale, to add to a previous £5m.
*2009: Lane Fox is appointed the Government's digital inclusion champion.
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