Joanna Shields: ‘We’ve got so much going for us. We can lead the world’

The Chris Blackhurst Interview: The US-raised pioneer of London’s ‘Tech City’ on why she thinks Britain’s digital talent is a match for anything in her native land

Joanna Shields tilts her head back and smiles. “I’ve been here for years and it’s true, every single cab driver asks: When are you going back? Are you on holiday? How long have you been here?”

We’ve just had a mad exchange. She, speaking in her native American accent; me, struggling to hear amid the din of a London West End hotel. I thought she said, “Our code”, and I was wondering what on earth that was. In fact she said “Hour of Code” – as in the campaign she’s supporting that has seen 2.2 million children learn the basics of computer programming in three weeks, in a fun, entertaining way. One of the sessions is hosted by Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and Shields’s former boss when she ran Facebook Europe. In another, the pupil writes some code to get an Angry Bird to catch a pig.

But don’t we lag behind other countries when it comes to things tech? “No,” Shields says, irritated. “We’re the only country in the world apart from Estonia which will have computer science as a mandatory part of the school curriculum.” It brings me up short hearing the “we”. Shields’s voice identifies her as foreign, but she’s that curious breed (think Kevin Spacey) – someone from abroad who appears to have been here for ever, believes in making a positive contribution, and gives the impression of loving the UK perhaps more than we do ourselves.

Shields, who is 51, came here 14 years ago. She was a single mother with a baby son, Ben. She arrived in Europe to run Veon, an interactive video technology company. When Veon was acquired by Philips, she was hired by Real Networks, the audio and video streaming pioneer, to manage its operations outside North America. That meant settling in London.

In rapid succession came Google (MD for Europe, Middle East and Africa), and then Bebo. Having helped arrange the sale of Bebo to AOL for $850m in 2008, she joined Facebook. In 2012, David Cameron asked her to lead Tech City, the Government initiative to harness the UK’s digital creativity, centred on our putative Silicon Valley equivalent, immediately nicknamed “Silicon Roundabout”, around Old Street and Shoreditch on the edge of the City of London.

The Prime Minister also anointed Shields UK Business Ambassador for Digital Industries. She’s now a British citizen, married to Andy Stevenson, a Formula 1 racing team manager. “I want to save Britain,” she declares in the twang of Pennsylvania, where she was born and went to university. “I’ve built businesses here, I found a lovely husband here, and my son has grown up here. It’s home, I love it.”

Don’t get her wrong. Shields is still fond of the US. She mentions her new public role, which is to head a joint US/UK taskforce on internet safety. “We want to explore how to keep kids safe from online abuse and exploitation. It’s run by the US Justice Department and the Home Office, working together.”

To meet Shields is to be suffused in a glass half-full. She exudes positiveness in a manner that we reserved British simply don’t. “Digital competitiveness is on my mind right now,” she volunteers. “We’re just about the most digitally competitive economy in the world, in six categories that include big data, business tech, e-commerce and so on. We can lead the world.”

But what about the recent criticism of Tech City – the claim that Silicon Roundabout has lost its mojo, that the original creative energy has fizzled out, that start-ups can’t afford to start up there? Her smile does not slip. “Tech City is experiencing now what Silicon Valley experienced in the late 1980s. I know, I started my career there. What happened was that Silicon Valley began in the Valley, then moved to take in San Francisco. What is happening here is the same.”

At Silicon Roundabout, she says, “there is a cluster of digital businesses. But it’s one of many such clusters around London. There’s Imperial West, near Westfield, King’s Cross, Covent Garden, Soho. People focus on the geography too much, as if it’s all about one area. That doesn’t do justice to the whole picture.”

That picture encompasses 83,000 net additional jobs in the last three years or 27 per cent of all the jobs growth in London. And Shields rattles off a list of 13 other places – among them Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Dundee, and Manchester – which all have clutches of burgeoning digital businesses.

Why then, if we’re in such rude digital health, have we never produced a firm to rival Apple, Microsoft, Facebook or Google in the US? Shields agrees it’s a problem, but reckons there are encouraging signs. “It requires structural change in the economy and my belief is that we’re seeing that structural change.”

With Tech City, she created the Future Fifty programme, designed to give the 50 start-ups most likely to succeed all the help they need. “You incubate and you accelerate,” she says. “Future Fifty is a business accelerator, to make sure the businesses you incubate have access to whatever they require so they can become the next corporate giants.”

We forget too, just how fortunate we are. “It’s a huge advantage that from Britain you can access the entire world in real time – you can speak to Asia in the morning, the whole of the US in the evening. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can do that, and in English, which is the universal language. From here, we have access to the global markets. We have to capitalise on that.” Britain, she adds, has “the most ambitious package in the world to aid digital start-ups”. It includes tax incentives to invest in R and D – “the best in the world.”

Shields recently stood down as Tech City CEO, but she remains its chairman. “I wanted to focus on the bigger remit of making Britain the leading digital country in the world. I’ve been made a non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange, and I’ve got the US/UK taskforce on internet safety. It’s going to work with the industry to eliminate internet abuse. We have to make it much safer for kids.” Yes, but is the willingness of the internet firms really there? “Oh yes. We’re encouraging the industry to apply the best and brightest minds to it. We will get there.”

She talks about everything she’s been doing the last six weeks. It’s an exhausting list – writing about internet bullying, attending conferences, giving speeches, heading trade delegations to Germany and Israel, launching the Hour of Code. Enough! I put up my hand jokingly, begging her to stop. “I know!” she says, laughing. “And I’m still only 51-and-three-quarters. I’ve got so much more to do.”

Apart from the LSE, it’s all pro bono. She’s the Mother Teresa of tech, I suggest. “For the love of tech,” she responds, laughing. We can be an ungrateful lot sometimes.

THE CV: JOANNA SHIELDS

Born: 1962, Pennsylvania

Education: Penn State University; George Washington University

Current jobs: chairman of Tech City UK and UK ambassador for digital industries; heads US/UK taskforce on internet safety

Previous jobs: Senior executive with Electronics for Imaging, RealNetworks, Google, Bebo, Aol, Facebook

Family: Married to Andy Stevenson, manager of F1 team Force India. One son, Ben

Accolades: Named most influential woman in UK IT by ‘Computer Weekly’, and one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK by Radio 4

Got first job: By telling boss of a computer firm: “You don’t know me, but you need me”

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