Kate Pljaskovova of Fair HQ On Building A Data-Driven Approach To Diversity, Rebuilding Confidence And The Importance of Freedom
Kate’s journey is best characterised by the phrase “go big or go home”.
As a child growing up in the Czech Republic - a country with a long history of fighting for its freedom - Kate wanted to be a diplomat. At the tender age of 10, most of us wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what a diplomat was. Kate, however, was fully aware and fired up by the fact that she couldn’t visit her grandparents in Israel due to frequent wars, and resolved to dedicate her life to making the world a safer place.
Which isn’t exactly a small ambition. Her commitment led her to intern with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the WTO in Geneva. As Kate told me about her rollercoaster of a journey, I began to realise that she doesn’t do things by halves. To name but a few of the highlights: Kate scaled a startup to 150 people as part of an exec team at the sprightly age of 20, and led fundraising efforts in Silicon Valley not shortly after. Her eventual foray into entrepreneurship was far from smooth, and led to her being bullied out of her own company a few years later. Naturally, she flipped this into a wildly successful negotiations business that worked with the likes of Sky Deliveroo and PWC.
Then, in the middle of a global pandemic, Kate founded Fair HQ, and successfully raised pre-seed investment from our investors after going through the 3rd edition of Founders Programme. We’re incredibly excited to be backing Kate, and as you read on, you’ll start to learn why.
Kate exudes a quiet confidence. The kind that doesn’t overwhelm, but is clearly the result of a lot of hardship, and whole lot more research. With Fair HQ, Kate is on a mission to make the world a fairer place for everyone. She’s starting by building a data-driven process for improving diversity & inclusion in businesses across the UK and US.
Talk to me about your journey to becoming a founder.
When I was younger, I didn't actually want to be an entrepreneur. My grandparents lived in Israel, and I always felt incredibly sad that I couldn’t never visit them as a child as often as I wanted to, due to the a lot of wars in the region. So, I resolved to become a diplomat and solve the Middle Eastern conflict. I participated in Model UN when in high school, and whilst studying diplomacy and international economics at university, led Model WTO for 5 years.
In highschool I used to babysit a tech CEO’s kid. . That’s how I landed my first job in tech - being a Head of HR. His logic for hiring me was something along the lines of “Oh, you took care of my kid? Why don't you take care of my company?”.
I was only 19 and was given an immense amount of freedom, and one of my first tasks was to hire as many developers as possible. I hired about 50 of them. Then we got acquired by our Silicon Valley client for the quality of our developers. After that I hired about another 100 of them. At the age of 22, I was on the executive team of a 150-person company, and spent time travelling to the biggest tech hub in the world. I absolutely loved it.
You loved it so much you decided to pack in the diplomacy?
Initially, I was convinced that diplomacy was for me. I knew the pay was terrible, but I was really passionate about solving big world problems.. I used to run different models for young diplomats, worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and also completed internships at the Czech Embassy in Israel and the WTO in Geneva. Through this, I eventually realised that diplomacy doesn’t actually change the world anymore, but technology does.
In comparison to the tech world, diplomacy was just slow, hierarchical and ineffective, and it really frustrated me.
So I decided when I finished university I was going to switch up the plan and change the world through tech instead. First, I needed to understand how to actually build a product.
So after learning how to scale people you dedicated your energy to learning how to build and scale products?
Yes, I moved to Berlin and eventually Silicon Valley and worked first-hand with CEOs and CPOs on customer development and product strategy. With each startup I joined, however, I always felt like I could do it better. I’d think “why does the CEO keep making these mistakes?”
I remember proposing a new business and product strategy based on customer insights and presenting it to our CEO. He rejected it. I then decided OK, I’m leaving to start my own company.
Ironically, he implemented the strategy after 2 years, and thanked me several times!
OK. Now you’ve got a solid understanding of people and product - is it time for you to dip your toes into the world of entrepreneurship?
Yes, exactly. When I was living in San Francisco, I experienced burnout. My first company was inspired by this. It was called Liwely, and essentially it was a Fitbit app, but for your mental health that would help people understand themselves better and build more resilience against stress, depression and anxiety.
It was fascinating! I was working with Berkley PhD students to try and quantify psychology and psychological states and develop a methodology for how we can start tracking different elements of mental wellbeing. Despite being a cocky and confident 26 year old convinced that I knew what to do, I in fact had a lot to learn, and it was incredibly difficult for me to start a new business in a consumer space..
I didn’t truly understand how to build a product from scratch, and it was incredibly hard to find a CTO. After moving to London, I met a guy who wanted to be my investor - he was so enthusiastic, he said he worked on a similar idea but for businesses and he asked if I would be his co-founder. I was impressed by him. He had a great network.
He also said he would invest in the business.
In the end, the deal involved him owning 85% of the business, while not being operationally involved. Yep. I merged my company with his - without any compensation, may I add - and together we formed a new company. He also owned all of the resources, controlled all the money and I only owned 15%, potentially one day after vesting.
But I was the CEO and co-founder and that mattered to me.
Wow. Why did you sign?
At this point I was tired, as I’d been working on the startup for over 18 months. I knew it wasn’t the best deal in the world - to put it lightly - but I thought I’m new to the city, I’ll have the chance to work on what I believe in and it’ll be nice to be paid, and have a team.
Fast forward 6 months - my co-founder decided to hire a 50 something-year-old CEO above me because he was probably more comfortable speaking to him than he was to me. When I objected, he said no. When I suggested running a proper hiring process for the best CEO for our company, he hired his favorite man anyway. He also gave away 5% of my equity to the new CEO, because as he said it was fair. He also gave 5% of his (from a pool of 85% of course not 15%).
The relationship was so difficult. I was responsible for the outcomes, but didn’t own any of the resources, and it was negotiation after negotiation after negotiation. I felt trapped. I was called “difficult” and “incompetent” so many times. 2 years on, after we launched and managed to build up a solid client base, they tried to push me out. I eventually chose to leave. I felt about 60 years old by the time I’d left.
So, what happened next?
I decided that I was going to invest my energy into building a different business. It sounds crazy, I know. My mother identifies it as a condition. She always asks me “Are you crazy? Find a job!”, to which I respond “I can’t! I’m broken.”
So I started She Wins - a business focused on empowering women to negotiate so they can reach the same salaries and opportunities as men - inspired by my terrible experience. After some iterations, my co-founder Claire and I decided to start by hosting workshops for women in business. In 2 months we were profitable. We kept increasing prices and eventually were charging thousands per workshop. We worked with companies like Vice, Sky, Dell, Deliveroo, and PWC.
After we led dozens of these workshops it became obvious that women are not the issue. Businesses need to lead the change through the way they operate, as opposed to women needing to change their behaviour. So we started to try and give businesses recommendations e.g. telling them to publish salary bands on job descriptions, or putting clear KPIs against pay raises or bonuses. They were interested, but it didn’t seem like a priority for them.
Altogether we empowered 1,500 women, in just seven months, but it still wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to have a bigger impact. I wanted to achieve more at scale!
And then you decided to start Fair HQ - presumably as a way to drive a change in a way that you couldn’t with She Wins? How did you have the idea? Why are you excited about it?
From working on She Wins I knew that there is a lot of research proving that diversity and inclusion (D&I) significantly improves business performance. Companies that have a good levels of D&I are more innovative, profitable and make more money for their investors.
The problem is even though most companies understand the importance of D&I , most of them don’t know how they are actually doing and what to do to improve.
Since 2003 US companies have spent $8 billion a year on diversity training, mostly addressing unconscious bias, which has proven to have little to no effect on the level of diversity in these companies. In 17 years, that’s about $136 billion of wasted money.
Our society is more diverse than ever before, but we’re still so far behind where we need to be. Most companies still treat D&I as a PR activity, or something that the HR department should take care of.
Data is a starting point for this, and is the first half of the problem. D&I has been in the domain of consultancies for a long time, so currently there's very little holistic data available of companies’ diversity and inclusion from the perspective of their processes, policies, and company culture. So, how can we know what good looks like?
Secondly, there’s the problem of actually getting companies to improve. The complexity of this is huge - where do you start? What should businesses prioritise for maximum impact? Is it the same for each company? How do you actually improve something as intangible as inclusion?
After just a couple of months of research we’ve identified almost 400 effective and evidence-based interventions for companies to improve specific D&I metrics.The devil lies in the detail - the implementation of these recommendations and measuring success as it pertains to business performance, over time. This is our number one problem to crack and over 70 companies in our R&D group helping us develop our first product believe we can do it.
Fair HQ will be the first platform to help companies embed D&I across the business, using evidence, data and behavioural science.
Data → Strategy → Implementation → Measure Impact → Improvement.
So you’ve had the idea and you’ve got the research. How did you go about turning it into a business. Did you seek funding straight away?
My fiancé sent me a link to the Founders Programme and said it could be a good way to structure my thinking for Fair HQ. The programme was really great! I felt incredibly motivated, supported, and the investors were genuinely helpful and excited about my idea. Other founders in the program were a good source of inspiration too.
I remember after the session on customer development, the investors encouraged us to speak to 10-15 customers, and I went out and spoke to 50-60 Head of D&I in about a week and a half! I always go above and beyond. I was inundated with stories about how much they are struggling with D&I due to a lack of data and effective ways to improve. I was thinking “This is it, there’s a huge need, so there must be a huge business opportunity too.” I was sold.
Fair HQ leadership team
How did the pitching process go?
When I started fundraising, I went out to speak to dozens of investors over the course of 3 months. Initially it was tough because I was fundraising during the first COVID lockdown, but after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, D&I became a hot topic and some FOMO started building up.
But in the end, no investors were able to match the relationship I had built with the Forward team throughout the programme. You gave better feedback, and were so much more bought in because of it. There was a lot of positivity about the product, the market, the team I was building and how we were going to figure out things we hadn’t figured out yet. And you were willing to be our first customer.
I also had the chance to do extensive due diligence, as a lot of my friends were part of the Forward portfolio. In a way, it felt like I was coming home.
What is the long-term vision for Fair HQ? And for you, as a leader of Fair HQ?
In the long term, we want to have a massive impact. We exist because meritocracy doesn’t. And our means of getting closer to a more fair and equitable society is through the places we spend most of our time - our places of work. So in five years we want to help 18,000 UK and US companies become more successful by improving their diversity and inclusion. Naturally, we have also set a target to achieve £100 million ARR.
I also want to build a great team behind Fair HQ and become a leading company in D&I that inspires other companies. We want to live and breathe what we recommend to other businesses. And this is going to be hard. We’ll definitely make mistakes. But we’ll make sure to talk honestly about them, and lead the way for more transparency.
For now stay tuned. We’re launching a private beta (and a proper website) in just a couple of weeks.