Inspirational Woman: Karen Burns | Co-founder & CEO, Fyma

Karen Burns

Karen is co-founder and CEO of Fyma, a European AI computer vision company whose AI turns any new and legacy outdoor and CCTV camera into a smart device to capture real time data and turn it into actionable insights.

As co-founder and CEO, Karen is responsible for the company’s day to day operations, as well as the development of its growing team and the management of the company’s international client base. Karen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies from Queen Mary University, London, and a Master’s in Film and Video from University College London and Glasgow University.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I studied Film & TV at UCL, then completing a Graduate Diploma in Law later and I have worked in tech since 2006, starting at British Telecom and then joining the UK’s Health and Social Care regulator ICT team after that.

My dream was to work in film production when I left high school, however I couldn’t afford to live in the UK without working, which is why I fell into the IT field. My life and work took me from London to Johannesburg and then to Dubai, from where I relocated back to native Estonia in 2014 to work in business development leadership roles at IT consulting companies. That’s where I met my current co-founder and we set up Fyma in the end of 2019 with a small team of just 4 people to start building the best computer vision insights platform in the world for the built environment.

By the way, I did get to work in film production also – I did a 1.5-year stint in Abu Dhabi selling the desert as a filming location to Hollywood studios and managed to get Fast 7 and Star Wars Episode VII to film over there, also working on both productions. I realised it’s not a field for me after all and left to go back to the IT field.

With Fyma we are working to measure what really happens in the built environment around us, partnering with large mixed-use real estate developers, cities, and event spaces so they have data to back up decisions and they can stop relying on their gut feeling and data modelling, using real empirical measurements instead. We really are helping to build a more inclusive, equitable – and profitable – environment thanks to the data our platform generates. Additionally, benchmarking insights is something we are currently working on and are expecting to release more on this later in the year. My role as CEO revolves around business development, investor relations and fundraising as well as setting the strategy and roadmap together with the team. I am an NLA Expert Panel member for the Built Environment Technology programme and a Member of the Supervisory Board for the Estonian Innovation Agency as well as belong to the board of Estonian Founders Society which represents the country’s startup founders.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When starting out, I really didn’t, however it has been a more conscious effort in recent years, and I have started to plan this alongside building Fyma. Career planning is necessary, and I see more and more women around me taking a more strategic approach to planning their working lives and career as well as educational paths. Luckily, careers are no longer rigid one-job-for-life affairs and as we evolve and grow throughout our lives, so can our careers.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

There have been all sorts of challenges, from finding it hard to get back to work post-kids to active bullying in the workplace and being paid much less than male co-workers in the same position or, in one case, a subordinate.

Best revenge is a life well lived, so I’ve prepped a contingency plan and then quit all those jobs where I faced the challenges just mentioned. It’s also why I now am an entrepreneur – it is much more responsibility and effort, but I relish it because the success depends on me, the flexibility is mine to manage, and I now control my own remuneration and the people and clients I get to work with.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Setting up Fyma and taking it through initial phases of growth, fundraising and product exploration with our team, it has been the most rewarding, challenging, growth-inducing and meaningful work I have done. I also get to set an example to other (young) women so they can begin to consider options they perhaps wouldn’t previously due to really high entry barriers and a lack of role models. For this I am grateful for the work I did at Care Quality Commission in the UK where all my top superiors and our programme managers were women from mid-30’s to their mid-60’s – it was just so ‘normal’ around me that I never doubted in my ability to lead or work in the tech field as a woman.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I grew up on a working farm in semi-rural Estonia, where we had to work the field as kids on everything from picking potatoes and apples to making hay for the cows. I never went to daycare and started school at age 7, so the first years built grit and a strong work ethic: if you don’t work it means you don’t eat. Running a start-up is not like running a marathon – it’s like running an ultra in a constantly changing terrain. It’s impossible to do that without the foundations that keep you going.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Your network is your net worth – build the best, the most varied and supportive network around you that you possibly can (this goes for any field, not just tech). It is this network that will help you to your next job, investment, and growth opportunities. The tech sector is valuing a wider variety of backgrounds, so don’t worry about this too much in entry-level jobs especially. And finally, keep learning – technology is changing rapidly and it is essential to keep abreast of trends, new companies popping up and opportunities emerging that we couldn’t even think of just a few years back.

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Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, of course there are. Just a mere fifth of the sector is female and male role models with the embedded networks between them and other structural barriers are very much in existence. According to Crunchbase, just 2.3% of global VC capital went to women-led start-ups in 2020. I’m just reading Mary Ann Sieghart’s The Authority Gap and it starts with how Pope John Paul II greeted the Irish Prime Minister Mary McAleese by reaching out his hand to greet her husband instead with the comment of ‘Wouldn’t you rather be the Prime Minister of Ireland rather than married to one?’ It’s shocking how many top women, absolute world class in their field are routinely snubbed and ignored in favour of their male colleagues, not paid the money and respect they deserve or simply ignored as they’re not as well known.

The more women we have in boards, supervisory boards, committees that have oversight of hiring and expenditure of organisations making sure equitable principles are upheld the faster we will get to a world where this will be less of an issue. The more women speak up on these topics, accept top jobs and even speak at conferences more – the more visible they are and the more ‘normal’ it becomes that both genders work in the field. So I always say yes to board appointments where I can make a change and accept speaking engagements where I can highlight this and I encourage others to do the same.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Be generous with parental leave and encourage male colleagues to take longer leave when babies are small. Flexible and remote working should by now be standard, and as women bear a larger burden of household chores, being able to work from home makes that burden much more manageable. Having a policy of no evening events or offering child-care for colleagues with kids for when those events take place should be essential.

Being a woman is not a handicap and the support programmes that are set up inside companies are great, however they will not make a big change if boards and management teams remain male. Change must start from the top and be visible.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Education – having more interdisciplinary programmes exposing young women to tech careers regardless of the field they’re currently majoring in would be a massive step forward in getting more women into tech education and then on to a tech career beyond that. For example, in AI we need people with backgrounds as varied as linguistics, statistics and the visual arts – the more women we can hire for our teams to balance genders the more likely it also is that they’ll not leave the field and carry on working inside it to build long-lasting and interesting careers.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I already mentioned Mary Ann Sieghart’s book, and I thoroughly recommend reading it – it also has great recommendations on how to overcome the challenges outlined in this interview also. Another great one is Caroline Criado Perez’ book ‘Invisible Women’ which again highlights the structural disadvantages and makes it visible for those of us so accustomed to it that we don’t even notice them any longer.

I also love Reid Hoffman’s podcast Masters of Scale, where amazing female (mostly tech) leaders tell their stories and I have learned so much from them, often going back to re-listen certain episodes when I face similar challenges myself. The Allbright and similar clubs are amazing, as well as venture companies backing female founders (e.g. Sie Ventures in the UK) who come with a whole support network for female founders specifically.