Inspirational Woman: Khyati Sundaram | CEO, Applied

Khyati Sundaram

Khyati Sundaram is the CEO of Applied - a tech platform de-biasing hiring.

Their tech removes gendered words from job ads, anonymises applicants, and rates candidates for their skills rather than what they look like on paper, or how they come across in interviews. 60% of people hired through the platform would be missed by traditional hiring processes, with ethnic minorities 4x as likely to be hired. Their clients include Comic Relief, UK Govt. and Penguin.

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

My CV is pretty varied. I started out in finance, and worked for years as an economist and an investment banker. I then entered the world of startups and ran my own business using AI to create sustainable supply chains. I started out at Applied as Head of Product in 2019, and in March last year I took over as CEO. Whilst the roles I’ve held have all been hugely different, I’ve gained valuable skills from each which I draw upon to this day.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

The short answer is no. I think my unusual career trajectory is probably a giveaway there! The experiences and interests I’ve gained from each of my jobs have led organically from one to the next. Having said that, I’ve always been passionate about tech for good and data science has remained a pretty constant theme throughout my career.

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

The interim period between closing my startup and joining Applied was a pretty tough time. Despite the skills I’d gained by that point and the extensive experience I’d accrued, I applied for countless jobs and went for eight months without getting so much as an interview. Time and time again I was told that my CV didn’t ‘fit’. Looking back, I’m certain that my gender, name, and less than conventional CV played a role in this. Employers were seemingly unable to look through these things to the skill-set and experiences I was bringing to the table.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Getting promoted to CEO at Applied within 12 months of joining the company is a definite career highlight. Especially since a recruiter once told me that I couldn’t do a C suite job! My own experience of the bias which Applied is working to fix is what first led me here. So being able to lead our talented team to build a fairer and more transparent future for hiring is a very personal mission, and a huge honour.

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

I was hired by Applied’s own tech. So I have a debiased, skills-focused hiring process to thank for the role I’m in today. Had I still been relying on employers using traditional CV sifts and interview questions, I might be in a very different position today. I’m also very aware that the majority of job candidates are still subjected to these processes, which are riddled with bias and are poor predictors of performance. I’m passionate about changing that. Everyone deserves a fair chance at success.

Khyati Sundaram

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

Think carefully about what company you want to work for. Women and ethnic minorities are still far too under-represented in the tech industry, but you can normally tell which companies are genuinely trying to promote authentic diversity and inclusion. Those making proactive changes will probably have the best cultures and offer you the best environment in which to thrive and where your skills will be properly recognised and valued.

Focus on applying to companies who use structured interviews centred around tasks and skills, rather than focus on candidates’ backgrounds or interests. You can also check out company websites and Linkedin profiles to assess whether existing teams are homogeneous, and dig through social media to get a sense of a company’s culture and values. If they aren’t prioritising diversity and inclusivity, working for them may well make it harder to excel your career.

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

Women make up just 17% of the UK’s tech workforce. Looking at programmers and software developers, that figure drops to 13%. The outlook is more bleak still for ethnic minority women, and the stats have lain stagnant for a decade now. We’ve got a long way to go before the playing field levels out. The single best thing that tech companies can do to accelerate the pace of change is to debias their hiring processes.

We know from extensive research that women are disadvantaged by traditional recruitment processes from the point that they read a job ad, right the way through to the final selection stages. When job ads are stripped of gendered language, CVs are anonymised, hiring managers stick to structured interview answers, and candidate scores are peer reviewed, success rates for female job candidates shoot up. Having worked as a woman in tech for years, I know just how badly we need to overhaul the ways we recruit and support women in this sector.

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

Women make up less than a quarter of directors in the tech industry. To empower more women to gain the recognition and senior positions they deserve, again, we must first root bias out of hiring processes. It’s not uncommon for those in charge to have picked out the person they want to award prominent positions to - often a personal connection, or someone who looks and sounds a lot like themselves - before anyone else is given a fair chance.

Besides that, we need to create dedicated training and development programmes for women in tech companies. Given just how far the gender gap has grown, we need to actively lift up female workers, and give them the support and confidence they need to succeed.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

‘Something Ventured’ (hosted by Kent Lindstrom) is an awesome podcast to get inspiration from female role models working in tech. They specifically focus on Silicon Valley. Another favourite is the ‘She Did It Her Way’ podcast (hosted by Amanda Boleyn), which shares advice on how to launch your own business.

For an inspirational read about leadership, and women in STEMM, I’d recommend ‘Road to Power: How GM's Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling’ (written by Laura Colby). It’s the story of how Mary Barra started out as one of a select few female electrical engineers, and progressed to one of the most powerful roles in the corporate world.

One of my favourite speakers is Vivienne Ming. She’s an expert in AI, behavioural science and neuroscience, and explores topics around the future of work and tech for good.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here

woman under a glass, breaking glass ceiling

Break the ‘class ceiling’ to boost equality of opportunity

woman under a glass, breaking glass ceiling

By Khyati Sundaram, Head of Product, Applied

The UK has a ‘class ceiling’, preventing talented employees from breaking through.

To tear it down, employers need to rethink the way they attract and hire employees – and ensure greater equality of opportunity for the wider UK economy.

While the Equalities Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on age, orientation, gender & religion, it offers no protection against class-based partiality. Even if this discrimination isn’t intentional, unconscious bias can rear its head without recruiters even realising.

This issue has lasting implications for an employer’s search for talent, social cohesion and the wider economy. A growing body of academic research is shedding light on this issue:

In 2016, the UK government’s State of the Nation Report acknowledged that: “from the early years through to universities and the workplace, there is an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and success.”

Successive studies have quantified this inequality. A 2016 study by the London School of Economics and Swarthmore College found that while 33 per cent of the UK population is from a working class background, it makes up just ten per cent of elite occupations.

Even when working-class individuals are successful in joining elite occupations, they earn on average 16 per cent less than people from more privileged backgrounds – detailed in LSE academics Samuel Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s 2019 book ‘The Class Ceiling’ whose work has been able to highlight less privileged candidates being shut out of elite jobs and prevented from realising their earning potential.

And there’s ultimately a wider economic cost to ingrained bias: Sutton Trust economists estimated in 2017 that greater social mobility could boost UK GDP by 2 per cent or £39 billion.

While UK companies are realising the need for staff training on unconscious bias and diversity, a more proactive and effective way to break the ‘class ceiling’ is through organisations rethinking their recruitment processes to make them fairer.

There are three practical and manageable changes that organisations can make to hiring to ensure this greater equality.

First, organisations need to commit to fair and unbiased recruiting policies, publishing a policy and communicating this to staff and potential employees in their external and internal communications.

Second, leaders need to implement tactics such as neutral wording of job descriptions in their recruitment channels. Academic research shows that taking out biased wording encourages more applications from people of less privileged backgrounds – and from women and more diverse audiences too.

Third, organisations need to use debiased hiring (including anonymisation) to ensure fairer and simpler recruitment.

New data-driven, blind hiring tools strip away all irrelevant information from a candidate’s CV and job applications and anonymise the way this data is presented to recruiting teams, leaving just the core qualities that make the candidate suitable for the job. These capabilities boost equality in recruitment and can engender social mobility within the wider workplace.

Using these tools, recruiters will no longer be swayed by a candidate that went to a prestigious school or bagged a life-changing internship through a relative’s connections – instead they are seeing the real candidate and what they can achieve. Rather than artificially narrowing the candidate pool to the same types of candidates they’ve previously hired for, they’re widening it to find anyone with the skills they need wherever they learnt them.

Fairer recruitment and removal of unconscious bias is helping organisations hire talented people that might once have slipped under the radar − or bounced off that class ceiling − as these examples show:

Engineering and construction business, Carey Group, became disenchanted with traditional CVs because they prevented candidates from conveying their real work capabilities. As a result, the company transformed its recruitment process to eliminate the risk of bias with a new, fairer blind hiring platform. Candidates now respond to the group’s vacancies by answering behavioural questions tailored to each specific job role with all responses anonymised before being reviewed. Not only does the new platform remove a candidate’s personal details and work history, it also randomises how the responses are viewed by the selection team. An interviewee’s answers are scored on a question-by-question basis – rather than applicant-by-applicant  – ensuring that all candidates are judged on equal merit.

Global charity Comic Relief implemented a blind hiring platform in 2019 to handle wide-ranging staffing needs and short-term resourcing for campaigns like Red Nose Day and Sport Relief – while fulfilling corporate demands for improved diversity and inclusion in its hiring. Its senior team reports that it can now plan how and where it is searching for talent across many different communities, job forums, regions or universities. This means that its recruitment is diverse while ensuring that the organisation gets the best people for the roles available.

Blind hiring is delivering equal opportunities through fairer hiring of talented people, regardless of background. Even among less-enlightened employers, we can start to break the class ceiling – and promote social mobility.

Khyati Sundaram AppliedAbout the author

Khyati Sundaram is the Head of Product at Applied. She looks after the strategic direction of the product and is responsible for overseeing the management of the product roadmap. Prior to joining Applied, she co-founded an AI-based pricing platform. Khyati has over ten years’ experience in product, fundraising and finance across small companies and large organizations such as JP Morgan and RBS. She holds an MSc in Economics, specializing in game theory, from the London School of Economics and an MBA from London School of Business with an exchange at the Wharton School.