Julie Tucker
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Martha Lane Fox: The most influential woman in digital

Entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox is a tech champion who has been recognised as the most influential woman in digital in the past quarter of a century. After shooting to fame during the dotcom boom, with the launch of Lastminute.com, she embarked on a new mission to improve people’s lives with technology.

The 47-year-old has helped to shape public service digital projects, sitting on the boards of Chanel, Donmar, Twitter and Warehouse. In addition, she is a trustee of The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. She entered the House of Lords on 26th March 2013, when she became the youngest female member in history.

After becoming Chancellor of the Open University on 12th March 2014, she received the Dadi Award as the most influential woman in digital in November 2019. She is also renowned for her charity work and supports causes including social justice, women’s rights and human rights.

Early life
Born in London in 1973, she’s the daughter of well-known academic, historian and writer Robin Lane Fox – an Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford. His publications include The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. He has won many literary awards and is also known as a gardening writer.

Martha Lane Fox also attended Oxford University, where she was a fellow of Magdalen College, following in her father’s footsteps. She read ancient and modern history, graduating with a BA degree and later an MA.

Her first job after graduating was with Spectrum management consultants. Here, she first met her future business associate, Brent Hoberman. Her boss at Spectrum, Kip Meek, recalled how Lane Fox was determined and persuasive – once talking him into doing 50 push-ups in an airport lounge on the way back from a business conference!

In 1998, Lane Fox joined forces with Hoberman to co-found the online travel and leisure store, where consumers could book great last-minute holiday deals, Lastminute.com. It wasn’t easy starting up a business. Lane Fox was 25 and Hoberman was 30 and they weren’t well off. She described their first office premises in London as being like working “in a broom cupboard”.

Spending 18 hours a day, seven days a week, cold-calling airlines and begging for meetings with execs, as the tech sector started to boom, she was revered by cyber-geeks and the business people whom she persuaded to invest.

Her online travel service sold spare airline seats and hotel rooms. Business was soon booming – just five years after launching Lastminute.com, the company was valued at £700 million and had 1,400 employees.

Lane Fox surprised the business world by relinquishing her role as managing director in 2003. At the time, she told the media it had been an “amazing and fantastic time”, but she had “always wanted to do something else”. Seeking a new challenge had spurred her decision – but she admitted, “I don’t know what it will be!”

The former head of US software giant Intel, George Coelho, put money into Lastminute.com and had great admiration for Lane Fox. He described her as having “more self-belief” than most older entrepreneurs. She raised her company’s profile (and ultimately more funding) partly by being outspoken.

Coelho recalled how she gave senior bankers a public rollicking by standing up at a conference of disinterested venture capitalists and challenging them: “Call yourself financial entrepreneurs?” Admitting he loved her “passion” for business, Coelho said, “The bankers had never heard anything like it!”

Karaoke company
Lane Fox then teamed up with entrepreneur Nick Thistleton to found Lucky Voice, which became Britain’s leading karaoke company. They owned numerous bars, including a Soho club. The venture changed the face of the karaoke industry. Lucky Voice’s mission was to “spread happiness” by hosting an “unforgettable singing experience”.

Today, Lucky Voice has a range of private karaoke venues, an online at-home karaoke service, a franchise business and licensed technology for venues. It is credited with consolidating a sector historically associated with poor quality.

Digital champion
Between 2009 and 2013, Lane Fox had a new challenge: creating the Government Digital Service and becoming the UK’s official digital champion. She headed the team that launched the gov.uk website and spearheaded major government campaigns to improve computer literacy for all.

Tasked with establishing the Cabinet Office’s Digital Public Services Unit, after creating her “Manifesto for a Networked Nation”, she was recognised by the then Prime Minister David Cameron for her ground-breaking project, which was aimed at increasing internet engagement in Britain. She stepped down as Digital Champion in late 2013.

In her maiden speech in the House of Lords, she highlighted the need for digital literacy in all sectors. She was also appointed Chancellor of the Open University in 2013.

In June 2016, Lane Fox joined the board of social networking site Twitter. At the time, it was announced she was being drafted in to “freshen the board”, after Twitter was criticised for “lacking diversity and innovation”.

Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, commented that other new directors would be appointed, bringing “diversity”, while representing the “strong communities” on Twitter. He said this was a “must”.

Lane Fox is also founder and chair of Doteveryone – a think tank which looks at how technology can be used responsibly. She decided to found the charity following her Dimbleby Lecture in 2015, when she spoke about the need for a new organisation to help everyone shape the digital world, focusing on the moral and ethical issues it created.

Doteveryone campaigns for “responsible technology” and is working to change the way tech is used, so it supports an inclusive, fair, sustainable, democratic society. The charity shows businesses how to build responsible technology that supports people’s best interests, local communities and the planet as a whole.

As a patron of the legal action charity Reprieve and also of Camfed (a charity that fights poverty, HIV and AIDS in Africa), in 2013 Lane Fox was awarded the CBE in the New Year Honours for “services to charity and the digital economy”.

If you’re starting up a business, there’s no need for anyone to be “working in a broom cupboard”! Headspace Group provides affordable coworking offices for creative minds.

Image © John Davidson Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

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