At the end of May, Tessa Clarke became the 51st winner of the Bold Woman Award, the international prize championing women in business.
“It was definitely one of those kind of imposter moments as I walked into that room full of 200 incredibly high-achieving and glamorous women,” says Clarke, co-founder and CEO of Olio, the app tackling waste across the globe.
Sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, Clarke was unaware before the awards of how Madame Clicquot took over her husband's business after he died early in their marriage in 1805.
“It was the innovation that she brought to the business and champagne industry, inventing the [wine-finishing] riddling table still being used today," says the British entrepreneur. "She's definitely an inspiring trailblazer and original pioneer.”
The same can be said of Clarke and her American co-founder, Saasha Celestial-One, of their app tackling the problem of waste in the home and local community. Olio connects neighbours and volunteers with local businesses, so that surplus food and household goods can be shared, not thrown away. It has grown to seven million users in over 60 countries, with the United Nations highlighting the app as a "beacon” for the world. Further, Vivatech awarded it as ‘Next European Unicorn’.
“I'm just trying to spread the word about Olio far and wide,” says Clarke, a farmer’s daughter from North Yorkshire who had a 15-year corporate career before launching the app in 2016. “We've got a climate emergency, we've got millions of people going hungry, and Olio was a fantastic solution to all of those problems."
The idea was first seeded when Clarke moved house and the removal men wanted to throw away all the food. “I wasn't prepared to do that,” recalls Clarke, who questioned why there wasn’t a simple app to deal with the issue.
A year later, the two co-founders, who met at Stanford Graduate School of Business, did a proof of concept using WhatsApp before investing their life savings in building the app.
Seven years on, Olio has grown from two to nearing 100 employees, with the app popularity producing some impressive numbers.
“Collectively, our community has successfully shared and saved over 100 million portions of food and 9 million household items,” reveals Clarke. “But what's most exciting is the environmental impact of that. So that's equivalent to taking 431 million car miles off the road. And we've also saved over 16 billion litres of water.”
Tellingly, the data shows that Olio is currently doing less than 0.1% of its full potential. "And yet we're having an incredible environmental and societal impact," adds Clarke, "which is why we're trying to grow and scale as quickly as possible.”
As a remote-first, female founder business, the duo have built the British food-sharing app differently from the outset — 59% of staff is female, 29% LGBTQ, 24% from a lower socio demographic class, the same from an ethnic minority group, while 6% have a disability. Clarke admits: “We've got an extremely diverse team. And that has only really been enabled through the fact that we don't force people to come into an office.”
The co-founders have certainly been a force when it comes to financing. From launching in five postcodes in North London, the duo have raised over £40m in investment from venture capital firms against the backdrop of male-heavy investors.
“The data is still as depressing as ever,” says Clarke. “A paltry 1% of VC investment goes to female founders and hasn’t budged over the past eight years.
“We will only change the fate of female founders when we have truly representative investment committees. And the data shows that at the moment only 10% with check-writing capabilities are female, and we need that to be 50%.”
Having studied social and political sciences at Cambridge, Clarke also strongly advocates the need for more leaders at large tech companies to hail from a humanities background.
“I think that's why we found ourselves in some of the difficult situations that we are in right now, because some of the purely technical leaders have not really thought through the intersection of technology and humanity,” admits Clarke. “They've not really thought through the unintended consequences of their products. I don't think they have got a firm enough grasp of the full array of human behaviors.”
For the first four years at Olio, Clarke immersed herself in customer support as a full-time role which gave her an understanding of human behaviours. “That really enables you to understand how to build products properly, mindful of unintended consequences and what will happen with bad actors,” she says. “Too many of the large technical leaders today have just ignored that and how their platforms are being used and sadly abused.”
Despite the seismic organic growth of the app, Clarke learned to keep her “silver bullet” dreams to kickstart the hockey stick growth in check. It turned during the pandemic when living habits and the climate crisis came to the fore. “It was the first time where collectively, certainly here in the UK, we woke up to the fact that not only is there a climate crisis, it's real and happening now,” admits Clarke.
On launch, Clarke had assumed that the app’s first international markets would be France or Germany, having made the app internationally available. It followed a gut instinct to tick the ‘available to all’ box in the App store. “It countered all the advice we had received,” smiles Clarke.
The data sprang some early surprises, not least with a 150,000 community in Singapore, which the founders might have otherwise overlooked in their international expansion roadmap.
“We were then super curious to figure out what was happening," reveals Clarke. "We managed to track it down to a user called Daniel, who had started very actively promoting Olio through university students.
“We thanked him enormously. We were then able to support that organic growth, with performance marketing and advertising which helped accelerate the pace of growth.”
Through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Olio has now set itself “a terrifying target” of 1 billion people to be sharing via the app by 2030.
“The reason for that is really simple,” says Clarke. “It's because we're not going to be able to solve the climate crisis, unless we stop throwing away food at the rate at which we are and unless we start sharing rather than wasting our most precious resources.”
Behind the brand: CEO Tessa Clarke's tips
On building an app
“I had run digital businesses before Olio in a general management capacity. Sadly, I've never written a line of code myself. So we knew that getting the right lead developer was one of the most critical business decisions we could make.
Our first version was built by Bristol-based Simpleweb. We did a deal with them whereby they would give us half price day rates. In exchange, we gave them a small equity stake in the company that we converted from our first seed round of financing.
"That was how we could just physically afford to build the first version of the app. One of the great advantages of that approach is the agency had true skin in the game, They didn't just build and chuck it across the fence for us to deal with. They were part owners in the business and the lead developer, Lloyd, is still with us today.”
On fundraising as a female leader…
“If you're a female founder, you have to really tailor it. You have the need to recognise both the conscious and unconscious biases that exist against you — and then you need to respond to them.
"There is an assumption that if you're a female founder, you're not particularly commercial or particularly ambitious. So you then need to craft your pitch deck in such a way that makes it extremely clear right at the beginning of the deck and you have to really work really, really hard to make that point.”