Christine Telyan co-founded UENI, a Hammersmith-based technology company. Established in 2014 by both Telyan and Anh Pham Vu, their start-up has since received substantial funding and created over 2 million websites, all the while demonstrating you needn’t be a tech expert to kickstart a promising technology company.
As a graduate of Harvard University, LSE and Harvard Business School, Christine wasn’t necessarily bound for the STEM industry. So how did an American businessperson wind up navigating the often murky, tumultuous waters of technology start-ups?
According to Telyan, it was happenstance, a touch of irony and a spot of toothache.
“Anh had an abysmal toothache one night and we struggled to choose a dentist. A few weeks later, I had a similar issue finding a physio. We were always interested in the development of search engines, but our personal experiences made us realise that while there were advanced ways of finding products online, both in terms of tagging and structuring, there was a big gap in the services sector. Think hairdressers, plumbers, dentists. There are of course, some existing platforms, but these tend to focus on individual sectors, such as tradesmen or beauticians. There was no place to search for the cheapest, nearest, and best-rated service. When we looked into it further, we realised this was because most small businesses weren’t online in a meaningful way, and so just using a search engine alone was no help.”
Christine landed into tech because of the business problem she and her co-founder encountered. “For me, UENI’s primary focus is making our clients more successful, more operationally effective, more visible to customers, and we use technology to do this. Technology is an enabler, a means through which we provide business solutions.”
While Christine’s emphasis is solving a business problem, she is the first to acknowledge the dominance of technology. In fact, she says it has seeped into our daily lives in ways we don’t even consider.
“When I was at Harvard, Google was busy digitising the University’s entire library. Not long after, Yell was created from Yellow Pages. It was remarkable watching how technology began to revolutionize, even save, all these different industries that had existed offline for so long.”
The irony, Christine explains, is that although technology is largely an engine of progress, its remarkable pace forward has left many small business owners dazzled in the dust, unsure about proper marketing tools and online visibility.
In other words, the speed and sophistication of the technological world, arguably two of its best qualities, are also the barriers that prevent small business owners from entering it.
Christine is not an engineer and suggests that solving this problem may require an empathetic outsider such as herself; it may take someone more business-oriented to simplify how small, independent businesses meaningfully present themselves online.
UENI’s mission is to help small businesses run more effectively by first bringing them online and then fostering their digital growth. Many of these same businesses are at risk of being forced out by chain and franchise stores with the time and resources to develop a digital storefront and launch marketing.
In other words, small businesses, the majority of which are not online, need help, and UENI aims to deliver it with a disruptive offering. The company provides a 360 solution so the business is present on the platforms where customers are looking for services. They go one step further to collect all of the information about the business and do all of the work setting it up online.
Prior to UENI, Christine was an oil-trader building new trading flows between Europe and Asia. She dealt with high-risk projects that were met with a lot of naysayers, yet five years later many players in the market are increasing the scale of the business Christine established.
“This experience made me realise that I wasn’t afraid of a blank canvas or ambitious projects, that I liked building from scratch. Some people shoot me a strange look when I tell them I was an oil-trader prior to UENI. But being an entrepreneur and growing UENI is really about identifying market failures, coming up with practical solutions, and trying to anticipate where the world is going to be in five years so that we can get there now. Most businesses in Europe aren’t online even though most customers look for businesses online. These businesses need to be online, and we are helping them get there.”
Her empathy, her business background and her talent for spotting potential are just a few of her biggest strengths.
The UENI team Christine has built (UENI presently employs 65 people but is still actively growing) is wholly international. Moreover, most UENI employees speak more than two languages comfortably, a fact that helps the company address cross-cultural barriers when conducting business throughout its 9 countries of operation.
“We are comfortable catering to international audiences as a result [of our team]. These are natural advantages that allow us to compete. So while the UK is our perch, we have operations everywhere.”
When asked about the lack of women in STEM-related roles, Christine explains, “I think the biggest problem is that we receive thousands — tens of thousands — of applications for software & engineering positions, and less than five percent are female candidates. It's shocking.”
Christine would like to see more women in UENI engineering roles but thinks the problem of few female applicants begins earlier than professional life.
“Generally speaking, our team is very diverse, but not on the software and engineering side. And it’s not for lack of want, or for lack of trying. It´s a very complicated issue, but I think that there is significant lack of girls choosing STEM as viable career paths. I think we need to make clearer to young women that by studying STEM, they have the flexibility to do almost anything in their careers. A combination of STEM and business experience, or advanced business education, is a powerful combination.” At UENI, all business analysts are encouraged to increase their technical skills; Christine says that this kind of on the job training can help increase the diversity in STEM talent.
Christine says she works twice as hard to get ahead in the industry, but not because she feels she must prove herself as a female — because she must prove herself, full stop.
Yet Christine also says we shouldn’t bypass the fact that biases still do exist.
She acknowledges encountering a few situations in her career during which her role as a female professional was downplayed by fellow co-workers. Christine says these produced what were uncomfortable and at times hurtful situations.
“You cope, and you overcome — but you shouldn’t have to.”
In all her work, Christine sets an example and defies tired standards – no matter the odds.