Pukka founder Sam White speaks to Matt Scott about how she had to fight hard to overcome gender bias to set up her business

At the age of 24 a young entrepreneur stepped into a bank and asked the manager for money to invest in their exciting new insurance start-up. But this entrepreneur was a woman, and instead of receiving the money she needed to get her business off the ground, Sam White lost her personal overdraft. But that didn’t stop White from achieving success, it just meant she had to knock on more doors harder, and louder…

Sam White is not your typical CEO. As a female founder of several insurance businesses she is very much in the minority.

She certainly doesn’t fit the usual type of pale, male and stale that usually sits atop the insurance pyramid.

You would like to think that in 21st Century Britain we would be past gender differences, and women would be just as welcome in business as their male counterparts, but research from Crunchbase has found that just 17% of companies are founded by women, and that number hasn’t risen since 2012.

In insurtech, the number of women-founded startups stands at a shockingly low 4%.

Sam white 1

Sam White

From her own experience of launching a number of insurance businesses, White knows all too well the difficulties facing women entrepreneurs starting out with their insurance ventures.

“The start for me was at the age of 24 going out and sitting down with my bank manager and trying to get a business float, and seeing how unfeasibly hard that was,” she says. “In fact, despite having had no problems with my personal overdraft before, when I told him I was starting my own company the first thing he did was to remove that overdraft from my account.

“He was a very traditional sort of bank manager who then explained the concept of gearing to me in as patronising a tone as you could ever imagine, and then said they could lend me £40,000 for the business – as long as it stayed in my account and I never touched it.”

This ‘man-splaining’ and lack of useable funding didn’t put White off reaching her goals, and if anything this encounter made her work harder, and smarter.

“I did manage to get a business overdraft further down the line,” she says. “But it did need me to get my Dad to pretend to be part of the business and come in with me to the bank to give them that reassurance that they needed, despite knowing nothing about insurance.”

Family support

White adds that it did help her that her Dad was a white, middle-aged man who was reasonably wealthy, but says that as a woman it has always been hard for her to raise money for her businesses. As ever, she is reassuringly optimistic, and says it can be done, you just need to be smart about it. And determined.

“It has always been unfeasibly difficult for me to raise money as a woman,” she says. “I realised that I had to try and work commercial deals on a partnership basis, as I knew that if I was creating business opportunities through a large organisation that was a partner I could go to them and arrange upfront deals for a stream of work and then use that to grow the business.

“You can find a way, and if you really deserve it you will find a way. I’m not looking for special treatment for me or other women – if you don’t have a good business then you don’t deserve to be in business – what I would like is just simply a level playing field for everyone.”

Penny Searles, the chief executive of SmartDriverClub who started the company after being approached by California-based investors, says it is not that men are consciously biased against women, it is just that women have traditionally been under-represented in the insurance industry, but she is confident that is about to change.

“In insurance, we have a lot more men in senior positions than women, so the network for men is that much stronger,” she says. “Therefore if you are out there looking for investment in the UK from British investors, then it is more of a challenge if you are a woman, but the same could apply to men if you are in a different industry where women are in charge.

“We can’t change the face of the boards of the insurance industry overnight. Women have only been working full-time and having long careers in senior positions for 30 years, so the network at the senior level is still all men, but that will be changing.

“If you look at the middle managers in insurance companies now, there are a lot of women. As they move into board positions and become chief executives and non-executive directors over the next 10 to 15 years, as men have already done historically, then there will be a larger network of women available to approach and ask for investment.”

Searles says you only have to look at the boardrooms of yesteryear to see how that progress can be made: “Historically our boardrooms have been wood-panelled and filled with cigar smoking aristocrats. Now, there are men who haven’t even finished school, and each time there is a shift in the culture of the country, there is a shift in the culture of the boardroom 20 or 30 years later, and we are looking for those boards to make the investment.”


Viola Llewellyn, co-founder & president of fintech company Ovamba, says she has experienced a number of issues as an older black woman looking to set up a business, and that the lack of success stories starring people like her has been one of the obstacles that she has had to overcome.

“The issues for me have been three-fold,” she says. “It has not just been about being a woman in business, it has been about being a black woman in business, and a black woman who started a business after the age of 40 – that is three levels of potential bias. And that bias is not just external, it is also what you have built up over your years as an employee, and there is nothing you can point to that demonstrates you are doing the right thing.

“[As an older black woman in business] it would be very difficult to approach someone to become a mentor for you and invest their time in building your potential because there is nothing that says there will be a return on equity from that relationship, because there are not many people like you who you can say have demonstrated success.”

Before these examples of success from under-represented groups become more readily available, Searles says UK investors should look to the US for inspiration in how to be more inclusive in the way they help fund start-up businesses, just as she did when looking to secure funding for her business.

“We are very introspective in the UK and tend to focus on what is not working and how to fix it,” she says. “If you go to an American boardroom they will pat themselves on the back, be very positive around what has worked and how the future is looking, and then they will look to the negative points and ask how they could have done better.

“The tech revolution in California has made them a lot more open to anyone who is up for creating disruption and driving success. They don’t look at gender, they just ask : “Could this person deliver a result for me?”.”

Levelling the playing field

White has been active in promoting diversity in the industry, and has worked closely with Covea, among others, taking time out to share her experiences with 60 of the insurer’s female leaders as part of Covea’s drive for a more diverse workforce.

Covea CEO James Reader has himself said that “a truly gender-balanced organisation is absolutely key to ensuring we can achieve our longer-term growth aspirations and continue to successfully meet our customers’ needs”, and the insurer has introduced a number of diversity-boosting initiatives, including re-wording its recruitment collateral to appeal more widely to women.

White says that such initiatives are important for overcoming the unconscious bias that is commonplace in traditionally male-dominated industries such as insurance.

“We are all subject to unconscious bias, and that isn’t even just a male-female thing,” she says. “For me, there is just not enough diversity full stop. In the insurance industry there is a really strong unit that all looks the same – same age, same gender, same nationality, even same school background or same area of the country.

“People cant fight unconscious bias. When they try and do it in a staged, manufactured way it doesn’t work. If you want businesses to reflect the society that we live in, then it needs to be founded by people that reflect the society we live in, and for those founders to be successful then the people who are going to put the money in need to have some degree of affinity with them.”

We can’t all be ‘gobby northerners’

White is keen to reiterate that, for her, this is about more than just gender diversity, and she is a vocal advocate for diversity of all kinds within her business and the wider industry.

“You want to create a culture that resonates with everyone in an organisation, and for me I want a culture that says we will do our best, care about each other and that we are always fighting for the best outcome,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where someone is from or what their core principles are, as long as that two-way employment relationship works.”

Ultimately, however, White says real change cannot be achieved without the buy-in from those people at the top who have the ability to facilitate that change and, in insurance, those people are still mostly men.

But White says she has received support from powerful men from within the industry, and is confident that, with their support, the insurance industry can make the changes it so desperately needs.

“I have been incredibly well-supported, particularly by a number of guys in the industry,” she says. “Having the support of those men is actually more important for improving gender diversity than having the support of women, because they are in the majority at the moment, so it can’t change without their buy-in and I certainly don’t want to be in a situation where it becomes an us and them situation.

“We need to take a long, hard, honest look at ourselves and ask ourselves: “Is this truly the picture that we feel is the right one, and if it is not, what are we going to do about it to change things?”. I would hope if any board meeting I was in was filled with gobby, northern women then I would go: “This isn’t right, and this isn’t how we are going to get the right picture”.

“Because that is certainly what I do with people that I hire. I hire people from all sorts of backgrounds, because I don’t want my own voice echoed back to me, and I hope that the successful guys in the industry feel the same way about that as I do and want to see things from a wider perspective so they get more than just that one version of the truth.”

When asked her overall opinion on the industry, White still believes there is a lot more the insurance industry can be doing to improve diversity of all types, whether it be gender, race, sexuality or anything else, and says that it is her love of insurance that continues to drive her forward in an attempt to put the insurance world to rights.

“I love the insurance industry,” she says. “And it is because I love the industry that I want us to get it right.”