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The Policy Ask with Russ Shaw: “Every adult should have to take digital skills training”

The founder of Tech London Advocates on upskilling the population, balancing AI regulation with innovation, and boosting semiconductor investment.

By Spotlight

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, organisations that represent the private tech sector in London and globally, respectively. He founded Tech London Advocates in 2013 to given an voice to the technology community that was independent of government. Since then he has championed London as a global tech hub and campaigned to address some of the biggest challenges facing tech companies in the UK. Global Tech Advocates, which he founded in 2015, is now present in 31 hubs around the world, with more than 30,000 members.

How do you start your working day? 

I usually wake up early enough to make it to the gym before the morning email traffic properly picks up. I’ll run a 5K, which clears my mind and sets me up for the day. Then it’s back to my house in west London for a bowl of porridge.

What has been your career high?  

Ten years ago I founded Tech London Advocates then, later, Global Tech Advocates, which now comprise more than 30,000 tech professionals across six different continents. I’ve had to combine the various skills I’ve developed throughout my career – building, marketing and growing an organisation at scale internationally.

If I had to pick one standout moment, it would be being recognised for this work with a CBE for services to business and technology, an acknowledgment of the real spirit of collaboration which these communities have fostered.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

My experience as CEO of Mobileway, a mobile messaging startup. As we sought to scale the business and make it profitable, there were sleepless nights, high-stakes negotiations, and an unrelenting pace that often took me away from my family. I recall raising money in a Series D round (the fourth stage of fundraising that a business completes after the seed funding stage), which still stands out as having taken a real toll on my mental wellbeing.

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I gained a profound empathy for – and a commitment to support – entrepreneurs, and I developed an understanding of the stresses, sacrifices and relentless dedication required to build and lead a scaling business.

[See also: How AI is speeding up diagnosis]

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Have more confidence in your own beliefs! Don’t be afraid to get things wrong or take risks. I could’ve been bolder and more outspoken in those early days, secure in the knowledge that I wasn’t an imposter, and what I was saying mattered.

The second piece of advice is to love what you do. When I was younger, I went straight into the corporate world after studying, but I now know that to be successful you have to enjoy your work. I’m very proud of my wife, who has balanced raising a family with a variety of career activities while also having significant health issues, along with my three sons, who work in three very different industries in careers they are passionate about.

Which political figure inspires you?

Abraham Lincoln. As well as his wisdom and balanced nature, his skills in dealing with a divided nation and his ability to save it from its darker moments would be invaluable today. I had the chance to visit Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC last year to “pay my respects” to an incredible leader.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

In recent years, the government’s support for early-stage businesses, particularly the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), have been a real success. These are robust frameworks that incentivise investment, support startups, drive economic growth and overall have produced a conducive environment for both investors and entrepreneurs, not just in London but across the UK.

As well as these schemes, the priority technologies identified in the government’s Innovation Strategy – artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and semiconductor design – are absolutely the right areas for the country to focus on, and are set to define global economies for decades to come.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The “skills and talent” aspect of the government’s UK Digital Strategy is simply lacking the breadth and depth needed to equip the UK workforce for the future. This is the single biggest challenge facing the population, and the government’s approach to ensuring we have the skills in emerging verticals like blockchain and AI needs to be bolder and more robust.

While tech vacancies are finally starting to fall, for a long time the industry has been hampered by a skills shortage that only a national strategy of digital upskilling and reskilling will solve.

Which upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

I’ll be keeping an eye out for any policies that emerge from the AI summit the government is hosting for world leaders at Bletchley Park this week. Any regulatory frameworks agreed will define the development of AI for years to come. Equally interesting will be observing whether the Prime Minister can deliver a strategy that balances regulation with innovation, and matches his stated ambition for the UK to be “a science and technology super power”, which I fully endorse.

Which piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The UK should examine the international strategies we have seen on semiconductors, and how governments are making this area an integral part of their national strategies. Many are also putting significant investment behind these strategies – the US’s “act for chips” represents a $52bn investment and the EU has put €43bn behind its Chips Act.

While the UK has slightly different semiconductor ambitions – supporting parts of the industry like design, research and development, and the fabrication of compound semiconductors rather than high-end manufacturing – the £1bn announced by the government as part of its long-awaited semiconductor strategy will do little to assuage concerns around the growth of the sector in this country, unless it also involves strong alliances with chip manufacturers across Europe, Asia and North America.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

I would mandate that every adult in the UK has to undertake some form of digital skills training, and that individuals are granted the time off work – and provided with childcare support, if necessary – to complete it. The training itself would vary depending on prior experience and would not have to be particularly complex in many cases. Equipping our workforce with the digital skills needed for tomorrow’s economy requires a robust approach funded by both public and private sectors and would pay back for decades to come.

[See also: The Research Brief: what the AI summit should be focusing on]

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