Women in Digital: Irra Ariella Khi

Zamna CEO Irra Ariella Khi on dealing with expectations of what a CEO should be, her biggest challenges and how being told ‘no’ helped shaped her vision

Posted 26 July 2021 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Yes, I enjoyed learning, but I didn’t enjoy being the least technically minded member of my family! All of my siblings did pure maths or physics. Both of my parents did pure maths or economics or indeed, rocket physics – my father is actually a rocket scientist. I was always the black sheep of the family, interested in the arts and creativity and not just maths!

My dad used to play a game with us where anything that has any rows of numbers printed on it – a ticket on a train or any serial numbers – we had to put mathematical symbols between those numbers to get to a particular answer. Also, my parents were academics: we moved a lot, which is how we ended up in the West, having been born in the former Soviet Union; I grew up in an environment that fostered constant learning.

You also become highly proficient at making friends and connecting with people really quickly and making judgement calls, even as a young child. Who’s my person, who’s my tribe? How do I find people that I relate to quickly?  I’m definitely not grateful for being uprooted as much as I was, but I’m grateful for the skills it instilled in me around how to understand whether somebody is someone I’m going to have a meaningful connection with or not.

What’s qualifications do you have?

I have an undergraduate and a Master’s from Oxford University. I never completed a research degree, or an MBA. So, I am your typical founder, who’s not an undergrad dropout, but my career of going into academia was set very early. I worked extremely hard at my degree and graduated in the top one percent of my class at Oxford, and I was earmarked for an academic path. But I think there were too many exciting things that didn’t come with a piece of paper – and research into technologies was one of them.

One of the best things I did was crash lectures at Oxford Saïd Business School. I found it fascinating. I actually started an MBA with the Quantic School of Business and Technology and I intend to finish it at some point, but building a business has proved much more useful. Being obsessed with applied technology and how you create a vehicle to take it into the world is a lot more exciting to me than collecting pieces of paper.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or combination of both?

I failed with three companies before this one – this is a fourth attempt to start a business, and to run a successful vehicle to commercialise technology. I ran these technology start-ups in many different industries, ranging from mobile, to fashion, to early cloud, and now blockchain. So while there may not be clear synergies between these industries, the way that I’ve applied myself within them is consistent.

‘What do I see that no one else does? Do I think I can I prove something? Can I create a technology?’ In the case of Zamna, I was able to write the first four patents the technology is based on. ‘Can I leverage myself in service to creating a business around that?’ That’s been the driving force in my career.

There have certainly been rocky moments that I think most women can relate to – having my daughter 10 years ago was extremely difficult. At one point I found myself in a tricky situation with no real place to call my own home with a very young child. And when you’re trying to be creative in a scientific way you need thinking space, and a young child is not conducive to that. Unless you have an extremely supportive partner and maybe a supportive family or some form of localised support that enables you to find some freedom intellectually, you’re going to struggle. This is why we don’t see so many women founders.

That really threw me because there was no time to think – and that is the most precious of resources. Thus, in terms of career, there were three or four pretty dark years when I was not really able to deliver on what I wanted to do for myself because my responsibilities were elsewhere and there was no time. I found that really tough, really frustrating.

What’s the best career advice you have received?

I’ve received sound advice from people who ended up investing in the business. Some really good advice was around how to tune out other people’s opinions of what a young woman, who happens to be a parent and a CEO, should or shouldn’t do.

A lot of the early-stage founders are often seen as lunatics. Looking back on it, I just thought, how did I think this was going to succeed? [You need that] relentlessness of “I’m just going to keep going, and I don’t care whether you think this might not work out.”

One of my first investors is based in Silicon Valley and he said, “Don’t get disheartened because in the valley, unless you’ve heard the word ‘no’ over 200 times, you haven’t even started your [funding] round.” That really gave me a good benchmark on the levels of resilience that would be required. It’s certainly not for everyone; you need some very thick skin and a consistent desire, a thirst to learn from every single ‘no’. You don’t just ignore it and do the same thing repetitively.

If you had to pick one mentor who has had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

The best mentorship I’ve received is from somebody who’s been in professional services for years. My co-founder is much more technical than I am. And then we found this mentor, who was more operational and understood this third element that we were lacking in our team. A lot of the time you’ll have founders but they won’t have all the skill sets between them. Actually learning things like managing expectations when working with external people, managing deliverables that require multiple inputs, so process-driven mentorship, which is not necessarily innate to a market-facing CEO or a technical CTO.

From where do you draw inspiration?

Inspiration is very much an internal concept for me. I don’t really have a “top ten” of ideas I prescribe to, or top ten books I read. It’s somewhat existential; I’m inspired by the opportunity to live the best life of adventure and to put myself in the service of something I truly believe in.

Choice is ultimately why I think life is enjoyable – being able to choose whom you work with, what clients you engage with, what you bring into the world. We’re not here to have a terrible time, because as far as we know, we don’t get a second run at life. So it’s an existential inner drive to not only put myself in the service of something meaningful, but to make sure that this freedom of choice – be it of your colleagues or clients – is preserved by doing the best that we can in our chosen field. I think it’s quite extraordinary.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

It really annoys me that leaders who happen to be female have to be twice as brilliant, to be half as respected by a generation who are in charge of businesses – who are often older than us and male.

I’ve been really fortunate to uncover a methodology to find the right people who will champion the business and what I’m doing. But I found it extremely challenging to get to that position in the Middle East. Culturally, it was much more prohibitive for me to be seen as a leader.

Earning our earliest customers was tough because there are factors outside of my control, for example – to some degree – their perception of me. Conceptually things that are outside of my control, like my age and my gender, shouldn’t matter. I very consciously structure a team around me that, quite frankly, doesn’t care – they think it’s irrelevant.

There’s still very much a glass ceiling. But the real challenge is that it’s invisible.

What would you say are the biggest identity challenges we face today?

We have a lot to think about in terms of the challenge of identity in the post-Covid world.

We haven’t treated health as an identity problem and I understand why. Health has been a ‘let’s stop people dying problem’ and blanket vaccinate as fast as possible. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But how do you then take it forward into a society again that actually works? So everyone is starting to see that you can’t solve the health problem without solving the identity problem.

As an identity company that specialises in health, we’ve been absolutely head down with customers that are in the travel space right now. We are re-framing health as a problem of identity with them. We’ve just released a very cool product called Zamna Verified Health that securely connects a traveller’s verified identity information to their verified health status credentials, meaning you can check-in from the comfort of your own home, providing all the data required of you to travel to your destination – and you can even do it if you don’t have a smartphone. You can think of it as a Verification-as-a-Service. The travel providers themselves gain serious value because it works in the background alongside their existing systems, across the whole booking-to-arrival journey. What this fundamentally enables is travel providers to be safe in the knowledge that the passenger self-asserting their health data, (i.e., they are vaccinated, have recovered or tested negative) are exactly whom they say they and will not jump on an aluminium tube and infect another three hundred or so people!

It’s all very well solving the problem of identity in travel, but it’s no good if you can’t leave the house for the most basic functions, or we leave, but we don’t feel safe.