Russell Goldsmith
Russell Goldsmith 12 May 2020

Podcast - Interview with Poppy Gustafsson, CEO of Darktrace

The first in a series of episodes that the csuite podcast is recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own 'Without Borders' podcast, interviewing leaders of European Unicorns or those companies close to reaching Unicorn status. Our first guest of the series was Poppy Gustafsson OBE, CEO of Darktrace.

The first in a series of episodes that the csuite podcast is recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own 'Without Borders' podcast, interviewing European Unicorn CEOs.

If you know a Unicorn leader who should feature in this series, please get in touch.

Part 1 - Poppy Gustafsson OBE

Our first guest of the series was Poppy Gustafsson OBE, CEO of Darktrace.  

Podcast Host, Russell Goldsmith (top right) and Tyto's Brendon Craigie (bottom) chat with Darktrace's Poppy Gustafsson 

Founded in 2013, Darktrace is recognised as the world's leading cyber security AI company. Under Poppy's leadership, the company has reached a $1.6bn valuation in under five years. They now have around 1200 employees today, with offices in 43 locations around the world.

It’s the power of the technology that sits at the heart of what they do, she has a team of incredible AI experts – around 40 PhD mathematicians and that what they have built is truly world class.

Poppy is actually joint CEO alongside Nicole Eagan, who is based in America. Poppy is a mathematician and chartered accountant and so is very much a data and numerical person, whereas Nicole’s background is marketing and so she is very experienced in the market positioning and understanding the customer's needs.

Poppy was recently announced as Businesswoman Award 2019 by Veuve Clicquot and Businesswoman of the Year from the UK Tech Awards 2019, plus, Darktrace picked up the Artificial Intelligence Award at the 2019 Lloyds Bank Business Awards.

1) From the very founding days of Darktrace, they wanted to build a cyber security business that was challenging the status quo and becoming a unicorn was incredible validation but that wasn't what they set out to do. They want to be deployed across the world in as many different verticals, helping as many different businesses that they possibly can.

Being a Unicorn has opened doors, it demonstrates that you are a significant player and that you are able to have the global reach and influence that you want, you are delivering on your promises.

2) Cyber security has typically been all about identifying the bad guy, trying to second guess the attack of the future, and then trying to identify that within businesses that they're projecting. However, Poppy wanted to set up a business that started with the assumption that at some point that breach was inevitable and what Darktrace does is sit within an organisation and learns its unique digital thumbprint. Only by knowing what makes that business unique can you then spot the behavioural changes that will emerge as a consequence of the cyber breach. That was the power of their AI.

3) Having to address stakeholders in different countries is something that UK businesses have to their advantage because they have to learn how to trade internationally right from the start. Nicole’s knowledge and experience in marketing in US industries was world class and so Poppy said they wouldn't have been able to achieve that without her. Poppy added that they have had to learn and adapt to different cultures. However, she said they would try and stay away from organisations such as multinational banks, because they become this huge, long, protracted sales cycle and a massive distraction. Poppy therefore sees cybersecurity is an enabler that allows us to benefit from all of the innovation that's happening all around us.

4) The culture at Darktrace is very much one of optimism, ambition and the very high standards of excellence that they all hold each other to. The culture is defined by the people that you bring in, bringing on people that reflect the principles that you want to reflect to the outside world and training them and investing in employees.

Poppy said that even as the company has grown, the culture is not prescribed and there are no set of rules, but she thinks that some of the principles that they run the business by mean it naturally occurs.

5) Making sure that people still feel part of that common business and get the chance to hear your vision and your voice and what it is that you care about is really important. To do this, Darktrace have employee webinars regularly as well as events, whether it's Christmas parties or summer drink, which are an opportunity to bring the employees together.

Your communication has to be far more absolute, and black & white, because by the time it's filtered down through the business, you cannot allow any interpretation of anything that's not quite or not well-defined enough.

6) The fact that Darktrace talk very positively about cybersecurity is a real enabler for business rather than something that's necessarily holding it back. Poppy feels it is part of her role, to represent that and talk about their approach to the business.

As well as this, one of the things that Darktrace are now celebrated for and are very good at is gender diversity. They simply hired the best people but have naturally ended up becoming a real champion for gender diversity.

7) There are skills to communicating externally that you get taught along the way. Often, what Darktrace are communicating is something that's very deeply technical and something they might be communicating to a non-technical audience, so, translating what they are doing in a way that can be understood and consumed has been key to clear communications and the way that they have achieved that is through using analogies. Poppy also encourages feedback and other people's opinions.

8) Poppy said that training has been a challenge. There is a huge skills deficit in cyber security, there is just not enough people to keep up and they have had to grow those skills in-house.

9) It’s been about having really good strong analogies that convey what it is that you do and what it is that you're passionate about to articulate their story and vision.

10) There are many people that are very, very talented natural communicators, but public speaking is also something that you can learn just through experience and enjoying the engagement with the audience. When it comes to more broader communications, Poppy thinks that honesty is always the best policy.

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