Martha Lane Fox wants to re­shape our dig­i­tal world

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If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but what­ever you do, you have to keep mov­ing for­ward,’ says multi-hy­phen­ate en­tre­pre­neur Martha Lane Fox, re­peat­ing Martin Luther King’s maxim word for word when I ask how she finds the courage to take on the kind of blue-sky ideas oth­ers would find over­whelm­ing. Most peo­ple, I of­fer, would be daunted by the Last­ founder’s cur­rent project: Dotev­ery­one, the or­gan­i­sa­tion cham­pi­oning re­spon­si­ble tech­nol­ogy for the good of so­ci­ety. ‘Even if a prob­lem seems in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated,’ she rea­sons, ‘you can build a move­ment by mak­ing noise about it and join­ing up with other peo­ple. It doesn’t take much to move big ma­chines.’ We’re in a board­room tucked be­hind the pala­tial Port­land stone fa­cade of Lon­don’s Som­er­set House, which moon­lights as an un­likely hub for fizzing star­tups bring­ing to­mor­row’s ideas to life. One of th­ese is Dotev­ery­one. Flu­o­res­cent Post-its are scat­tered across the walls and ques­tions such as ‘What are ap­pro­pri­ate times to ask for pub­lic opin­ion?’ are em­bla­zoned on a white­board. It’s a place with big plans. Lane Fox co-founded Last­ aged 25 with friend Brent Hober­man (the pair are con­tem­plat­ing a party to mark 20 years since the launch). They rode the late-nineties dot­com boom be­fore float­ing the com­pany in 2000 at a value of £571m, mak­ing Lane Fox a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire. Not long af­ter­wards, a near-fatal car crash in Morocco left her dis­abled. Af­ter a long, painful re­cov­ery, she was ap­pointed the Gov­ern­ment’s dig­i­tal cham­pion in 2009 be­fore cook­ing up Dotev­ery­one. To­day, she looks cooler than the av­er­age boss, in sil­ver jeans, train­ers and long, gold ear­rings, with pink-streaked hair and a black cane – by her side since the ac­ci­dent.

In 2015, Lane Fox gave the BBC’S an­nual Richard Dim­bleby Lec­ture and said she felt so­ci­ety’s re­la­tion­ship with the in­ter­net was at a turn­ing point, al­though not even she could have pre­dicted the pre­science of her words, and the an­swer was an or­gan­i­sa­tion: Dotev­ery­one. ‘The UK had had suc­cess with e-com­merce, but so­ci­ety hadn’t yet felt the ben­e­fit of the in­ter­net. The next step was to be bolder about con­nect­ing ev­ery­one, and em­power schools, hos­pi­tals, and pris­ons to re­form by us­ing tech­nol­ogy in a dra­matic way.’ In May, 450,000 women dis­cov­ered they hadn’t re­ceived breast can­cer screen­ing letters be­cause of a glitch in old soft­ware; this stuff is fun­da­men­tal to our col­lec­tive lives. Dotev­ery­one has three main work­streams: re­spon­si­ble tech­nol­ogy (‘Dotev­ery­one’s dig­i­tal at­ti­tudes sur­vey showed peo­ple think the in­ter­net is a ben­e­fit to them in­di­vid­u­ally but not to so­ci­ety. We’re work­ing with com­pa­nies to fig­ure out how to change that’); dig­i­tal lead­er­ship (help­ing pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, from MPS to school­teach­ers, learn how to use the in­ter­net); and help­ing peo­ple un­der­stand the in­ter­net.

Lane Fox’s will­ing­ness to go where oth­ers won’t isn’t sur­pris­ing – af­ter all, she’s done it be­fore – but she is still self-dep­re­cat­ing. ‘I am never an early adopter! My mum showed me the in­ter­net, I’m that tragic!’ she ex­claims. ‘Brent came up with Last­minute. com and we co-founded it. I could imag­ine us­ing it; it didn’t feel like a big leap.’ Now, she re­calls

‘chaos’ in those early days. ‘Things hap­pened by chance, serendip­ity, fly­ing by the seat of our pants!’

Lane Fox be­gan her tele­vised lec­ture by re­call­ing pitch­ing for in­vest­ment in Last­ to ‘a grey­haired man in a three-piece suit be­hind a big ma­hogany desk’. She adopts his low, un­trust­ing tim­bre: ‘What hap­pens if you get preg­nant?’ When Last­ started, Lane Fox had a sense she was work­ing in a ‘gen­der-skewed sec­tor’, but ‘felt it more from the finance and travel in­dus­tries’ that she in­ter­acted with as part of her role. ‘All the cus­tomer ser­vice agents were women and the lead­ers were men,’ she says. ‘It was stark.’

As we chat, I men­tally tally Lane Fox’s pro­fes­sional roles: chair­per­son, Dotev­ery­one; board mem­ber, Twit­ter (‘I fly to the West Coast for meet­ings’); ad­viser, Joint Com­mit­tee for National Se­cu­rity Strat­egy; cross­bench peer, House of Lords; founder, Lucky Voice; and pa­tron of count­less or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing Lon­don’s Almeida The­atre. The re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing a ‘good, fe­male voice’ in th­ese male-dom­i­nated spheres weighs on her (‘I don’t think you can be a woman in tech and a mem­ber of the House of Lords and it not’). Her ad­vice for nav­i­gat­ing th­ese worlds? ‘Know your shit, be cred­i­ble, work hard. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily have “a strat­egy”. I get in­tim­i­dated, es­pe­cially post-ac­ci­dent – I feel peo­ple see my stick and a crip­pled per­son, as


op­posed to me. I flick a switch in my head, where I tell my­self to be present and con­fi­dent.’

While she ‘can be tough’, her de­sire to ‘get stuff done’ means rep­ri­mands to sex­ist be­hav­iour are ‘friendly’. ‘Re­cently, I was in a board meet­ing, and a man was sub­con­sciously call­ing me “Martha, dear”. I started call­ing him “dar­ling” back. Some­one said, “Why are you call­ing each other dear and dar­ling?” I said, “I’m call­ing him dar­ling be­cause he’s call­ing me dear!” Small things, but they mat­ter.’ Pre-chil­dren, Lane Fox ‘un­der­es­ti­mated what an im­por­tant piece of the puz­zle child­care is. I’m lucky, I’m rich – but if I wasn’t I’d be like JE­SUS CHRIST!’ she ex­plodes. ‘How can we sort this?’ It’s a freak­ing night­mare.’

It would be easy to tell Lane Fox’s story as one of a com­merce queen who had an ac­ci­dent 14 years ago and now does good. ‘That’s bril­liant, right? But it’s not the truth,’ she ex­plains. ‘I’d al­ways been more in­ter­ested in chang­ing the world than build­ing a business,’ but the ac­ci­dent ne­ces­si­tated her ‘weird, port­fo­lio life’. Her story may not be neat, but the ac­ci­dent is clearly a fault line; one of those life-chang­ing events that de­fines ev­ery­thing else as ei­ther be­fore or af­ter. She was thrown from the ve­hi­cle, broke 28 bones, had a stroke, and spent two years in hos­pi­tal. There are ‘lifelong im­pli­ca­tions’ but she is san­guine about her sur­vival chances be­ing dra­mat­i­cally bet­ter thanks to her wealth. ‘I would be dead with­out the money, for sure. I got good care at amaz­ing hos­pi­tals. The “slid­ing door” thing is sober­ing – if the crash had hap­pened to some­one else, they’d be in a wheel­chair.’ Now, she deals with ‘pain, fa­tigue, brain space… a bit of my head al­ways has to think about phys­i­cal cop­ing strategies. That makes me a grumpier per­son,’ she says, paus­ing. ‘I’ve a good de­nial gene. My cop­ing mech­a­nism is to deny it.’

But things have im­proved, and Luther King’s quote is a per­sonal post-ac­ci­dent metaphor for per­se­ver­ing (‘even at glacial speed’). She be­gan learn­ing kung fu (‘Hi­lar­i­ous, as I can’t feel my feet!) and cred­its ‘my amaz­ing mother, my part­ner Chris [Gorell Barnes], and my ex­tra­or­di­nary net­work of friends’ for get­ting her through. ‘For two years, they vis­ited the hos­pi­tal ev­ery sin­gle day, pro­ject­ing movies on to my hos­pi­tal room ceil­ing, bring­ing their new­borns to lie with me be­cause I couldn’t move, and help­ing me stand for the first time – one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do.’

In 2014, they ral­lied again, when 65 joined her to walk Hadrian’s Wall, mark­ing a decade since the ac­ci­dent, fundrais­ing £150,000 in the process. Her voice sud­denly drops. ‘They were amaz­ing,’ she says, softly. ‘So all the par­ties I had paid off! I re­ward them with par­ties!’ she laughs, back up to vol­ume.

In 2004, pre-ac­ci­dent, Lane Fox said she wanted ‘a foot­ball team of ba­bies’ but the crash robbed her of that chance. Now, though, she is mother to two-year-old iden­ti­cal twins Milo and Felix, born in Amer­ica ‘by a sur­ro­gate and an egg donor’. ‘It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. They were born pre­ma­turely, so we had to race to Amer­ica to get them. Now they’re here, they’re amaz­ing.’

Par­ent­hood is ‘an in­cred­i­ble re­spon­si­bil­ity, and huge fun’ and is the rea­son she’s ‘mak­ing dif­fer­ent choices’. ‘I do find my­self think­ing, “Screw it! I don’t want to go to that 5.30pm meet­ing if I can’t see them in the evening.” I’m still am­bi­tious, but I’m or­gan­is­ing my­self in a dif­fer­ent way.’

Her part­ner Chris runs a dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing agency and a ma­rine con­ser­va­tion char­ity (‘there’s a lot of fish chat in our house’). The two ‘share par­ent­ing, ab­so­lutely. Any­one in my sit­u­a­tion who talks about jug­gling work and par­ent­hood with­out to­tal hon­esty is talk­ing shit!’ she laughs. ‘I am so lucky. I’m richer than 99% of the world. I have two amaz­ing nan­nies, and some­one who helps at home. I couldn’t do what I do and man­age post-ac­ci­dent care with­out them. [Chris is] amaz­ing with them, too. I don’t feel like we’re con­stantly wrestling ca­reers and pri­or­i­ties, it’s just not a de­bate in our house.’ Fam­ily life sounds colour­ful (com­pris­ing ‘twins, two Ben­gal cats, amaz­ing women help­ing, fam­ily in and out all the time’); ‘I used to want to set up a com­mune, so this is prac­tice!’

When it comes to pre­vent­ing chil­dren be­com­ing screen slaves with­out ren­der­ing them un­able to cope with the dig­i­tal fu­ture, Lane Fox’s strat­egy will be mak­ing tech ‘a shared ex­pe­ri­ence’, with her kids likely to use a fam­ily com­puter in the kitchen (‘That way, you do it to­gether, and no­body’s in their room do­ing what­ever the hell knows what.’) She’s also mind­ful of set­ting an ex­am­ple: ‘My part­ner might dis­agree... but I’m not ob­sessed with my phone!’ she says. ‘I go up­stairs at 9pm and never take it with me. It falls down when I talk to the boys and our nanny on What­sapp, and take pic­tures of them with my phone. But I’m try­ing to be bal­anced.’

The spec­tre of Facebook’s data scan­dal looms large over


our con­ver­sa­tion. ‘I come from the e-com­merce web: if you’re buy­ing a flight ticket, you get a flight. But data is the fuel of the free web. The Facebook story made us re­alise the trans­ac­tion we’ve made.’ As we chat, a he­li­copter hov­ers above. The build­ing quiv­ers. ‘There’s Mark Zucker­berg, fly­ing over,’ she dead­pans, quasi-sar­cas­ti­cally. ‘I’m not “delete Facebook” mad; you might want to give your data be­cause the ben­e­fit is worth it. But you need to un­der­stand it. Plus, gov­ern­ments should leg­is­late ef­fec­tively, com­pa­nies need to step in, and we should use our power.’

She baulks when I ask about per­sonal style, cit­ing the pink streak (‘Maybe go­ing to the Lords made me do it!’) as the only ev­i­dence. For fun, she ‘drinks Cham­pagne, goes to the the­atre, and reads books, some­times all at once!’ She ex­er­cises ev­ery day and is a book­worm, read­ing 40 last year, post­ing each on In­sta­gram (‘partly to show off, ob­vi­ously!’).

I’ve long lost count of the num­ber of plates Lane Fox spins, but what, I ask, is the ul­ti­mate goal? ‘We’ve just started scratch­ing the sur­face of how the in­ter­net can help peo­ple,’ she replies. ‘It’s more pro­found than buy­ing cheap shoes. If I was in charge of the UK, I’d be think­ing about how to em­bed mod­ern tools to make so­ci­ety fit for pur­pose,’ she says, ‘em­pow­er­ing older peo­ple to man­age their care dig­i­tally, for ex­am­ple. We’ve thought about dig­i­tal econ­omy, now it’s dig­i­tal so­ci­ety’s turn.’ As tasks go, it’s me­galithic, and de­mands im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. So out she strides, cane in hand, off to change the world – again.

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