Meet the global female leaders empowering Oxford's women

If you can see it, you can be it: the power of strong, female role models

Currently, only 20% of the world’s businesses have a woman at the helm, even though studies show that businesses with a high number of women in their leadership consistently perform better across the board*. There are several reasons for this notable gender disparity, many of them relating to restricted educational and financial opportunities for women globally, as well as a big ‘confidence gap’. The Oxford Foundry at the University of Oxford, is seeking to address this last challenge for female students and alumnae via its new L.E.V8 Women programme.  

The Oxford Foundry is the University of Oxford’s new entrepreneurship centre, which aims to support all 23,000 Oxford students in becoming more entrepreneurial in outlook and action. Established in an initiative from Oxford’s Saïd Business School, with a founding donation from LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, the Foundry was opened in October 2017 by Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The Foundry is now partnering with strong and successful female leaders from the global tech, FMCG and investment sectors, to support Oxford’s female start-up founders and future business leaders. The high-achieving women who have committed to providing expert guidance and mentorship through the L.E.V8 Women programme include:

Helen Riley, Oxford alumna (Politics, Philosophy & Economics), and CFO at  X
Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor, MD and Founder of BlueBolt Ltd
Robin Saunders, Managing Partner at Clearbrook Capital
Claire Davenport, CEO at HelloFresh
Farzana Baduel, CEO of Curzon PR
Alexsis de Raadt St James, Managing Partner of Merian Ventures
Nicole Vollebregt, SVP Global Purpose at adidas

L.E.V8 Women aims to shake up some commonly held preconceptions about leadership, entrepreneurship and gender, by skilling up Oxford's future female leaders and founders, providing them with the knowledge to build and grow their ventures, as well as providing leadership skills and personal development frameworks. The programme includes immersive learning workshops, a suite of e-learning resources, guidance and advice from industry experts and the ambassadors. Crucially, it also provides participants with access to a strong and diverse network of high profile female business leaders.

Nicole Vollebregt, SVP of Global Purpose for sports brand adidas, explains why the L.E.V8 Women ethos is close to her heart:

“I have a 4 year old daughter, and at this age it is amazing to see the amount of confidence and self-assuredness that she and her friends possess. But I have also witnessed what happens over time, as teachers, bosses, or the media tell you in blatant or subtle ways that as a girl or woman you are not capable - not equal. I believe we need to do everything we can to protect the potential, the passion and the talent of the next generation by partnering with these talented girls and women and supporting them to be successful leaders.  I am particularly excited about the possibilities that entrepreneurship brings for women, because it gives them the control which is still so difficult to garner in the corporate sector. The more companies that are started by women, the more we will start to shift workplace culture and what the organization of the future will look like.”

As Ana Bakshi, Director of the Oxford Foundry, explains further:
“It’s so important for women who are about to enter the professional world to have role models; seeing strong women who are out there, at the top of their professions can help with aim, focus and purpose. It’s even better if they get the opportunity to interact with them, learn from them, and wrap these learnings into their own respective futures, giving them an invaluable action plan. We are glad and grateful that these highly successful business leaders are willing to give their time so generously to empower future female leaders and founders from Oxford.”

Another prominent female leader who has pledged her involvement is Oxford alumna Helen Riley, CFO at X, who in her voluntary role as an L.E.V8 Women ambassador will be meeting and working with female students and alumni through the programme. Helen is passionate about supporting and nurturing female leaders of the future, as she explains:

“The economic and societal impact of empowering the next generation of female entrepreneurs and leaders is deep, far-reaching and self-sustaining. I’m honoured and excited to be an ambassador for L.E.V8 Women at the Foundry, and I look forward to supporting all the founders in their journey to becoming their best, most successful professional selves."


The first cohort of female-led start-ups on L.E.V8 Women joined the pre-accelerator in July. All are early-stage ventures, who have at least one female Oxford University student or alumna on their founding team.

Recent Oxford Law graduate Zera Ong is currently participating in L.E.V8 women with her venture Zelta Technologies, which uses A.I. to analyse and track hair loss in alopecia sufferers. She says:

“I know that we are going to benefit enormously from the L.E.V8 Women pre-accelerator at this early stage in its development. Through the one-day workshop in July, we sought to define our vision and I look forward to learning more about creating and executing on our action plan. I’m especially excited about being paired with one of the Ambassadors for 1:1 mentoring - just having access to that level of experience and support is going to be immensely valuable.”

Dr Danuta Jeziorska, is a Senior Postdoctoral Research Scientist  at the University of Oxford who is currently participating in L.E.V8 Women with her venture Oxomics, a University spinout that uses 3D structure of the genome to transform drug discovery. Danuta outlines her impressions of the first day on the programme:

“Day 1 of L.E.V8 Women was a hugely enriching experience. It was a pleasure to meet the cohort of amazing ladies, get 1:1 advice from Clearbrook Capital’s Robin Saunders and from personal development coach Yo Percale. Working with them, we established our business and personal action plans for the summer. We have a lot of reading and thinking to do ahead of the next phase, which is the 4 day intensive bootcamp in September. It is an excellent time for Oxomics to be part of the programme: we are ready to start raising funding, and the support that L.E.V8 Women offers will help us to bulletproof our business proposition.”


The first female-founded start-ups to participate in L.E.V8 Women are:

Zelta Technologies – a mobile app and community created to tackle the under-addressed condition of alopecia (hair loss), through personalised analysis and tracking, led by Zera Ong, a recent Oxford Law graduate.

Oxomics - using the 3D structure of the genome, together with genomic data mining, for novel therapeutic target discovery, led by Dr Danuta Jeziorska, a Senior Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the University of Oxford.

Trashformers - an intelligent platform for transforming plastic trash into compensation for households, benefit for businesses and data-driven analytics for scientists and policy-makers, led by Sara Khalid, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Biomedical Sciences.

Butterfly FX - working with established organizations to empower female entrepreneurs in emerging markets, led by Katherine Li, a current MBA student at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Oxford Pakistan Policy Network - bringing together scholars, global policymakers and business and civil society leaders to promote evidence-informed decision making in Pakistan, led by Gabriella Crimi, a former MPhil student in Development Studies.

Swirlit – producing the first ready-to-drink beverage for people that care about their oral health, led by Dr Angie Lang, currently studying for a Diploma in Strategy & Innovation at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Talynt - a web & app platform that will encourage non-professional women to market their everyday talents to their communities, led by Lyn Johnson, a current MBA student.

WomenRoar – a social enterprise that addresses gender inequality by empowering and training women entrepreneurs in the UK, led by Juliet Carter, Executive MBA student.

The first L.E.V8 Women pre-accelerator programme will conclude in early September, which will leave participants ample time to apply for a place on the Foundry’s main start-up accelerator, OXFO L.E.V8, whose call for applications is currently open until October 1st. 

*Women on Boards paper, November 2015, MSCI ESG Research Inc.