Interview with Natasha Allden, Recyclus NED
Lindsay Chathli speaks to Natasha Allden, non-executive director at Recyclus Group (49% owned by Technology Minerals Plc)
“You’ve got to be prepared for things to fail and that can hurt, you’ve got to be brave– and you’ve got to remember why you’re doing it”
From starting up her first digital company aged 21 to working on the British Land Speed Record and developing space rockets – along with more earth-bound pursuits - Recyclus non-executive director Natasha Allden has always used tech to push the boundaries of the possible.
In her teens, Natasha trekked the Atlas Mountains and her interests range from writing poetry to fly-fishing. What did I expect on meeting her (on Zoom)? A cross between a buccaneer and Elon Musk’s much younger sister? The reality was more nuanced and – well, impressive. For instance, she also enjoys painting – and yes, long walks in the country. Nevertheless, one of her core professional mottos would have to be: “Be bold.”
Natasha joined Recyclus in May 2021 with an impressive track record. Globally, she founded three tech companies, and worked as a digital and commercial strategist in the corporate FTSE 100 sector. Her achievements include cashless campuses and commercialising rocket engines. Why has technology been such a big thing for her?
“From working on the digital side, in FTSE 100, insurance, financial and energy companies, I was drawn to the latest in applications, CX, systems of systems and more, I realised what tech could do for companies, for individuals,” she says.
“And that has sort of been an underpinning value for me. It’s not the technology per se but what it can enable.”
Natasha joined the Board of Recyclus last May, bringing her expertise in commercialisation, tech transfer and government relations. She has always looked for original ways to re-purpose new and existing technology. She founded MULTIPLY in 2015 to help unlock the value of people and technology, maximise growth and generate revenue through new markets, models and applications.
“Business-to-business technology transfer is about constantly looking for new applications. ‘How can we use what we’ve got today for impact elsewhere?’ ‘Should we be using this rocket engine just in rockets? Could we, for example, use it in hydro-electric power?’” she says.
Recyclus is 49% owned by Technology Minerals, the first listed company in the UK to create a circular economy for batteries, re-purposing scarce materials from spent batteries to create new products and value. Amid the Government’s drive to Net-Zero and abolishing non-electric vehicles by 2035, how to obtain raw materials for EV batteries and what to do with all the dead batteries (of which currently a significant proportion of lead-acid alone are incinerated in the UK) are crucial issues for businesses and policy makers. Recyclus delivers end-to-end battery recycling – for example, its new lead-acid battery recycling plant in Tipton, will increase its recycling production capacity from 16,000 to 80,000 tonnes by 2027.
The attraction of Recyclus, using technology and innovation to solve real-world problems, is perhaps easy to understand. Before joining the Recyclus Board, Natasha was involved in looking at the commercial model, how it could be pitched to investors, where it was going.
“Helping shape those early stages, even from the side-lines, I saw something come together that not only had the mission to have a positive environmental, societal and economic impact, but was rooted in a real business opportunity, had got the right financial structure behind it and a strong Board. Who wouldn't want to be involved?”
Her biggest strength she describes as “being able to get something from an idea on the back of an envelope into the market”, her biggest impact is in the first 10 years of a company’s life.
A belief in the transformative power of technology and this desire to make a difference, was apparent at an early age. Natasha started an online recruitment company at the age of 21.
“I think, the thing is, it came from a deep-rooted sort of drive. It's an ambition, in the positive sense, to do something that matters and build something that makes a difference."
Ultimately, the embryonic enterprise failed in the 2008 market crash and subsequent recruitment slow-down.
“It hurt, it hurt a lot,” she says, “but it was one of the best investments I made and one of the best experiences I gained."
“I noted an opportunity, which was online recruitment, specialising in temporary entrance level roles. There was no online solution, back then. I mean, I didn't even have broadband, I had to go to the café at the end of the road. Crazy! It's just quite mad when I look back. But it was the best thing. It was about learning to be comfortable with trying and failing. And it was about being bold enough to give it a try in the first place.”
‘Bold’ is definitely one of her watchwords. Natasha went on to have a successful career in digital strategy and proposition development in energy, finance and insurance before moving into advanced engineering programmes, realising multi-million growth opportunities, through strategy and innovation, scaling companies through robust models, networks and relationships. She also went to university in her early thirties, gaining an MSc in Digital Marketing (distinction) and publishing a book, which presented the first network business model for recruitment.
Does she believe starting a company, like she did, is an option for other young people?
“I think this country is fantastic for entrepreneurship and innovation, compared to when I set up my business at 21. But it is not for everyone. The big thing I've noticed with all entrepreneurs and it's something I try and practice as well as having it in me is, you have to be constantly looking for those opportunities, you’ve got to sit outside of the box, and it's not comfortable."
“I think the reality is, starting up exciting businesses that are new, really new like Recyclus, you have got to be prepared for things to hurt, you've got to be brave. And you've got to remember why you're doing it. It needs to come from schools, too, not as spoon-feeding but an opening up of knowledge.”
Another key value for an entrepreneur is relationship-building, she says. One of her skills is in networks and government relations.
“Government has got so many fantastic initiatives out there. It has also got a lot of challenges. What can a company like Recyclus offer the policymakers, what problems can it help solve? And what should government be doing to encourage companies like Recyclus?”
One career highlight that for her illustrates the importance of relationships and networking was when Natasha worked as Marketing and Partnership Director on the Bloodhound supersonic car programme of the British Land Speed Record Team. The opportunity came after a call from an old contact.
“We hadn't spoken for years apart from the odd message. Out of the blue I got this call, no pleasantries just the question ‘do you want to come and play with rocket cars?’ And that was the job opportunity. It was a huge opportunity (even though a high risk one) and took quite a bit of thought to step out of my corporate career.”
She adds, “There's a lot of imposter syndrome. Us women are particularly bad at that, and we spend too much time questioning ourselves.” In the end she took the job, “It was wonderful.”
Leading on from that, how hard is it for a woman entrepreneur in the – some might say – traditional male world of high-tech and rocket cars?
Over the years, Natasha says she has experienced explicit and implicit discrimination, on occasions.
“Sometimes, it is just the actions and habits of people. I’ve been at events where press, agencies and company representatives have not engaged with me at all when an introduction has been made and started talking to male colleagues about my subject matter. My colleagues would often ask them why they weren’t talking to me, saying 'you need to talk to her!'”
An old and trusted family friend once even suggested she should dress more like the men to be taken seriously.
“Over time you slowly build that confidence to be able to walk away or challenge it. It’s not acceptable. But people do respond. And generally, people do try. I think the awareness is much better than 20 years ago when I started out.”
Natasha recently had her first child, William, now five months old.
“He is at that age when he’s beginning to know what he wants, he’s an absolute joy to be with,” she says. Has this changed her attitude at all?
“I’m a feminist but I don’t espouse the kind that says you can have it all. Having been on the other side, pre-motherhood and now on this side of it so recently, you do have to make choices. You can’t be with your child full time and have a full time job, one or other has to change, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s about prioritisation, building your support network and working smarter, more productively in a shorter space of time.”
As a company, Recyclus is very inclusive and flexible in working arrangements, but, she admits, some companies still have a long way to go.
“Companies like Recyclus are brilliant, and they should be the norm,” she says, “in terms of being flexible to people with different scenarios, be they children, people in a caring role, in a remote situation, there's tonnes of different scenarios. I also think Covid has helped broaden people’s minds about work-life balance and remote working.”
At a recent online Board meeting, Natasha says she felt comfortable enough to be able to turn off the camera so she could breastfeed William while the meeting continued. She would feel just as comfortable had it been a meeting in the office, she says.
“The enabling culture is really important. There are many formal structures, like childcare, keep-in-touch days, health cover, flexible hours all absolutely essential. But if you haven’t got the culture… if you don’t feel comfortable saying to your boss ‘I need to go at three’… I think that’s what needs to change in some companies, though it is getting a lot better.”
Natasha sees diversity and inclusivity as the lifeblood of a company – not just in a performative way. The Recyclus Board encompasses many different backgrounds and disciplines such as waste management, automotive and, in Natasha’s case, technology transfer.
“Recyclus has a fantastic clear vision. They're doing something ground-breaking. And they are forging ahead. One of the key reasons for their rapid success is the diversity of people at the company. This isn't just about gender, ethnicity, religion, it's about the way people think, their experiences. That's absolutely key to successful companies in the future.
“It has to start from the top, with Boards and even shareholders. As a shareholder, you want to be investing in a company that's going to sustain and grow. If they're not treating their staff right, if they're not bringing in diverse experience, they're not building right. You should be doing this to survive as a business.”
She adds, “There should be more Recycluses.”