Born into a family of entrepreneurs, Sherry Vaswani founded her first business in 1994 soon after finishing university. Intrigued by the emerging technologies of electronic mail (as it was then) and the internet, she began a consultancy that became an IT managed service business which she ran until 2012 when it was acquired. 

A non-compete clause restricted her from starting a new business for the next three years. In 2015, a day after the clause expired, she incorporated Xalient

She knew exactly where the opportunity lay. “Companies were starting to move their applications to the cloud, cybersecurity threats were becoming more sophisticated, and people were starting to work in more disparate locations,” she says. These trends were going to change the way in which corporations managed their network and security systems. As a new, specialised entrant into the marketplace Xalient could be fast, agile and disruptive. 

She set up the business in Leeds. “We got assistance early on and the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and Leeds City Council have been very supportive. The city has a great catchment area for hiring talent.” 

An intriguing and important insight from this two-time female founder: one of her first hires for Xalient was a Chief People Officer. “People are so important to grow a business and Annie helped me create the right culture from day one,” she says. “In many businesses, culture can be a bit of an afterthought.” 

She also hired a COO and a CFO early on, allowing Xalient to leverage the experience of individuals to scale the business more quickly. Despite a battery of industry contacts, experience of selling into large corporates, and ensuring the appropriate accreditations and systems processes were in place, it was still hard going. Large corporates still viewed the company as a startup. 

So in 2016, Sherry acquired a small but established business in nearby Harrogate. The deal bought Xalient expertise and a track record and all the staff from that company have remained. And with that additional credibility, Xalient won its first corporate customer – Kellogg – in 2017. “They took a bold decision,” she says, “but they have reaped the benefits and remain an important customer.” 

This global contract was a game-changer. New customers, including blue-chip names such as WPP and Avis Budget Group, have flowed in. From £5m turnover and 34 employees in 2018, Xalient is now a £40m turnover, 220-employee business. Just recently, it was ranked 336 in the FT’s table of Europe’s 1000 Fastest Growing Companies – the second time it has appeared in this ranking. And, of course, Xalient is one of the constituent companies in the ScaleUp Institute’s Female Founder Index

Her immediate focus on keeping the culture while scaling up has paid off. Xalient has been adding around 40 new people each year during the last few years. It remains a special place to work, she says. “We pride ourselves on our reputation of looking after our people. We like to be the best at what we do and if we decide to specialise in a particular technology we will put great effort into training, which technical people love. Our reputation helps, but it is still a challenge to find the right talent.” 

Xalient has tapped into local universities for talent and innovation. An AI tool was developed with Bradford University and has led to three of the university’s data scientists and developers transferring over to Xalient full-time. “We have been able to develop innovations that we couldn’t have done ourselves, and these have really differentiated us,” she says. 

It is also an international business. Not only does it have employees in the UK, the US, India and Romania, its revenues are evenly split between the US and the UK. 

Despite its roster of international clients and presence on the global stage, there’s one sector that Xalient has yet to crack – the UK public sector. “Maybe they’re not ready for us. We are offering something new but the tender process reflects requirements that go back years. And it’s hard to influence those requirement specifications; I understand that procurement is process-oriented but it is not very imaginative. We have been successful because we are thinking differently. We can have good creative meetings with public sector teams but afterwards we’ll just receive an RFP or a bog standard tender.” 

Initially, Xalient was financed privately by Sherry herself -before greater customer revenues then kicked in to drive growth. Last year, the private equity firm Volpi Capital took a majority stake in the business. For Sherry, it was a chance to de-risk as well as to bring in expertise and cash to make regular acquisitions. “We’ll probably make an acquisition a year to help us enter new markets and adjacent technologies.” Already an active user of her professional advisory network, she is enjoying working closely with Volpi to identify potential acquisition targets. “They have also brought in their own network and have introduced us to some potential customers. Our relationship is really good.” 

“We must be bold. Young women aren’t encouraged to build and scale up businesses which are internationally successful. Telling our story and demonstrating that it is possible is the best thing I can do. I hope that other women can find their courage and be motivated to do the same – because the more women are out there, proving it can be done, the easier it makes it for the next generation.” 

It’s an attitude that runs through the company. All Xalient’s new products are given female names such as Wanda, Sona and Martina. The board reports on a wide range of diversity metrics. “We have always been very strong on governance because without strong governance, you can’t measure performance,” she says. And she’s rightly proud that Volpi’s auditing has put Xalient as the top company in their portfolio for its ESG performance. 

With Sherry, out-performance is the name of the game. Xalient will double in size by 2025 in terms of number of employees, she says. “Our plans are aggressive and we’ve got a good year ahead of us.” 

“We pride ourselves on our reputation of looking after our people. We like to be the best at what we do and if we decide to specialise in a particular technology we will put great effort into training, which technical people love. Our reputation helps, but it is still a challenge to find the right talent.” 

Sherry Vaswani, CEO, Xalient