Navigating Stealth Mode: Building a World-Class Team in DeepTech with Unlikely AI's Head of Talent, Sophie Stevens

Published on January 23rd, 2024

In our first instalment of the #DeepTechstart-up Q&A series, we had the privilege of sitting down with Sophie Stevens, the Head of Talent at Unlikely AI, a London-based DeepTech start-up founded by William Tunstall-Pedoe, best known for his key role in the creation of Alexa following the acquisition of his first start-up by Amazon in 2012. Unlikely AI is at the forefront of pioneering transformative technology, striving to enhance the accuracy, trustworthiness, explainability, and safety of Artificial Intelligence.



Kane Fallon (Search Technology): Could you share with us the journey that led you to become the Head of Talent at Unlikely AI, highlighting key experiences and decisions that shaped your career path?


Sophie Stevens (Unlikely AI):

With 15 years in talent acquisition, I've collaborated with organisations of various sizes, navigating diverse recruitment models. My background ranges from Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) to internal recruitment in large companies. Over the past six years, I've focused on building talent teams for tech start-ups, notably expanding McLaren Applied Technologies' workforce from 150 to 350 employees. This experience, distinct from my previous work in the pharmaceutical industry, exposed me to the fast-paced and challenging tech world, requiring a new level of resilience and pushing me way beyond my comfort zone.

I’ve seen how ever-evolving the recruitment industry is and witnessed the advancements of improved platforms, sourcing and automation tools.  A lot has changed since I first started and there are still loads of things I am learning now. Taking on the role of Head of Talent at Unlikely AI adds another layer, introducing me to the intricacies of deep tech, stealth mode hiring, and the unique challenges of working in the smallest start-up environment I've worked for so far.


Kane Fallon (Search Technology): How do you approach hiring when in stealth mode, ensuring confidentiality and attracting the highest calibre of professionals?


Sophie Stevens (Unlikely AI):

Hiring in stealth mode has been a really interesting learning curve. Stealth only means that there are some confidential details of our tech that we can't share, so we need to focus on everything else: Our great team with their track record, our company principles, the problem we're trying to solve, and a hiring process that gives a taste for it without revealing confidential details. 

We are operating in an extremely challenging space and our opportunities are not like any other deep tech roles. We are super ambitious in accelerating the day when machines can take over cognitively in a very safe way that allows humans to flourish.

Having a solid understanding and enthusiasm for the business that you are hiring for is essential when operating in stealth mode. As a talent team, we ensure we are exposed to as much information as possible. We use this to then balance and shape interesting conversations without giving away confidential information. All of our employees are invested in hiring as it is one of the most important things we do. 

A big part of attracting the highest calibre of professionals is down to the current calibre of the team. We have many super-smart individuals here and we ensure this is visible to encourage further candidates. Most candidates are intrigued by the stealth aspect but there are a few that aren't, so it’s really important to be readily equipped to adapt to these conversations, and remain somewhat flexible with our processes. We provide ample opportunity for candidates to feedback on our overall process, carrying out pulse surveys so that we can pivot where we need to. 

Crafting creative sourcing strategies and outreach is paramount to being successful when operating in stealth. We can’t rely solely on applications or more traditional sourcing methods. We have a blended approach overall and work extremely closely with hiring managers to fully understand profiles, continuously expanding our knowledge and experimenting with different techniques and approaches, including running sourcing workshops with employees. 

We have strong partnerships in place with external suppliers, Search Technology for example have collaborated closely with us  and helped us to identify the best talent in the market. They regularly enrich our pipelines and can also support us with solid market intel.

Overall, due to our exciting tech, company reputation and William’s track record, we’ve been able to attract super-strong talent so far, stealth aside.


Kane Fallon (Search Technology): What has been your biggest hiring challenge whilst in stealth mode?


Sophie Stevens (Unlikely AI):

Whilst we have some incredibly intelligent individuals working here this naturally attracts further talent however, the real challenge comes when hiring for brand new teams where we might lack evidence of this. Being limited in providing specifics on the complexities of some of our problems can make it much harder for some talent pools to fully engage with. 

With the recent advancements within AI, we are operating in an incredibly competitive environment, and more so for some specific skill sets/talent pools. This is where having some flexibility with our hiring process helps. Our hiring managers get involved in early discussions with candidates when required to help encourage that engagement.  Some of our take-home challenges give better insights into what they can expect to be working on and then our founder, William, is also super hands-on and effective when it comes to interacting with candidates. He has a wealth of experience, being a full member of Cambridge Angels, and mentoring many start-ups. 


Kane Fallon (Search Technology): How do you approach employer branding whilst operating in stealth mode?


Sophie Stevens (Unlikely AI):

Whilst we can’t provide content on the specifics of our tech, we can serve interesting content on our employees, our values as a company and top-level approaches to certain problems. We still have loads to talk about outside of the confidential details of our tech. We share regular insight into our social activities, including our off sites which are great fun (check out our Porto offsite,) and we have an engineering blog where we aim to provide insight into the company’s expertise and innovation, hoping that some of the lessons we’ve learned can inspire others tackling similar problems. We created a company video earlier last year to demonstrate our culture and we not only attend many career events, but employees attend tech talks and discussions which give us great food for thought and content. We actively encourage everyone to be advocates for our employer branding. 

We have platforms available to us where we can also somewhat a/b test our employer branding approaches to make sure we are serving the right people the right content. 

A new careers site is due to launch this year and I am super excited to see what impact this has as well. It’s certainly set to enrich the overall employer branding experience. 


Kane Fallon (Search Technology): What are your three top tips for someone else embarking on a talent role in a young and fast-growing DeepTech start-up?


Sophie Stevens (Unlikely AI):

One size doesn’t fit all - It’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking you know it all because it’s worked for you elsewhere/several places, but hiring is ever-evolving, particularly in the tech world. Markets shift and metrics change. It’s important to get to know the business you are working for before you start implementing hiring processes or relying on what could be old/irrelevant metrics.  

Be receptive to change, and open to feedback. Use all of your resources and pool all of your knowledge, float what has worked for you before and experiment with new approaches and initiatives. It might be that you’ve walked into an organisation that believes one size fits all and is stuck in the past with old hiring practices. Data and networking then become your best friends to effectively influence change. Your credibility improves and sets the path for further innovation.

Be creative & flexible - Make sure you have time to be creative and experimental. This keeps you ideating and coming up with better and improved sourcing strategies to tackle challenging talent pools. Relying on the same old methods will restrict you, as various channels and platforms become more saturated. Being habitual when it comes to sourcing will become detrimental to your cost per hire and pipeline. Think outside of the box where you can, and if it fails, try something else. Make sure you’re offering an appropriate level of flexibility where you can, structure and process are super important as they lend themselves to efficiency and compliance, but don’t become unnecessarily rigid with these. 


Delving into the challenges and triumphs faced by Unlikely AI's talent team in stealth mode, this conversation with Sophie Stevens provides valuable insights for those navigating the complex landscape of talent acquisition in the ever-evolving DeepTech space.