Meet the AXA Startup Angel winners 2023: Sistren

Starting up

15 August 2023

For the third year running, AXA has been scouring the UK to find the best new startup business ideas in our AXA Startup Angel competition.

The two winning entries receive:

  • £25,000 of business funding to get their ideas up and running
  • Mentoring from AXA’s Startup Angels: Sharmadean Reid of The Stack World; Raphael Sofoluke of The UK Black Business Show and UK Black Business Week; and Ian Theasby & Henry Firth of BOSH!
  • Business insurance for one year

The judging is done, so it’s time to meet the winning startup businesses!

Meet Sistren

20,000 missing in industry, 5x more likely to die, a 26% wage gap – these are the stark statistics facing Black women that Olivia Hylton, founder of Sistren, pulled out in her video application. Olivia seeks to reduce the social isolation and systemic inequities that lead to this huge disparity.

Currently working as a solo-founder, Olivia has bootstrapped to start an app that helps Black women to create community and friendship with one another, sharing advice and support to thrive in their daily lives.

Hi Olivia! In your own words, can you please explain your business idea to us?

This all started out about 18 months ago following a conversation with a friend. We both noticed that making friends and finding community was harder once we’d left university.So, Sistren is a community building app designed to connect Black women globally and to foster friendships, share experiences, provide support, and promote action towards racial and gender equity.

Why was an app the right way to meet those goals?

I think with the advent of technology and social media, so much more of life is done online.

I wanted to leverage that to provide a solution to a problem, which can include loneliness, but also gaps in knowledge and understanding, which then permeate society in the form of inequity. And so, I came up with the idea for something that would bring people together and help them to find local communities and support one another.

As mentioned, we live in a digital age and apps are the way forward now. Before, you may have gone on to (as a website) but more and more of life is done through apps. From research that I’ve found, people were trying to use various different apps as a way to get information, to make friends, to find community.

So, it felt like a natural step to create an app that pulled all of those things together to solve this problem.

Is there an idea for how revenue's going to come in in the future?

I'm trialling a number of things currently.

One of the avenues that I've been exploring is paid subscriptions but I'm still trying to figure out exactly how that would work. At a base level, I always want people to be able to have access to others so that they can learn from them, share life with them and flourish together. So, I'm trying to figure out what a paid subscription should look like and what essential add-ons or bonuses it could offer.

Other revenue streams I'm considering are developing no code apps for other community-driven businesses. I upskilled pretty much overnight to build this app and the beauty of no code apps is that you can go from idea to app in a week like I did. I've already had interest in other businesses white labelling the app which is exciting.

And then finally ads. By providing this exclusive community app that serves an underrepresented and underserved group, there's actually quite a lot of value in that in terms of businesses that want to reach that market or perhaps even working with non-governmental organizations that are trying to solve some of the issues and close some of the gaps that exist by leveraging the insights that we have from the community to work with them.

What inspired you to apply for the AXA Startup Angel competition?

I'm a big believer in just applying for anything and everything and seeing what happens because if you don't try, the answer's always no.

I can't remember how I came across the competition, but I think I'd seen quite a bit about last year's winners - Charlotte and the guys from Team Repair - and so I just thought I'd go for it, apply and see what happens. I'm surprised to win but really grateful.

Have you applied for other funding opportunities and how did the AXA Startup Angel application compare to those?

I think the application for Startup Angel was simpler in the sense that you submitted a video and you just had to answer a couple of questions. But I actually found it a bit harder in terms of really getting across what I wanted to succinctly.

I kept reading over the answers from last year's winners and tried to tailor things based on their advice. That made it easier in some ways, but it was still hard because you’re limited by that one minute video.

It was definitely a good experience in getting that elevator pitch down and really being intentional about what's conveyed and what's actually important.

Thinking back to the award night, how did it feel when your name was called as the one of the big winners?

It was surreal. And it was actually a bit of a relief because I had such a nightmare getting to the event.

First my train was cancelled, so I drove to the awards event venue. But of course, Standard Chartered were doing their great city race and the road had just closed maybe like half an hour before and I couldn't find anywhere to park without a permit. So, in the end I just thought, “I'm going to park and If I get a ticket, I get a ticket.”

I ended up arriving with just 10 minutes to go until the start time and was quite flustered, but it was worth all of that in the end!

What does it mean to you to win?

Being a solo founder and working on something that's for an underserved community can be quite an isolating challenge because often people outside of that community don't understand the need for what you’re doing.

To win the prize and to get such good feedback from the judges is great fuel to keep going and is really, really validating for me. I never thought that I would get investment or win anything, so to have won this funding will make such a difference.

Knowing that you've got £25,000 coming into your business, how do you plan to use it?

In May, we went viral on TikTok and our number of registered users went from around 500 to over 2000 in in the space of two weeks. With that jump in membership, running costs doubled and we gained this huge global community. We went from having users in seven countries to having users in 33 countries worldwide.

With the prize money, now we can better serve the broader global community. Predominately our audience is British right now but, I'm excited to use the funds to really activate those communities that do exist in the countries like the US where we've got over 500 users who just aren't as engaged because currently there's nothing really happening there for them to get engaged with.

I'm also really excited to build out the team. It's largely been me for the past year until I had an intern join at the beginning of the summer. But I don't know everything, and I can't do everything. As much as I like to try and upskill, there's just real value in getting other people's insights and learning from them. So, I'm really looking forward to building a really strong team that can help drive the business forward.

Are there certain team members that you think you're going to focus on first or certain areas that you really want help in?

I think I need generalists. While it's nice to have experts in place, it's also nice to have people that are just willing to get stuck in, be a bit scrappy and try everything.

But I think in terms of getting expert advice, I look forward to speaking to the mentors and really leveraging the opportunity that I have with them to get as much insight from them as possible.

What do you think you're going to get out of the mentoring sessions?

I think the judges are such a diverse and inspiring panel of people and I'm really excited to learn from each of them because I think they've all got something different to offer that will really help Sistren and the business grow.

I'm especially interested in speaking to Raphael because I think our ethos and what we're trying to achieve really aligns with each other. I'm really excited to learn from him because I know that he bootstrapped when he started out and he also started his business while working full time, which is what I've done. And so, it'd be great to get some insight into how to juggle things effectively.

And also just tapping into his network more broadly because again, we're working in similar markets, I think there's real scope there for us to work together and for me to expand the reach of Sistren and develop some resources that are more business focused.

So, looking at the next 12 months for Sistren, what are your priorities?

My first priority is establishing a revenue stream because although £25,000 is a lot of money, it can go quite quickly. I want to be able to get to a point where Sistren is revenue generating and sustainable.

I also want to really flesh out our global community because we've got people that are interested, but it's just kind of activating that.

And then finally, growing the team because a strong team is crucial for any business. And I really look forward to bringing the right people on board and to take Sistren even further.

So Sistren already has 3,000 users which is amazing – how are you getting feedback and refinement from the current users?

I think feedback is so important because you can build whatever you want to build, but ultimately whether it brings value is demonstrated in how people use it.  I've always been very conscious of having calls, sending surveys and getting honest pointers on what could be better in terms of how the app looks and works.

If we look at the app today versus how it was even a year ago, it's like night and day.

The original app was very functional, and I initially thought that functional meant usable. It doesn’t. So, the first version wasn't very intuitive, but it just did what it was meant to do. It lacked a lot of the community building aspects that are necessary for any community building app to thrive.

And over time, through conversations with users and through looking at other community building apps, I've built in features that really promote a sense of community more. Today we're in a much better place than we were last year, but there's always room for growth.

Feedback is really important because we can only become the best app for Black women if we listen to them and take their advice and feedback on board.

What do you think is going be your biggest challenge in the next year?

Just having so much to do and trying to do it all in a way that is strategic but also to a certain extent reactive. I think with a startup you can plan, plan, plan and then anything can happen. I think just having a plan, but also being mindful of the fact that things may change and being able to adapt to that.

We'll be following Sistren's progress over the next year, keep an eye on Business Guardian Angel for more about Sistren and the next stage of their journey.

For more about AXA Startup Angel and to follow this year’s winners on their journeys, head over to the AXA Startup Angel hub at

Learn more about our other 2023 winner, Intotum, here.

All links are checked and valid at time of publishing, 15 August 2023.

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