In March 2016 I became a Non-Executive Board Director for the very first time. It had been an ambitious accident if I am honest. I first met the Local Enterprise Partnership in London at a ‘South Warwickshire in Parliament’ networking event run by the fantastic Jonathan Smith in December 2014. I was running a growing business that was struggling under the weight of large contract wins due to a lack of human resource and cashflow planning. I was told that the Local Enterprise Partnership was there to support growing businesses like mine. There and then, I decided I wanted in. I knew I could do good there by sharing my story and my struggles as I tried to scale.
The Operations Director met me in early 2015 at our purpose-built HQ in Leamington and showed me the organisation chart with subsidiary boards and business groups steered and governed by the main Board.
“How do I get on that?” I remember asking and pointing to the Board at the top of the chart.
“Well you need to start here,” was the reply as she directed my eye to the business groups.
And so I did. I joined the Inward Investment Business Group along with the owner of games studio Modern Dream and we began our mission to educate the region on the importance of our digital sector. The amount we talk about it now, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when that agenda needed pushing!
A year on the business group and a Board position became open which I applied for, never having lost sight of my original ambition and fuelled by the belief that I could really add value with my own knowledge and experience starting and scaling a digital business. I went into the application process nervous but determined to be myself and to showcase my difference. If they wanted difference, they would choose me. If they wanted the same as before, they had many more to select from. And they did choose me so that gave me the confidence to step up and push the digital agenda.
My very first round-table as a new CWLEP Board Director was with the games sector. I was picking up on work started with Warwickshire County Council and the sector were asking for more dedicated business support and a better opportunity to showcase the talent of the Leamington based cluster. Warwickshire County Council had already developed the ‘Silicon Spa’ brand to tell the story of the third largest UK game cluster and the sector were keen to build on that with collaborative activity. Following the round-table, the call was that a strategic approach was needed to ensure activity was focused and effective. There had been showcase events and programmes organised by cluster themselves and we were keen to build on that and ensure we had a strong evidence base for future funding opportunities. Our business support offering also needed to understand the challenges and barriers to growth of the sector.
In Summer 2016, I commissioned a strategy with UKIE with the purpose of understanding why the games sector had thrived in Leamington to date; what the nature of the sector was; and identifying their barriers to growth in order to create a set of key recommendations for our activities. I had to explain this decision to the Board and defend it to the wider business community, because the sector itself had a narrow geographical concentration in and around Leamington and fairly low unemployment levels. However, it contributed £180+ million to the economy per year and had played a key part in the rise of the wider digital sector as a whole, which had grown exponentially over the last five years. My rationale was that what was good for games would be good for the wider digital community and therefore good for the whole CWLEP geography’s economic growth. And I believe I was right!
CWLEP’s Blueprint for Growth was published in early 2017 and immediately caught the attention of local and national stakeholders. It was mentioned in Parliament by the Minister for Digital and subsequent Ministerial visits have always requested a trip to ‘Silicon Spa’. It prompted places like Bristol and Leeds and Guildford to talk about ‘Silicon Spa’ and acknowledge our position as a world class games cluster. I am not a fan of glossy strategies that sit on coffee tables and shelves gathering dust, and this is definitely not that. I still share it five years later and I still re-read our recommendations to check we are on track. Because supporting our games and wider digital economy is a job that will never be done. And I am proud and honoured to do it.