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To mark this year's International Women's Day (8 March), Neina Sheldon spoke to Estelle Blanks as she prepares to take on the Chief Executive Officer role at the Innovation SuperNetwork. A passionate advocate and role model of female leadership, Estelle strives to show everyone the 'art of the possible', from her daughter to the business leaders and investors the Innovation SuperNetwork work with.

Moving to the UK from France in 1997 as a student, Estelle developed an interest in entrepreneurship and regional economic development and soon made the North East her home. Following her MBA, she worked in senior management positions in a range of public and private sector organisations, leading economic development through innovation and regeneration activities in the UK and internationally.

"I'm passionate about the North East and making a difference to businesses through a collaborative ecosystem for everyone," Estelle explains.

Fifteen years ago, The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) had recently established a need to learn from open innovation practices and apply them to the North East.

Alongside Simon Green, Estelle had done a lot of work at Newcastle Science City in this area and knew many organisations and innovation practitioners. And so, in 2016, they decided to form the Innovation SuperNetwork.

Estelle continues: "The Innovation SuperNetwork is all about collaboration, open innovation and support for North East small to medium businesses (SMEs) to innovate faster and more efficiently. We activate innovation growth and intensity."

Simon and Estelle established VentureFest, a North East event that aimed to connect stakeholders and encouraged them to talk about innovation.

"We share practical tools, develop new opportunities and encourage connections. We celebrate innovation and bring people together to shout about how good we are at it in the North East," Estelle says.

This year's VentureFest North East will take place virtually for the first time on 17 March but will still offer a packed programme celebrating North East business innovation.

"After everything businesses and society have been through this year, we're keen to highlight resilience and sustainability," Estelle explains.

"One aspect of the VentureFest programme that celebrates regional success is our Innovation Showcase, and with many businesses having done so well, we want to use this – and the wider event – to highlight some of these success stories.

"We'll also be looking ahead at what can be learned to inform a green and sustainable future," she adds.

VentureFest is just one of the ways that the Innovation SuperNetwork supports businesses. The team also delivers innovation challenges through industry clusters where large companies are matched with SMEs that can help solve their challenges.

Financing innovation is another key focus, matching investors and small companies. "There's a big market failure in the North East in financing, so we're trying to address this and attract innovation finance to the region. At the same time, we're working with SMEs, putting them through training and helping them get ready to attract investment. Through the Newcastle Angel Hub, we're increasing the number of angel investors looking for regional opportunities," Estelle explains.

Recently promoted to Chief Executive Officer, Estelle will officially take over the role from Simon Green, who will become Chairman, on 1 April.

"The biggest highlight of my role so far has been the opportunity to work with our strong team of 23 people," Estelle says. "They are all experts in supporting innovation in some form and I'm looking forward to being able to shape and empower that team to deliver our programmes over the next few years.

"There is a lot to look forward to," she adds. "The North East is changing and there are lots of challenges with the continuing impact of COVID and leaving the EU having economic and social implications.

"But we have projects set up to help businesses navigate these challenges. They are very long-term, and things won't change overnight as we are embedding capabilities for innovation, but we know that when it works, it makes a difference."

Estelle is particularly passionate about the Innovation SuperNetwork's Diversity in Innovation programme. It started out delivering unconscious bias workshops centered on gender diversity, with a focus on peer learning to share experiences, expertise and new practices. Following its success, the conversation has been broadened to tackle all systemic discrimination.

"It's important to recognise there is much work already being done in this area, and we harnessed some of this research and insight by working with Newcastle University in developing the programme," Estelle explains. "In taking this forward, we found connecting large organisations, with established HR functions, and smaller businesses led to positive outcomes in driving change, some of which cost very little to implement."

The work has also addressed access to finance, Estelle continues: "Only 6p in every £1 goes to women-led businesses. There are not enough female investors and not enough females getting investment. So, we now have a funding programme and almost 45% of our investors are women, which is due to our proactive focus.

"We are also part of the Fund Her North initiative to proactively support female entrepreneurs to be investment-ready, and bring what we've learned, and continue to learn, to numerous panels and conferences to really amplify the message."

The Innovation SuperNetwork has further signalled its dedication to diversity by working with diversity in tech expert Fareeha Usman of Dynamo North East, one of the five clusters part-funded by the SuperNetwork's ERDF programme.

"As a woman in tech herself, she is developing a one-to-one business support programme to enable more tech companies to ensure their workforce and practice is diverse. She's already making a difference and has launched a hero campaign to celebrate good practice in the sector," Estelle says.

She continues: "COVID has highlighted a lack of diversity and unless and until we get this driver right, we'll never be able to fully take advantage of all the opportunities. We have always had this cross-cutting theme, critically because impactful innovation happens because of diverse perspectives."

Taking Estelle back to her 13-year-old self, what would she say about being a female business leader?

She continues: "It's fair to say in the naivety of my 13-year-old self, I thought that a good degree would automatically open doors and then I realised this was not the case, as there was a lack of diversity. Women were expected to be ignored, to blend in - to display male characteristics.

"What made the difference for me was learning from role models. There were lots to say: 'You can do this. Others are doing it. It is possible. Here are examples of people that are like you and are doing it'.

"I do the same with my daughter now. I present the art of the possible, making sure she can imagine herself as anything she wants to be," Estelle enthuses.

"Diversity is such an important topic and we're not doing enough. You start to realise how embedded discrimination and bias is in our society. For example, children's books often have a white, male, heterosexual role model. If that is all they read, then no wonder diversity is such a big issue."

A lack of awareness and the need to educate people is the driver behind Estelle's enthusiasm for the Diversity in Innovation programme. With this year's International Women's Day theme being #ChooseToChallenge, Estelle acknowledges that challenging unconscious bias is what's needed.

As Estelle takes the helm, it is clear that the Innovation SuperNetwork is in good hands, with a strong team that is well-prepared to tackle its ambitious programme of activity.

VentureFest North East takes place online this year on 17 March. For more information and to book your place, visit: https://supernetwork.org.uk/venturefest-north-east/ 

Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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