10 Questions: Caroline Theobald

July 29, 2020

Caroline Theobald has spent her career connecting North East business people and is passionate about creating commercial and life opportunities. She was awarded a CBE for services to business and entrepreneurship in 2016 and is a lifetime holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Caroline co-founded, among others, FIRST, a company that connects young people, start-ups and professionals to their wider business community, and The North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE), a not-for-profit organisation on a mission to make the North East known as a place for transparent and quantifiable business practices. Caroline is also chair of the business advisory board at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University; an associate at Teesside Business School, an advocate of gender equality, a trustee of Newcastles of the World and an honorary diplomat representing Sweden

What was your first break in business?

In 2000, the dotcom revolution provided the break I needed to put into practice what I feel passionately about: the need for individuals to meet the right people at the right time to help them achieve their ambitions. It ushered in a new generation of business founders who didn’t have the connections they needed to help their fledgling businesses fly. I had the contacts, the knowledge and the community connections to establish Bridge Club Ltd to ‘bridge the gap’ between early-stage growth entrepreneurs and the money, new markets and strong management teams they needed to grow. That said, I didn’t know anything about the trade of business and it was a long and arduous learning process. FIRST is the daughter of Bridge Club and we’re developing an accredited Level 1 in enterprise to support those people who will be looking to start a business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What did you want to be growing up?

Throughout my teens and into my 20s I wanted to be a journalist and, having graduated from York University, I became just that. I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and every day continues to be a school day, even in my 60s. That means learning from those younger than me, who have a new and dynamic way of thinking and vibrant and creative ways of doing. My interest in business ethics and social justice has also kept me alert to global change and the very real possibility of a move to more considerate capitalism.

What attracted you to your current roles?

I perceived that certain needs were not being met by business. Charlotte Windebank and I co-founded FIRST in recognition that business networking could be re-imagined as entrepreneurial skills provision. That model is driven from the needs of young people and focuses as much on ‘learning by doing’ as it does on network leverage to create opportunity. The North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE) was founded to drive ethical standards into the heart of large and small business to help ensure a commercial and societal future fit for our children and grandchildren. Commercial return and ethical behaviour are not mutually exclusive – a combination is the only way to business growth and sustainability in the new more discerning environment.

What are FIRST and NIBE’s missions?

FIRST’s mission is to be the leading learning and development agency for entrepreneurial skills in the UK and beyond. In response to COVID-19, we’re focusing on a Level 1 in enterprise for those who are being made redundant. We’re expecting an influx of 20,000-30,000 start-up enquiries in the North East alone and we want to help the Enterprise Agencies by delivering personal development for future clients. At the North East Initiative on Business Ethics, our mission is to make the North East known as a place for ethically transparent and quantifiable business practice.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Charlotte and I get the best out of the team by recognising that people do business with people – and that starts in the office by respecting difference and supporting and encouraging every member of the team. FIRST is a values-driven company. Our people create that value and so we work hard to be flexible, identify clear progression routes and have fun! The team have clear roles and responsibilities, but we encourage their innovation and creative input to help the company grow. Communication and personal and direct consideration for the needs of each team member are key as are rewards for good performance, team building, meeting training needs and the opportunity to explore external opportunities for personal development.

What has been your career highlight?

My career highlight has been bringing together all my experience in journalism, business-building, education, investment and the charitable sector to partner with Charlotte to build FIRST. It’s a business that we both believe will make a quantifiable difference to the futures of young people in the North East and beyond.

What has been your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge has always been myself. What I’ve learned is that if you don’t believe in yourself, no-one else will. Bridge Club very nearly went bust in 2008. I had to lose three-quarters of my team, but chose to wind down not wind up so that I could honour payments to staff and suppliers. A combination of energy and tenacity kept me going through the difficult business and personal times that followed and meant that I was ready to opportunity-spot when the time was right to start again.

Who or what inspires you?

My father taught me his guiding principle early on: to do the right thing for the right reason – and he was a very successful businessman. His words have been an inspiration to me all my adult working life and I’ve tried my best to follow them. I’ve dedicated my role in NIBE to my father’s memory, which I co-founded with a small group of others. It looks to end what, over the years and in very different roles, the open and insidious corporate bullying I’ve experienced.

What are your company’s short and long-term goals?

FIRST has been built on solid foundations. We spent our early years developing our ‘why’ and  now have a growth strategy in place to achieve our ambition. That is to be a leading learning and development agency for entrepreneurial skills. Coming out of the pandemic we will continue to build scale and influence putting young people’s futures at the heart of what we do. At NIBE, we want the North East to be recognised as a place known for its ethical business practice. We aim to support and encourage our regional economic leaders to conclude that quantifiable and ethical business practice will be the new key differentiator in local success.

How do you achieve a good work/life balance?

Until very recently, I worked too hard, putting the needs of others before my own. I have a very competent, ambitious and caring managing director leading FIRST and a wonderful man in my life. I now have our families, friendship circles, a growing list of hobbies, more fresh air and exercise than ever, in addition to the work.

Caroline Theobald
c.theobald@bridgeclubnorth.com
www.firstnetwork.co
www.NIBE.org.uk
@hirecaroline
@FIRSTnetworkUK
@NeBizEthics

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