Speaking up 

October 6, 2017

As associate professor for entrepreneurship at Durham University Business School and Institute of Directors’ regional chair, Dr Joanna Berry is on a mission to promote new venture creation, elevate the profile of North East business women and showcase the region’s entrepreneurial successes on a bigger stage. She talks to Alison Cowie

Hartlepool-born, Dr Joanna Berry, is a staunchly proud North Easterner who, as an associate professor at Durham University Business School, is helping to educate, support and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders.

This new generation, Joanna says, can no longer expect to go into a nine-to-five job – or even a career – for life. She tells her students that, “career is a verb, as well as a noun”, and believes it is essential that young people build up interesting skillsets that are transferrable across sectors.

To illustrate her point, Joanna talks about her 16-year-old son who is studying game development, film studies and graphic design at college.

She says: “It will provide him with skills that could be used in a range of tech and creative jobs but also – dare I say – the armed forces, or in medicine, where there is a lot of work going on into remote treatments.”

Joanna boasts a colourful and varied career herself. After attending her local primary school, comprehensive and sixth form college, she won a place at Oxford University to study law. But all did not go to plan for Joanna who failed her final exams. The reason, she reveals, was that she was, “having too much fun.”

The young student subsequently curbed her partying ways, resat the year, and gained her degree at the second attempt.

Armed with a law degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the newly-married Joanna went to live in South Africa. She joined a law firm in Krugersdorp, and became fluent in Afrikaans – a language, she quips, is “only useful to swear in.”

But this was the mid-eighties, Nelson Mandela, was still in prison and Apartheid was in full force. When local residents found out that Joanna was defending two black men from Soweto, her windows were smashed and car tires slashed. Soon afterward, she and her husband told neighbours they were going on a shopping trip to Johannesburg. Instead, they boarded a plane to the UK, and have never returned.

The couple agreed that, back home, whoever gained a trainee contact first, the other would get a job to support them. It was Joanna’s husband that achieved the accountancy traineeship, leaving her to take a job as a sales manager at Haymarket Publishing.

Joanna spent the next few years in international sales and business development, before deciding that working for herself was a more attractive option. She subsequently bought, ran and sold a series of businesses including in personal fitness, media production and dot.com enterprises.

Joanna’s next move was into the world of academia and, after completing a PhD in music industry business models, where she ran a record label, she joined Newcastle University as an academic director, eventually becoming director of external relations while lecturing in management.

Two years ago Joanna took her current role at Durham University Business School (DUBS) and she has been inspired by its “exceptional” students.

They are interesting and intelligent but also aspirational and thoughtful. They’re also conscious of the world they live in and concerned with social enterprises and the future of the planet.

As associate professor for entrepreneurship, Joanna is charged with ensuring that students (MBA and undergraduates) gain practical and theoretical experience of new venture creation and enterprise, while the university generates intellectual capital that is recognised on local, national and international levels.

As well as creating links with businesses and bringing in industry guest speakers to speak to students (recent invitees include chief James Timpson, CEO of Timpson shoes, Yvonne Gale, CEO of NEL, and financial writer and entrepreneur Mike Southon), Joanna has developed several programmes to help students learn the essentials of running a business. These include a boardroom exercise where MBA students work with business leaders on a live case study.

Joanna explains: “The students are divided into groups and become board members responsible for finance, marketing, strategy and operations. They’re assigned a non-executive director from industry and given three weeks to come up with a series of papers based on a real corporate situation.

“The recent case study was for Whitbread – so the Costa Coffee and Premier Inn brands – and the non-executive directors included, John Mowbray [chairman at University of Sunderland], John Cuthbert [non-exec director at Bellway], and Lucy Armstrong [CEO of The Alchemists]. “It’s a very intense process and brings to life all those interpersonal dynamics that are essential in business,” the associate professor adds.

All Durham University undergraduate students can also take part in an annual new venture project.

“It’s open to students from all disciplines,” Joanna explains, “so you’ll get an engineer sitting next to a sports scientist, talking about leggings. It’s conversations that wouldn’t otherwise happen; this cross-fertilisation of ideas is really exciting.”

Monitoring changes and trends in entrepreneurship is another important job for Joanna, who predicts the emergence of more older entrepreneurs, “as people live longer, healthier lives,” as well as the growth of social enterprises.

The associate professor also echoes the need to encourage more females into STEM-focused careers.

“There’s this idea that girls don’t do maths, engineering, science and technology, but that’s very wrong,” she says.

Joanna – whose role model is her 88-year-old mum who was the first female doctor in her department at Leeds’ Infirmary Hospital – believes she has a duty to use her profile to promote women in the workplace.

“But it needs to be done in such a way that is elegant and effective, not strident and irritating,” she adds.

Six months ago, Joanna took the prestigious position of regional director of the Institute of Directors (IoD) and has since recruited a new, largely female, c-suite that includes Therese Liddle (chief executive at NRG), Lucy Batley (co-founder and creative director at JUMP) Ellen Deboeck (general manager at Crowne Plaza Newcastle), Janicke Aitken (strategy partner at LiveStrategy), Anne Cuthbertson (director at Your Growth Consulting) and Michael Whittaker (professor at Newcastle University). These ambassadors will identify

opportunities and successes within their respective industries while encouraging discussion among their peers.

“I want to show that women can make a difference [in business], be recognised for, and be represented in a way that makes sense,” she says.

Joanna is also intent on using her IoD position to influence policy and create a louder voice for the whole of the North East which, she believes, lacks a national and international profile.

“I’m incredibly proud of being from the North East, she says. “As a region, we’ve been through pit closures and the decline of heavy industry, but we’ve bounced back. We’re good at bouncing back.

We now need to be recognised for the creative, innovative and sparky quarter of the country, that we are. At the moment, we’re not. It makes me very cross, and as regional director for the IoD for the next three years, I will be working to change that.

With a voice so informed, passionate and engaging, you wouldn’t bet against Dr Joanna Berry achieving this – and more.

Durham University Business School

Institute of Directors