The French connection

October 3, 2018

It’s been a diverse journey for Estelle Blanks from her hometown of Grenoble in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France to her current life in Whitely Bay, and as the executive director at Innovation SuperNetwork. Here, she explains to Dan Sheridan how the work she has carried out since relocating 21 years ago has brought about challenges and reward in equal measure

I’ve always worked in economic development, through innovation and regeneration. That’s always been the theme throughout my career…

I came to Newcastle in 1997 as an Erasmus student and ended up studying international business management. That formed the root of what I’m doing now, and my dissertation led me to look at the role of entrepreneurship in regional economic development.

That was a very interesting starting point and put me in touch with the right network. I was asked to join the French Business Council to manage a strategic alliance between the North East of England and Sophia Antipolis near Nice – the largest science and technology park in Europe at the time.

That was a really interesting role and pretty much the start of my career.

I fell in love with Newcastle the week I arrived. I was supposed to stay for nine months, but I knew within a week that I didn’t want to leave. It’s hard to explain, but everything just felt right…

I was a mature student when I arrived and the student experience in Newcastle was amazing.

I know it’s a cliché, but it was all about the people. My first encounter with a Geordie was with my cleaning lady in my halls of residence and she was amazing – so welcoming – and I immediately felt comfortable in the city.

Where I come from is similar in size, and while Newcastle isn’t surrounded by mountains like Grenoble, it is close to so many beaches and so much beauty and history in Northumberland.

I’m 41 now, and have lived here for 21 years, which is longer than I lived in France, so I feel like I’m an adopted Geordie. I’ve had several opportunities to move, but I’ve never found a good enough reason to live anywhere else.

Put simply, the Innovation SuperNetwork is a network of networks. We make connections between all public and private sector organisations in the North East that are interested in and support innovation…

That can be anything from companies small and large to universities, national research centres and business representative organisations.

We want to ensure that innovation is at the core of what individuals and businesses do, and the reason we’re here is that while we have a lot of innovative assets in the region, we need to make sure connections between those assets are made.

This is at the core of why we were created in the first place. It’s about creating an environment that generates as many opportunities as possible for people to share ideas, share technology and open new markets so that innovation can flourish.

Statistics suggest that a lot of industries and companies keep themselves to themselves, though there are some notable exceptions…

Innovation is a little bit like entrepreneurship – it’s one of those words that people use but don’t really understand. We are here to promote and celebrate innovation and help people to think about their markets, their processes and how they can do business in a different way.

The message we want to get across is more of a culture and a way of thinking. It’s about continuous improvement and looking at ways of doing things differently to encourage that improvement.

Our Innovation Challenge Programme asks companies and individuals to frame what their problems are and look for solutions elsewhere, not necessarily in their own supply chain. We exist to help them do that, and reach out to the top of Northumberland, through Tyne and Wear and down to County Durham.

From the outset, we have an objective to look at equality and diversity…

By default, we are encouraged to think about traditional ways of measuring equality and diversity in entrepreneurship and innovation, but we felt like we needed to do something more.

Last year, for VentureFest 2017, we had the opportunity to work with Innovate UK and Getty Images, who took pictures of women in entrepreneurship and innovation doing really good things.

This was to replenish their image banks, because the power of the image in terms of role models for young people is hugely important. This became an exhibition in Getty’s gallery in London, and we then brought that up to Newcastle for VentureFest.

We could have left it at that, but we decided to form a debate – not necessarily to find any concrete answers, but to address the fact that we’re still discussing equality to this day.

What stayed with me from that debate was the notion of unconscious bias. Very few people get out of bed in the morning and think ‘I don’t like women and I’m not going to employ any’…

However, we are all guilty of unconscious bias, and even if you’re aware of it, it’s extremely difficult to completely erase it because it is a societal issue that influences everyone.

While we were aware that whatever we did would effectively be a drop in the ocean, we observed that some of the main companies in the region are doing some good things to address unconscious bias and ways to get rid of it via recruitment, the language that they use and imagery.

But we looked at SMEs who perhaps don’t have the staff and resources and asked how we could build in that diverse mindset. Our Women in Innovation programme works to raise the issue of this bias and uses workshops and peer-to-peer learning to devise an action plan surrounding things that can be improved.

One of the reasons we’re doing this is because every time we look for speakers, or every time we take a company to meet with potential investors, the majority of these people are male.

If you look at growing industries in the North East, such as engineering, IT and construction, they tell their own stories…

For example, one-in-five people in the North East’s IT sector are women, and the important point here is that it is a bottom line issue. You are more likely to succeed if you have a diverse workforce, and that includes gender balance. Research tells us that the right balance of male and female senior leaders will mean your business is more likely to flourish.

This isn’t just about ticking some sort of social box, this is actually beneficial for business.

I remember at interview for my first job, the recruitment panel were male only. I was a young French woman and I couldn’t believe this was happening in this century…

I believe in fairness and equality. I very much enjoy working with male colleagues, and I have benefitted hugely from some of the male mentors that have influenced my career.

But unfortunately, I’ve been in situations where my gender has worked against me.

I can think of numerous networking events where I’ve been the only woman in the room, and countless situations in meetings where my male counterparts have been addressed directly because the assumption was they were the decision makers, when actually the person they should have been talking to was me.

I do think things are changing, and there are certainly less dinosaurs than there used to be. We have to have hope, and I think our society is slowly waking up…

I have two children – my daughter is five and my son is eight – and they both went to nursery before they started school. One of the parties they had at nursery was a ‘pirates and princesses’ party, and the assumption made by the parents and the staff was that all of the boys would come dressed as pirates and all the girls would be princesses.

Obviously this wasn’t intentional, but it’s an example of reinforcing the gender stereotype at a very young age. It takes a teacher and a school to change that alongside a balanced home life where there is no division of labour. It’s about how we show them the world.

Innovation SuperNetwork