Estelle Blanks, Executive Director at the Innovation SuperNetwork, tells Andy Richardson why diversity and innovation should be at the heart of any successful businesses.

‘DIVERSITY’. Read any company mission statement or the ‘Our Values’ page on a corporate website and that word is sure to figure. But how many businesses actually live up to their well-intentioned pledges to create diverse and inclusive workplaces?

We are all governed by bias, often unconscious ones, so is the challenge to create genuine fairness and equal opportunity an impossible one?  

Estelle Blanks is one of those people who relishes a challenge.

Over the past two decades she has worked tirelessly to champion the North-East as an innovation hotbed. Early on in her career, she helped Kromek, then Durham Scientific Crystals, to prepare for one of its first funding pitches. As Executive Director at Innovation SuperNetwork North East, Estelle continues to help ambitious businesses realise their potential, secure funding, and create jobs.

She is also a passionate advocate of diversity. 

“A lot of people pay lip service to it,” says Estelle, who moved to the North-East 21 years ago after leaving Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps, to study in Newcastle.

“Diversity is something I have always felt very strongly about. I think back to my first real job interview. It was 2001, so I was about 23. It was an all-male panel - nothing new about that. The conversation had been very high level about the role and what I could do, then one of the panel members, who was running a North-East manufacturing company, said to me: ‘You’re young, pretty and sometime soon you are going to want to get married and have children. How can we ensure you are committed to this project for the next three years?

“I was young, that was true, but having children was the last thing on my mind. I had put a lot of time and energy into my studying, getting the right work experience and I was ready to show the world what I was capable of. What he said made me feel undermined. I was shocked.

“Luckily, one of the panel, who happened to be the French consul in the North-East and was a great mentor for me, said: ‘You don’t need to answer that question’, and we moved on. I took the job because it became clear that the rest of the group didn’t share the views of the guy who had asked the question.

“It was the first time I’d encountered that sort of thing. I came from a family where my mum had worked as a geography and history teacher. In her spare time, she helped my dad run his business. One of my grandmas was a librarian the other was an accountant in a higher position than her husband who worked at the same company. She was a staunch feminist. “Where I come from women are on an equal par. I had never really thought about my gender being any kind of barrier in my career.”

Alongside her role at the Innovation SuperNetwork, since November 2017 Estelle has led the successful Women in Innovation programme which supports business growth by tackling barriers linked to unconscious bias and lack of diversity.

She says: “I think it is changing. The question is are we changing fast enough? The gender pay gap isn’t getting better, in many metrics the problem is shown to be getting worse rather than improving.

“I don’t want to paint a wholly negative picture. A lot of great work has been done and most people want to change. It’s just that it is so embedded in everything that we do it’s not easy to overcome.”

It’s even there when we are children. Estelle tells a story of her daughter coming home and saying she needed a costume for a ‘pirates and princesses’ day at school.  

“So, you think: ‘Do they want all of the girls to come as princesses and the boys to be pirates?’ You realise how endemic this thinking is.”

As it turned out, Estelle’s daughter went to school dressed in pirate garb. “She wanted a pirate costume anyway because she‘s got an older brother and borrows lots of his things anyway, but there are countless examples of conditioning which then play a part in later life.”   

The Women in Innovation programme works with businesses in the early stages of their growth to try and embed diversity into their culture.

Estelle explains: “We bring it back to the bottom line. The most successful businesses have a diverse workforce. This makes good business sense.

“If you think about the language we use that relates to what people perceive makes a successful business, there is a direct correlation with male attributes. But if you stop and think what a successful organisation really needs in the 21st century - the ability to understand and empathise with clients, understand competition, be more innovative and creative, all of these things need a diverse workforce or you are never going to reach your full potential. 

“We have done research which shows time and again in businesses, men are appraised on potential and women on achievement. Women have to have shown they have done something before they are offered opportunities to progress whereas men are given the chance of promotion based on what they might achieve.

“A lot of the things we are talking about around gender diversity also affect men. Not all men meet the white, middle class male business leader archetypes. Equality need to be across the board. You cannot just tackle one aspect.”

A theme running through Estelle’s career is that she tries to tackle major issues but in a very measured, practical way, backed up by facts and the latest research. She is also brilliant at helping people to make connections that unlock potential, build networks, and share ideas.

After studying English as a foreign language and economics at Newcastle University and taking an MBA at the Business School she was asked to lead a project that built bridges between North-East companies and hi-tech businesses in France.

“You cannot deny that there have been many economic challenges but one of the good things is that the North-East is a bedrock of innovation,” she says. “It has always promoted itself on that basis and should continue to do so.

“If people know about the North-East it is because of football or its history of industrial innovation: the steam engine, the Stephensons, Lord Armstrong and all of these good things that made Newcastle and the North-East known across the world.

“That spirit of innovation is still here. But somehow there is a problem because on any innovation scoreboard we lag behind other areas. I think that is sometimes because people are doing amazing, creative new things but they don’t call it innovation.

“There is a bit of an identity issue in the region. Its ability to adapt in times of challenge is something we should celebrate and harness rather than hide. That is part of the role of the Innovation Supernetwork North East.”

Estelle is also determined to ensure the region doesn’t think its best days are behind it. 

She says: “It is great to be aware of that heritage but there had been a tendency to talk too much about the past. What I have tried to do is show people that we are writing the future in the North-East.

“We are pioneering research and some very innovative companies that are at the cutting edge in areas such as AI, machine learning and research on resolving some of the most challenging issues around ageing.

“We have got people in this region who understand the challenge and they have a solution. If those people work in collaboration, locally and globally, then we can build a network of innovators that make incredible breakthroughs. That is what we do every day - to try and make those connections so that we don’t miss an opportunity.

“It is also about getting people to promote what they are doing. We are not always great in this region to shout about what we do. And that increases the risk that other parts of the country underestimate us.”

She cites a recent example when the Innovation SuperNetwork took 30 companies to London to pitch to investors. One of the investors said ‘it is incredible what you companies have collectively achieved in the North-East on a shoestring when businesses with your growth potential would already be funded if you were in London’.

Estelle adds: “We have to overcome the shadow cast on the whole of the north by London and the South East and overcome dated perceptions of the North-East.

“I’ve genuinely had people from other areas say to me - ‘what is someone like you doing in Newcastle?’ It is so patronising and unfounded. As much as I love to visit London I love coming back to my home in the North-East.”

Estelle has been a driving force behind the Entrepreneurs of the North programme which has been successful in persuading investors from London to see for themselves the opportunities available to them in the north.

She explains: “It is about saying to investors, if you came up here a bit more you would see companies you might want in your portfolio because they are connected to a great eco system that gives access to first class research, have great premises, really good people, and provide a good quality of life for their employees. That is what investing in a North-East company actually means.

“Since we started Entrepreneurs of the North, we have doubled the number of investors coming to things such as FinanceCamp (the annual North-East conference run by the Innovation SuperNetwork), it used to be 90 per cent local investors, now it’s more like 50-50.

“Increasingly investors are interested in opportunities outside of London. They want to see sectors that maybe aren’t covered in the capital, and we can offer that here. They also are looking for reasonable valuations. In London, costs can be crazy in terms of premises and salaries. Investors seeking value should look to the north.”

Estelle sums up her vision of the North-East: “We have the skills; we have the talent and the creativity. Working locally but aiming globally is the way forward. We need to be daring and ambitious.”