In the Spotlight: Caroline Theobald CBE, Founder of The Bridge Club

Our guest this month is Caroline Theobald CBE who became a client of Ryecroft Glenton 25 years ago when she established her business, The Bridge Club. Since then, she has been involved in a range of organisations and projects, including an instrumental role in setting up the Entrepreneurs’ Forum and a diplomatic appointment as Honorary Consul to Sweden, a post she held for 14 years. Caroline continues to chair the North East chapter of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce.

In 2016, Caroline was awarded a CBE for services to business and entrepreneurship. She is also a lifetime holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the work she does in harnessing the enterprise potential of young people, business owners and managers.

What has motivated you in your career?

I am driven by opportunity. Opportunity for all to achieve their potential, whether that’s through starting and growing a business or by gaining the confidence to be who the individual wants to be.  Fundamental to that thinking is realising that people make a difference – for better or for worse. I’ve always wanted to act as a positive force connecting individuals young and old to folk that can make things happen for them.  Increased social mobility brings huge benefits to individuals and has a significant impact at regional level.

These principles led me to set up The Bridge Club in 2000 to connect founders with funding, management advice and new markets, and to stimulate enterprise thinking in schools, colleges and universities.  For the 25 years I’ve been a client I’ve provided early-stage entrepreneurs with access to the money, management, skills and markets they need to grow their businesses.

What other projects have led on from this?

Presently, through Bridge Club, I’m the project lead and one of the directors of Connect Northumberland where we’re building a community of Northumberland’s employers to help the county transition to a vibrant post-coal economy. Over the last 18 months Connect Northumberland has moved the dial in place-based, multi-sector employer collaboration delivering leadership development programmes.  It now plans to work with Newcastle United Foundation to encourage economically inactive people into the workplace and those young people who leave the county to stay and seek employment amongst this large multi-sector group of employers.

I am a non-executive director of the Power of Women campaign, a community interest company launched 3 years ago to elevate the aspirations of girls growing up in the Tees Valley and beyond. We work with primary schools to deliver activities and information, making a range of careers visible to girls from a young age.

A five-year term as chair of the Advisory Board at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, gave me the opportunity to help the school’s executive develop a new strategy to become a ‘force for good.’ I was recently honoured to be made a Visiting Professor.

My work with the Swedish business community has helped develop strong trading links between Sweden and the North East region, with the result that Swedish businesses looking to set up in the UK are building on this existing relationship. Because of BREXIT it was important to have a legacy of this friendship and so we recently raised money from Swedish contacts in the area to build an Anglo-Swedish garden in Saltwell Park.

Have you witnessed an improvement over the last 25 years in the inequalities which inspired you to do this work?

Through my work with the North East Initiative on Business Ethics, I see businesses thinking more about all their stakeholders, not just their financial performance.  The growth of the BCorp movement is proof positive of this. But there is still work to be done.  The recently published Child Poverty Report contains shocking truths.  The findings showed the proportion of North East children in poverty and from working families had risen from 56% to 67% in under a decade. We all have a duty to do what we can to reverse these statistics and give children visibility of hope for a more positive future. 

What advice would you give to a young person setting out in their career?

Firstly, the importance of authenticity; find out who you are by testing yourself, exploring new ideas, pushing your boundaries. Work out what success means to you, articulate it and be true to it.  And my old dad’s maxim remains very true: “always try to do the right things for the right reasons and learn to believe in yourself”.

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