Mike Hughes renews an old friendship with business networker extraordinaire Caroline Theobald


Caroline Theobald’s Twitter handle is ‘hirecaroline’, which is very much like the woman herself – clear, direct and unequivocal.

I have known her for some years, but our paths hadn’t crossed for ages. To me, she is a freelance facilitator, a bringer-together at countless business events and programmes when many different parts need assembling.

If the business world is a daunting IKEA flatpack, Caroline is the Allen key you are always looking for.

Caroline is the founder of Bridge Club, established in 2000 to ‘bridge the gap’ between early-stage entrepreneurs seeking connections to the money, management, skills and markets.  She also co-founded FIRST, a company that connects young people, start-ups and professionals to their wider business community, and is also a visiting professor at Northumbria University and a founding director of the North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE) and Teesside’s Power of Women campaign.

As if her diary wasn’t full enough, for the past 14 years she has served as an honorary diplomat to the Swedish Government (there’s that IKEA link again…) and was awarded a CBE for services to business and entrepreneurship in 2016.

She is now as much in demand as ever but seems to be finding a good work-life balance with new husband Michael (‘I found him in a Hexham food shop just before the pandemic’) and a property to renovate in her beloved Northumberland. The story of how she became ‘hirecaroline’ says a lot about her character and determination to battle inequality and give businesses a louder voice.

“I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she told me. “My dad was an entrepreneur and my brother is one too, then there is my brother-in-law and my sister’s got a small business. I set up my first business in London in the 1980s and when I came up here in the 1990s and didn’t really know quite what I was going to do. I did a course called Common Purpose when it was in its very early days.

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“I moved to North Shields and actually fell in love with the area because of the sky, then through Common Purpose I learned how places work better when the people in them know each other and know how to connect – what makes other people tick?  You respect them more, don’t you, because what is really important about such relationships is respect and trust.

“I became a programme director for Common Purpose and met my husband Alan who was a commercial fisherman from North Shields. But he had a very, very different background to me and I inherited his two children because his first wife had left him.  “We got married in 1992 and he was dead four years later. But I learned more from him than I probably did from anybody, including going to university.  “He taught me that if you only meet the people that you normally meet, who look like you, talk like you, then actually you’re thinking is never going to change. So it’s really good to try and make yourself meet different sorts of people – different ages and different backgrounds.

“Also, when you’re in your 30s and you’re an ageing yuppie you are quite arrogant and think everybody thinks like you and your university education. It all made me very conscious that I came from a place that was very different from an awful lot of people.

“So it was a really good education for me and as well as that we were bringing up two small children because we had custody of them and then I retained custody after Alan died. “It was jolly hard.”

For a moment I see her in a different light, perhaps a more revealing one than I had known before. I knew the end product – a deceptively dazzling exponent of business conversation and persuasion – but knowing a little about how her character and principle were born is illuminating.

“I think it all definitely gave me resilience,” she says.

“And I think the other thing about that is that it changes your risk profile. My brother was widowed the year after me. Both of us have run businesses – him very successfully – and he said to me ‘Caroline, there’s two sorts of entrepreneurs. The people who want to change the world, like you, and people like me who want to spend lots of money.

“But what I like doing is connected to what happened with me and Alan and the children, because actually what I like doing is giving people opportunity. That’s one of the big things I learned, that if you’re born into a family of privilege you have a lot of advantages and that sort of thing has really powered me – trying to help people be the best person possible and think that they can, rather than they can’t.”

The Northern Echo: Caroline at Buckingham PalaceCaroline at Buckingham Palace (Image: Submitted)

So how does that become a business? Well, in Caroline’s case, she housed those ideals inside organisations and projects that she helped set up, to give her ideals the support, scaffolding and scope they needed.

“After Alan died, I found a couple of Common Purpose programmes and one of the people who was on one of those programmes was a chap called Jim who was an American entrepreneur and there was a big movement going on down in London at the time which was called First Tuesday.

“Now I was talking to all sorts of people, like Charlie Hoult of Hoult’s Yard who was down there at the time and I said I wanted to do something similar up here. People who wanted to use the dot.coms as a jumping-off point to set up a business, there was an opportunity gap. They didn’t know the people they needed to know to get the money they needed or get the management teams they needed and access the markets. But I did, because I had been hoofing around particularly with Common Purpose.

“So Jim, Charlie and I thought we would set up the Bridge Club to bridge that gap for early stage entrepreneurs with growth opportunity, money, markets and management. Jim left after three or four years and then Lorna Moran said would I help set up The Entrepreneur’s Forum and that launched in 2003.”

Her connection to and love of Northumberland makes it impossible for her to turn down an opportunity to bridge another gap and help the county, so when Brian Palmer, the founder of Tharsus phoned 15 or 16 months ago with his concerns about the future of the BritishVolt project, she was hooked again.

She starts narrating another remarkable chapter of her story: “He said the big employers are worried about BritishVolt and I think we as employers need to take control of our own destiny and build up and build out, working together to help make Northumberland sustainable. Would you be interested, and I said ‘too right I would!’ “He managed to get some money from the Royal Academy of Engineering to fund some leadership programme. Not skills, because if you ask any company or any employer what their skills gap is, they will have different answers. However, they would all agree that leadership is crucial, so we focused on leadership at both the entry level of first line management and also emerging leaders, and over the last year we put 127 people from about 37 companies, through different lots of leadership development, and we’ve done it in a very different way.

“We’ve done it in Northumberland, but rather than just doing it in an office or a training room, that leadership development has travelled. So there have been up to 20 individuals from up to 20 different employers on the same leadership courses at those two levels and each day of training has been hosted by a different employer in Northumberland.

“And what’s been really interesting about that is that people have begun to realise that employees are different. Northumberland is a very big county and actually getting to places is quite difficult and they’ve learned about themselves as people. Their capability as people has gone up, which means that the employer has gone up which means that the prosperity of the county will go up.”

Recent research commissioned by what is now officially known as Connect Northumberland revealed that most of the 16 to 24-year-olds leave, probably for education, and don’t come back until they’re 40. That’s a very specific and huge challenge because it leaves a skills hole in the middle of the county.

Needless to say, Caroline intends to do something about that and Connect Northumberland is working with young people and those who are economically disadvantaged and aims to turn disadvantage into advantage.

So what is the secret of this Northumberland Powerhouse? Why does Brian Palmer come to her and why did Charlie Hoult see something special in the Bridge Club idea?

Caroline pauses to find the right answer, and opts for that clarity she is known for.

“I would say my USP is as a convener and a persuader,” she says.

“We need to bring the employers together and for them to think that this is a good thing, so that’s sort of what I do. If people are looking for me to do operational stuff then they’re looking in the wrong direction, but bringing people together and exciting them about a new way of doing things is what excites me.

“My strong belief is that all opportunity starts with a conversation and once those conversations happen, all sorts of things can happen. For example, if someone is doing an MBA, yes, you have the teaching, but what’s as valuable as that is the interaction between the people who are at a similar level in a group and that’s about people power.  “It’s people who run businesses and people who do business with people and I suppose it is about investing in the power of the people to make good things happen.

The Northern Echo: Her beloved NorthumberlandHer beloved Northumberland (Image: Submitted)

“Now that the devolution deal has finally been agreed – and the housing associations have got together to form the North East Housing Partnership - it is clear that we know how to work together. If there is a big enough challenge or a big enough opportunity, I think people do know how to get together.

“I think sometimes when that opportunity isn’t there, you think ‘oh well, you know I could do it tomorrow’. But actually if you think about Connect Northumberland and how that began, the opportunity was provided by the challenge of BritishVolt because you do need something to persuade busy people to invest in the common goals rather than just their own.

“That what’s happened with devolution. The prize is so big people needed to get together in order to put down their individual differences and get together in order to maximise the opportunity.

“It’s about capturing that instance, a moment in time, and turning it to positive good and recognising that if people work together, then they help themselves.”

Her passion for the power of people pours out of her in every sentence. For her anything is possible if people can balance their differences with the benefits of collaboration. Just sit down and talk about it – that’s the starting point for Bridge Club, Power of Women, Connect Northumberland and anything else this remarkable woman decides to do.

“My thing is that people are different,” she says. “It’s not so much about gender actually as it is about people who have different motivations for doing things, have different ways of behaving. I think maybe it would be true to say as a generalisation, that women do run businesses in different ways than men, or they lead in a different way, perhaps they’re more consensual.

“But that’s a gross generalisation. It really is more about the individual people because there are men with what would normally be considered female characteristics, and they are women with male ones. So I think it’s quite difficult to sort of put it hard and fast down the gender line.”

The Power of Women came about after another of those passionate conversations about a gap that needed bridging. This time it was with the much-missed Prof Jane Turner at Teesside University, who left such a gaping hole in so many lives and plans when she died of ovarian cancer. They were great friends and joined forces for a battle that continues to this day.

“At the point we spoke, Middlesbrough was the worst place in England to grow up if you were a girl,” says Caroline.

“We did a piece of work together and she used to involve me in International Women’s Day. Some of the boys we had talked to were referring to girls as washing machines – because they thought that’s all they were good for.

“This is not very long ago. Jane died three years ago this year, so this was only four or five years ago.

“She was absolutely incensed and said ‘Come on, Caroline, we need to do something about it’, and so we have a company called the Power of Women to raise, shift, lift the aspirations of girls and young women  to make people think that they ‘can’. We do that by showing them role models of people who have. That’s where we started because seeing is believing.

“I think a lot of this is, I think why I felt so lucky, because when I was growing up, I could see people who were achieving. And there were women, and there were men and if you were growing up in Middlesbrough then there hadn’t been a lot of that, so it went back to this whole thing of ‘if you can see it, you can be it’.

“But if you can’t see it, it’s far more difficult. Nothing’s binary here, Mike. It’s all of these things together and it needs something much cleverer than me.”

I disagree.

What it exactly needs to bring calm and focus to a maelstrom of swirling ideas, opinions, legacies and visions is a Caroline at the eye of the storm, finding that moment of clarity and calm to identify what needs to be done and step in and say ‘Have you got a few minutes? Let’s talk over some of the ideas….’ before she starts unravelling some of the crossed wires.

The devolution opportunity presents a fresh new battleground. As she says, the fact that it exists at all is hugely promising, but I imagine she will play her part in making sure the initial consensus becomes long-term collaboration.

“We have talked about opportunity and challenge,” she says.

“A clear one is devolution, and I think the other one goes back to a bit of my own personal history in Northumberland. It is sadly still true that this region has got some of the highest unemployment in the country and the highest percentage of people who are economically inactive. And there have been surveys done by the NHS and others that show why it’s so important to work. Good work is good for people.

“But in places like Northumberland, people can rally around those things and say to employers ‘we all need to work together’. That’s not just the big employers, like councils, police services, NHS, it’s all of the employers.

“We are capable of doing more in this space to make society work. And I think that’s a great opportunity. It’s turning another disadvantage into another advantage to make a fairer society”.

Can you imagine the possibilities if the new mayor of the North East Mayoral Combined Authority came with that sort of wisdom and conviction?  Hirecaroline….