SEEING homeless people for the first time at the tender age of 12 left a lasting impression on Bianca Robinson.

However, at that stage little did she know that years later she would end up at the helm of a charity set up to fight homelessness and poverty by harnessing the influence and powerful voice of business.

Today, Bianca, is chief executive of CEO Sleepout, a national organisation, which was officially launched in December 2013 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Andy Preston.

Bianca openly admits she had a very privileged upbringing in Wellington, New Zealand, where she went to a private girls’ school.

It was while visiting America as a youngster that she first encountered rough sleepers and the impression of that has never left her.

She became acutely aware of the scale of problem when she moved to London in the late 1990s.

“It was a massive shock and a real eye opener. The impact has never left me.

“It was the same when I moved to Edinburgh where temperatures could drop to minus ten in winter. I was horrified to see rough sleepers lined up in sleeping bags on the Lothian Road. I just thought these people are not going to make it through the night and it left such an impression on me and it is the reason I do what I do today.”

After completing a bachelor of design degree at Victoria University, Wellington, Bianca began a career in advertising, which led to her managing an office of promotional salespeople in Edinburgh.

She then took a work break and returned to New Zealand, where she had twins. When she came back to the UK in 2002, she found she had to start again at the lowest rung of the career ladder.

This involved her driving a three hour round trip from Saltburn, east Cleveland, to Tyneside commercial radio station, Galaxy, where she sold advertising.

She found juggling two children, aged two, work and a long commute left her exhausted.

“It was difficult, but it was what I had to do to make ends meet.”

Stints with ad and creative agencies then followed before Bianca joined Teesside-based Calm Asylum, which became Calm Digital, where she was Managing Director for five years.

After selling her shares back to the directors, she embarked as a freelance, where her workload included lecturing at York St John University and Newcastle College in digital marketing.

Andy Preston approached Bianca about helping CEO Sleepout on a freelance basis, but being so fervent about the charity’s aims, she soon was working on its behalf full-time and a year ago she became its chief executive.

“Not long after I started to do work for CEO Sleepout, it began to take over my whole life and I ended up giving up all my other freelance commitments to completely focus on a cause about which I am hugely passionate.”

CEO Sleepout is a national movement that holds events throughout the UK inviting business owners and leaders to make a stand against homelessness and poverty by sleeping outside for one night.

In London, each business leader needs to raise or donate at least £2,000. Elsewhere in the country, the figure is £1,000.

So far, more than 2,000 executives have raised £2.2m to fight poverty and homelessness in the UK.

CEO Sleepout partners with small, local, grass roots charities working on the front line to tackle homelessness and poverty.

“The sleepout events work on several levels. They give business leaders an insight into homelessness and poverty and what it is like not to have a roof over your head, as well as an opportunity to rub shoulders and network with other executives and to raise money to help vulnerable members of society.”

Bianca points out there is a massive need for organisations such as CEO Sleepout with homelessness having risen by 160 per cent since 2010, there being 245,000 children registered as homeless and the overhaul of the benefits system, with the introduction of Universal Credit, tripping people "from poverty into absolute destitution".

She believes that business leaders can drive positive social change and have a responsibility to rise to such challenges.

“A lot needs to change in this country and it needs to happen fast, but in the meantime business leaders need to do their bit.

“They have prospered, they have worked hard and they absolutely deserve the success and results of their labour, but what they can do is show solidarity with people who are not as fortunate, show compassionate leadership by making a stand and making a noise - that powerful voice of business is what policymakers will listen to.”

Bianca contends businesses have the potential to improve lives by looking after their workers’ happiness and wellbeing, paying a living wage, making sure staff can get to and from work, providing adequate holiday and downtime, offering people opportunities by recruiting apprentices and enabling staff to advance their careers, and ensuring suppliers follow a similar ethos.

She said: “I strongly believe that we all have a responsibility to help disadvantaged vulnerable members of society and that a right to economic equality is as fundamental as any other human rights.”

  • This year’s CEO Sleepout in Darlington takes place on Thursday, October 17.