An organisation charged with giving grants to good causes in the North-East has a new chief executive. Peter Barron spoke to her

WHEN it comes to compiling a CV, Michelle Cooper has accumulated a wonderfully varied list of experiences, ranging from the high-tech world of genetics to designing anti-flea products for dogs and cats.

Along the way, the daughter of a shoe-maker has made impressive strides in science and business – and is now relishing the chance to step into the charity sector.

As the new chief executive of County Durham Community Foundation, Michelle faces the challenge of building on the success of a charitable body that has given out around £37m to good causes since it was founded in 1995.

“What the Community Foundation has achieved over the past 23 years is phenomenal,” says Michelle, who has succeeded Barbara Gubbins as Chief Executive.

“But there is a huge need here in the North-East, and that need is likely to grow, so our aim has to be to establish new funds and be in a position where we can help even more people.”

Before joining the Community Foundation, Michelle was working as an investment manager for Newcastle-based Northstar Ventures, supporting entrepreneurs by investing in fledgling businesses.

Although she has now spent 14 years as an adopted North-Easterner, she was born in Norwich, where her father worked in a shoe factory and her mother was a housewife.

Indeed, shoes provided a dramatic step-change for the family when Michelle’s father, Michael, took a job setting up shoe factories in Africa, Turkey, and Cyprus. He would work with local communities, secure the sites, oversee the building of the factories, and train local staff.

It took the family out of its working-class English roots and the experience not only gave Michelle a global outlook but instilled in her an ethos about business that she has never forgotten.

From childhood, she and her brother were taught the importance of respecting people at every level of an organisation. “We helped to clean the factory floors and it was Dad’s way of showing us that every member of the workforce is important, whether it’s the cleaner, the receptionist or the managers,” she says.

When his children were older, Michael quit his job rather than send them to boarding-school. The family returned to England, where he found work with the AA and his wife on the delicatessen counter at Woolworths.

Michelle began building her CV by studying bio-chemistry at Kent University and went on to complete a PhD in molecular genetics in Edinburgh.

However, while speaking at a conference on her specialist subject of yeast genetics, she realised it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life and engineered an exit.

That’s when she secured a job with Mars as a designer for the Pedigree and Whiskas brands, producing feeding bowls, brushes and even those anti-flea products. It was an “amazing immersion” in business, from the concept stage to the supermarket shelf, but the novelty soon wore off.

The next challenge came when she joined the tech transfer team at the University of Manchester, where she was able to combine her science knowledge with her new-found business experience.

She then moved to the North-East when she was head-hunted to work in Newcastle for Codeworks, a digital centre of excellence helping businesses to access funding, and that was soon followed by the switch to Northstar Ventures.

Michelle’s introduction to the charity sector came when her role with Northstar involved her working with the Northern Rock Foundation on a programme called “Fresh Ideas”. With signs that austerity was approaching, the initiative was aimed at helping charities become more sustainable.

“Some of the best and most inspirational chief executives I’ve met have been in the charity sector, with great leadership and financial management skills,” she says. “It my fundamental belief that charities have to be run as businesses – they might be volunteer-led but they have to be run on a business model to survive.”

In 2015, Northstar Ventures won a contract to manage a social investment fund, supporting charities, and that proved to be further invaluable experience when it came to her applying for the chief executive’s role with County Durham Community Foundation.

“Everything I’d done just seemed to fit and I had so many people telling me that I should apply. It just seemed the right thing to do at this stage of my life,” says Michelle, who is married and has an seven-year-old daughter.

“I’ve grown to love living in County Durham and this is a job where I can make a difference to communities. So much has already been achieved by the Community Foundation but we have to continue to grow so we can help more people. In the end, that’s why we exist.”

Michelle Cooper has big shoes to fill but, with a skill-set combining the worlds of science, business and charity, she looks the perfect fit.