Explore how communities and networking act as catalysts for innovation and growth.
Hello everyone and welcome back to The MAJOR Difference, where this season we're diving deep into the theme of positive impact. Today we're joined by Samantha Harland, who's the Director of Innovation at Wired Sussex, an organisation who support the digital, media and technology sectors here in Sussex.
Sam is a true innovator and a driving force in the tech and creative sectors. She's also an expert in building communities and fostering positive impacts and is dedicated to the economic development and digital transformation of the local tech and creative sectors. Having worked with start-ups and SMEs at renowned organizations such as Plus X and the NatWest Accelerator, she's a strategist, a problem solver, and a leader who knows how to turn ideas into reality.
Sam brings a wealth of experience to the table today, so without further ado, let's welcome Sam to the podcast. Sam, it's an absolute pleasure to have you here with us today. How are you doing?
I'm doing good, James. Yeah. Thank you for having me on the podcast.
Not at all, Sam. It's great to have you here with us. Firstly, I think congratulations are in order. I hear you've recently been appointed as the new Chapter Director for Startup Grind.
Yeah. So, I have been working, as you said, for many years in the Brighton start-up community and ecosystem. So yeah, it's really great to take on a new position as the co-director for Startup Grind. So I'm going to be co-directing with Lara, who is the founder of a great, female business owner community called Found and Flourish.
Excellent. Well, congratulations. Do you mind if we just start with your career journey and if I could ask how you found your way to Wired Sussex and what led you also to take on this new role at Startup Grind?
Yes. Yeah, of course. Always happy to chat about that kind of side of things. So it's a funny one. It's not a regular path that I have trodden, and I do like to refer, I'm a big believer in squiggly careers and I do feel like looking back at my career, it's definitely, been squiggly.
So I actually started my career in, working for consumer goods. So I worked for Diageo in the alcohol industry back in the day and then moved on to work for Unilever in ice cream. So definitely not started in the start-up world. But then I did see this amazing opportunity to run a start-up accelerator in the heart of Brighton.
I was living in Brighton at the time, commuting to London, and I thought that'd be amazing being able to live and work in Brighton. Cause it wasn't, you know, I didn't know many people that were able to do that at the time. So I went for the job at the Entrepreneurial Spark Accelerator, as it was called at the time, and I got it.
So that really was my entry point into the start-up world. So I was running a accelerator of 50+ businesses. Every single day: coaching, creating workshops. networking events, everything to do with start-ups, pitching, investment. And yeah, since then I've been, just constantly, embedded into this, into this world.
Wow, well that's a pretty varied journey. Do you mind if we talk a bit more about Startup Grind? Obviously it's a significant player in the global start-up community, but what motivated you to join them and what are your responsibilities as Chapter Director?
Yeah. I didn't know that much about Startup Grind until a couple of years ago, when, Christina, who's a really good friend of mine, who runs Southeast Angels, she took over as the Brighton Chapter Director, and I was like, "oh, wow, that's really cool", I wonder, you know, kind of found out more about the organization, then realized how huge it was. So I think it is the, the biggest start-up community globally, and they have chapters in every major city, I believe in the world.
So yeah, it's really, really amazing how well they've done in kind of spreading that community globally. Yeah, I'm really excited to be the Chapter Co-Director just cause I feel really passionately about making, supports, for start-ups more accessible. So sometimes these start-up programs are attached to certain venues, you know, kind of co working spaces or they have some of them have pay brackets. But I think, you know, that community should be accessible to all. And there's some really great learnings from founders that have been there and done it. And it's about providing a platform to tell those stories really and share the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial journey.
And in terms of active projects or innovation projects that you're currently working on, have you got any projects that you'd like to talk about today and that you're excited to share with us?
Yeah, I'm working on a program at the moment at Wired Sussex in my position there called Grow Digital. So Grow Digital West Sussex is funded by the West Sussex County Councils, and it's about bringing support for businesses across West Sussex in everything to do with digital. So it's support for digital companies and non-digital companies, and it's there to help accelerate their understanding around a digital topic.
So everything from websites to SEO to AI. So obviously AI is a really hot topic at the moment. So we're trying to sprinkle that across all different areas because it kind of touches on everything. But really passionate about these kind of grassroots programs that really help small businesses and even large businesses just accelerate what they're doing and grow faster.
And I see you've also launched the Sussex and Greater Brighton Tech Week for 2024. Could you tell us a bit more about that as well?
Yeah, Sussex Tech Week. So we're really excited at Wired Sussex to be launching the first ever Sussex Tech Week. And it's one of these things isn't it where you think, "wow, why have we never done a tech week before"? We're such a big tech community in Sussex and Brighton especially. And now you've got places like Eastbourne and everywhere is getting much more digital.
So yeah, we're really excited to be bringing different communities together for this event. So the plan is that we are going to launch this in June next year, so June 2024, and it's really going to be, as we're talking about communities today, bringing lots of different communities together, kind of an event that's going to bring the whole of Sussex together.
So we have been reaching out to communities across the whole of Sussex so that we can really make this a really inclusive and big event for the region.
Well I'll definitely get a diary note in for June 2024 then and I'll look forward to seeing you there. If we could shift our focus to today's main topic which is the power of communities to create positive impact. In your view what are the key elements that make a community successful?
It's a really, really good question. So I think for a community to be successful, we've already touched on, it really needs to be inclusive. So I think it's somewhere that people feel that they belong. I guess the way that you can do that is by making the community really accessible and approachable and you need to be able to see yourself in that community.
I'm always a big believer in when you're marketing community to others and you want people to join your community, that's really what you have to have top of mind is thinking, do people feel like they belong here? Are they going to feel included? And the best way for them to do that is by having a really diverse mix or thinking about who you are trying to target and reflecting that in, you know, the images and the language that you use so people do feel like that that they can come along and they can join in.
I think inclusivity is actually a really important aspect of this and later in the season we're going to be chatting with Mo Kanjilal, which should be really exciting. But I think one of the other considerations is finding the right community can actually be quite challenging.
So do you have any advice for our listeners on how they can identify a community that aligns with their needs?
Well there's two sides to it actually. I think it's about thinking about what problem am I trying to solve but then also what can I give and that's something that a lot of people will miss - is the giving part.
It's, I think a lot of people do think about how can you help me But communities are also very much about how can I help others? So, and certain points, you know, in our careers or where we are in our businesses, we will have more capacity to do one or the other but I think that's a really, really good place to start.
So one of the things that we do at the Fusebox, which is the co-working space attached to Wired Sussex, is when anyone comes into our community, we will always ask the question, you know, what are you looking for? How can we help? But also what you, prepared to give to the community? Cause it's all about kind of give and take.
Yeah, that's a really interesting point actually. At Major we're part of a range of different communities I guess. We're based out of Plus X so we're part of that co-working community and obviously there's Wired Sussex and we're also active in The Agency Collective as well and I think for us there's been real benefits on both sides.
And it's definitely a two way process. Could you elaborate a bit more on what you see the benefits of being part of a community are?
Yeah, I think being part of community, again, going back to that feeling of belonging. So I think that's really, really important is feeling like you belong to a community and it really does help create a sense of identity that you belong to all these different communities.
And I think that's a really good point as well. You don't need to just be part of one community, you can be part of several. So I think you just mentioned being part of a co-working community and then there might be virtual communities and in-person. And I think that's what's, you've got to think what's important to me. Is it important that it's in person? Do I need to see my community or can it be virtual? It's a really good place, place to start.
So one of the key benefits I think of being part of a community is just that you grow, you know, growing your network and finding like minded people that you can talk to about, who are going through some really similar challenges to yourselves.
So think about the different start-up communities that I have helped build and I'm part of. I think it's that sense of you're not on your own. There are other people that are going through something similar and they will be able to share their unique perspective and how they handle certain situations.
And I think that's really beneficial because a big part of my role is about creating programs of support. So that includes things like workshops and quite structured learning modules and things like that, but actually getting peer-to-peer support is one of the best ways that you can solve challenges rather than, an expert telling you how to do something.
Yeah, and it's funny, actually, when we moved our business a couple of years ago, from working out of a single office on our own, where we've been for 10 years, and we moved into Plus X, which is, as we said, a co working space, it really, it wasn't our key consideration at the time. We weren't looking to join a community, we were just looking for a nice, modern, central workspace, and we needed it quickly, and we just wanted a different environment.
But having join the community at Plus X, we've definitely benefited from being there, and also just the things like the chance conversations you have. The emotional support that you get from your peers. And it's made a real difference to us, and it's just something we weren't looking for when we were looking to move.
And actually, we were really lucky to have just chanced upon that community. And sometimes I think it might not actually be that easy to find the right community. And with that in mind, you might need to consider starting one to fill that gap. And I think starting a community probably seems like quite a daunting feat. So for any of our listeners contemplating starting their own niche communities, how challenging is that in your experience to build one from scratch? And what are the key considerations?
Yeah, I think it's incredibly easy now with all the technology we have to start a community and I am forever recommending to people to start their own. It was only the other day that we were at an event and somebody was asking me if there was any peer-to-peer communities locally. And it wasn't an area that I was that familiar with.
So I was like, well, maybe there are, however, have you thought about creating the community yourself if it doesn't exist? And all you need to do to do that nowadays is you just need to go on to say a platform such as Meetup and you just put in the fact that you're whatever community or you want to meet like minded people, and then you just go to a pub or a café and wait for the people to come.
And it really is that simple. And I say that anything, because I have done that myself. So when I moved to Manchester, this was around, probably around six years ago when I was working at the NatWest Accelerator. I moved to Manchester to work up at the hub up there and I didn't know anyone in Manchester, so I was a bit like, you know, I could really do with making some friends up here outside of work. It'd be really nice to meet some more people and because, yeah, I looked at some Meetup groups and there wasn't really anything, you know, a lot of it was around drinking or if it was times that didn't suit me.
So I actually, one of my really good friends is someone called Pippa Moyles who runs the City Girl Network. Don't know if you've heard of it? But a really amazing business based here in Sussex and Brighton. And she said, yeah, you can start up a Manchester Girl. So I started Manchester Girl for Pippa in Manchester, and I think it's now something thousand people are part of that group that just little old me started found a café in Manchester and just every single month that I ran it, more and more people came. And I made some amazing friends while I was in Manchester by doing that and it was really, really easy to do.
So I definitely recommend it to anybody. If you can't find the right meetup or the right community, yeah, just create it yourself.
Excellent. And we talked earlier about inclusion and diversity, and from a community perspective, how can communities better ensure that they've got representation from diverse backgrounds?
Yeah, I think the best way to ensure that you are reaching a diverse audience is to make sure that diversity is reflected in your team. So, yeah, talking about team is really important because I say that you can start up something on your own and you definitely can. But I would say having a team of people around you, just makes any community and any business much, much better and stronger.
So my advice would be for anyone running their own communities to think about the people in the team, so they reflect the diversity that you wish to see in your audience. And sometimes it won't be for whatever reason. Maybe you don't have a diverse team around you, but then you can pull in other people, to help make that more diverse. So they don't need to be part of your team, but maybe they can be maybe a strategic advisor that can come in and just advise you how do I reach more diverse communities. And that's a really good point actually is - reach out to diverse communities if you want more diverse audience. So think about there will be communities out there for diverse groups that you can reach out to and say we'd love to promote our community or our events and to make sure that we have better representation. Would you be open to sharing that? And a lot of communities will do that so that their community get more opportunities.
And what do you see as the role for community leaders in fostering diversity and inclusion?
Yeah, I think it's, I think it's really important. I think, community leaders should take that responsibility to ensure that there is more diversity. You can't always control who joins your community, but I think it's all about just, it's making the effort be, like I said, be reaching out and constantly be trying to create more diversity.
Cause I think it's been well proven in many studies that through more diversity comes more innovation, more business growth. The rest, huge benefits as Mo will tell you, if she's coming on this podcast to having more diversity in all areas of life.
Earlier on we touched on the subject of the built environment and I know yourself and Martyn first crossed paths here at Plus X and for us it's been a brilliant collaborative space and we love it here. And I know you personally have got a keen interest in how physical spaces can foster collaboration. Could you talk a bit more about your thoughts in that respect?
Yes I'm a big fan of physical spaces in fostering that community. So I've been involved in physical spaces since, I said, the NatWest Accelerator and then Plus X Innovation Hubs, and then more recently Wired Sussex and the Fusebox. And I think these spaces are really important.
And it's interesting, isn't it? During the pandemic where we didn't have that many physical spaces, obviously we did rely a lot on Zooms and video calls and online. And I think that while that was great and technology really helps us out to be able to still connect and have online communities, there is something really special about in person communities and I think you touched on it earlier, James, when you said, I think you mentioned something about 'off chance meetings'.
And that's what I think these physical spaces do, is that you will bump into people randomly like a coffee machine or in a lift and I know it's really cliché but it does happen quite a lot. And these opportunities can lead to new business deals, new customers, maybe you find your next co-founder of a new business in some of these spaces. So I'm a huge believer in us having, in the region in Sussex, lots of different in person spaces that communities could be created.
And if we take Plus X, for example which is, Plus X Brighton is a massive building. There are going to be lots of different communities within Plus X, not just Plus X itself, but the many communities that spring up and it creates its own mini innovation ecosystem really. So yeah, I think these places are, yeah, really important.
And we've seen a massive surge in the popularity of co-working spaces, especially in Brighton and Hove and the wider Sussex region. What do you think is actually driving that? Do you think it's just a trend that's been set and accelerated by the pandemic? Or do you think there's an underlying trend that's being driven elsewhere? What are your thoughts?
Well, I think, people are looking to connect and we have a high proportion of solo entrepreneurs in Brighton and Sussex, a huge proportion of freelancers and people that work for themselves. I think there are some stats somewhere to say that we have a higher ratio down here than anywhere else in the UK.
A lot of people have been working from home for years and I think that the pandemic did have an effect on people and it might not have changed things for a lot of people that were already working from home, but I think it did make us all question who we connect with, what we do socially, what we do for work, where do those boundaries blur.
And I think a lot of people then thought, you know what, it'd be really great to join a co-working space community, even if it's just for one day a week, or a couple of days a month. Just because we did become so isolated and started to really reflect on our, on our lives and what we did.
So I think that really helps with, you know, drive a lot of the demands. And also I think it's great that more co-working spaces are opening because all these co-working spaces do have their own personality, their own cultures, their own communities, and you as a business owner or a freelancer or an employee, can then go and choose which one best reflects, you know, your values and, you know, what you want to bring to your team.
So, I think the more of them, the better, because then you can, you know, kind of have, make an informed choice.
Yeah, in that respect, how do you see the future of workspaces evolving, especially in the context of us talking about community building?
Yeah, I think, I think it's really exciting time for co-working spaces. I think pre-pandemic, there was a bit of a formula on the go with WeWorks, they'd been really successful and there was a lot around free beer Fridays, you need some pool tables and there was all these different things that, you know, people thought a co-working space should be.
And I think a lot of it was quite a lot of novelty but actually after the pandemic, I think we've seen a real shift in the coworking space. And a lot of it has been around what actual value do you get? Yes. You can have, a really fun community, so it can be really social and lots of drinks, but actually what are you getting value wise? And I think that's where some of these innovation programs and business support can be really amazing.
So a lot of spaces will offer this for free if you are a member of their space. And it's all about helping your business grow faster, innovate faster so that you grow and eventually you'll take obviously bigger offices with these spaces, but you will benefit in the process. So I think that's really exciting to see more business support come into co-working spaces.
Yeah, and another subject we talked about when we were off air earlier was the subject of networking. And it's obviously a necessary part of being part of a community. And personally I've got a bit of a love hate relationship with it. But I think it's obvious that's an essential ingredient of growth for many businesses.
So with that in mind, how can we make networking a bit less intimidating? And could you also speak to the role of serendipity in networking? We touched on that a minute ago and have you had any chance encounters that you've had that have influenced your career or a project?
I think networking is an interesting one to talk about and I always find it really funny when people say they don't like it because I'm a big lover of it, so I'm always like why don't you like networking? I guess that goes back to different personality types and the whole introvert/extrovert because some people will get really energised by networking and it will give them, it will actually give people energy.
And some people it would drain, and actually I'm a little bit 50/50. I do get drained by it if I do too much of it. But I think it's really important the mindset you go into networking with. So if you're going to a networking event thinking, what can I get out of this? I really hope I meet some really interesting people that can I can do business with or I really hope I sell something to someone today or it won't be valuable. I think that's not the right mindset to approach it with I think you've got to go there thinking to yourself that everybody in that room is just another person like you and you might be there for work purposes.
And this is another effect I think of the pandemic is we've all become much more appreciative of the complexities of life. And at the end of the day, we're all just people with our challenges people have kids at home, pets, all these different things going on.
And I think it's just approaching people as people that's really important and not looking to get an instant win. So I've built my network in Sussex over many years and it might be that if I'm running a program and people will see it and think, oh, I know Sam, she's run lots of different innovation programs and I'll go along and I'll join this one. But it doesn't happen instantly. So people that will tend to join the innovation programs or business support programs that I run will have known me for years. But people that I just meet might, might not join. So I think you have to go into networking in the long run and it's all about trust and authenticity.
So I think be yourself, don't expect instant returns. Following up with people afterwards as well is a big one, so if you have met somebody that's really interesting follow up and ask them maybe to go for coffee or find out more about them, but, I think, again, it's about what can you bring as well? How can you go to a networking event and how can you help others? So I think always having that in your mind when you go networking, because if you help somebody, they might be able to help you further down the line. So yeah.
I clearly need to step out of my comfort zone and try a bit harder with my networking efforts. I'm really conscious that we're nearing the end of our chat and it's been so interesting talking with you today, so thank you. But before we say goodbye, are there any resources that you'd like to recommend our listeners dive into?
So I think I'd love to recommend some different groups and communities that we have mainly in Brighton, but also available for those in wider Sussex area as well. So some great groups that I would really recommend joining or looking into is Brighton and Hove Chamber. If you are in Brighton run some really amazing networking events, and if you're not part of the chamber, they will usually let you go to one for free or join on a paid basis to try an event.
Silicon Brighton are another, like Wired Sussex, tech focused organization that are involved in lots of different meetups and so definitely recommend Silicon Brighton.
There's lots of different communities, so if you're a female founder, there is a community called Thrive, which is really worth looking into and they do brunches and have lots of female speakers and panellists.
There's a new community actually that I'd really like to shout out about talking about diversity and inclusion earlier. So there is a company called Joyfully Different that are just about to launch and that is all looking into neurodivergent founders and communities and talking about lots of topics to do with ADHD, dyslexia. So I actually identify as being dyslexic, so I'm really excited to see what they come out with and help me feel a bit more belonging in the community.
Obviously another community that I would really recommend is joining the Wired Sussex community. So we are involved in lots of different initiatives that help the digital tech and creative communities around the whole of Sussex. So we're not just Brighton focused, but the whole of Sussex. Lots of different events covering lots of different topics such as AI and skills and talents and diversity actually. And so we'd love to have more people come along to our events and look at the different programs that we're running as well.
That's brilliant. Thank you.
And also, Sam, you did send me, before we met, a list of the different communities that would be useful for those in the Brighton & Hove area to know about. So in no particular order, I'm going to read them out here: Wired Sussex, StartUp Grind, Silicon Brighton - who also promote a range of microtech communities and probably too many to list here, Connected Brighton, Brighton Chamber, Thive, Joyfully Different, Watch this Sp_ce, Big Business Breakfast, The Good Business Club, The City Girl Network, County Business Clubs, Network My Club, Sussex Chamber, The Farm, and Gatwick Diamond.
And also there are a number of co-working spaces in Brighton & Hove with communities at their heart. And they are: The Projects, PLATF9RM (Platform9), The FuseBox, Plus X Innovation, Runway East, Barclays Eagle Labs, Freedom Works, The Werks, The Skiff, and Spaces. I appreciate that was a pretty long list so we'll put links to all of those resources in the show notes so you can click away at your leisure.
And before I let you go, we have a seasonal question that we're asking all of our guests at the end of each episode. And if you don't mind, if I could ask you the same, that would be great. So prepare yourself. So the question is, if I gave you total unfiltered media control in the UK for 24 hours. So if you had control of every billboard, banner ad, radio ad what would your message be and why?
Oh, wow. That is a really big question, isn't it? So... I think based on what we have discussed today, I think, it would have to be, "collaboration over competition". So I think I'd want to advertise the idea that we'd all be much better if we collaborate and aren't so competitive. And that might be cheesy, but I really do believe that's true.
Personally, I don't think that's cheesy at all. I really like it.
So, Sam, that's sadly all we've got time for today. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and invaluable insights on community building and the power of spaces and the nuances of networking. I really must try harder at networking. And to all our listeners, look out for all of the resources and recommendations mentioned in our show notes.
And don't forget to subscribe for more thought provoking conversations. So until next time, stay curious and keep making a difference.