House of Lords here we come! By Fay Cooper
On bonfire night 2015, I attended the Next Gen Awards dinner with some of my special colleagues at the House of Lords. Now being in Parliament on bonfire night was exciting enough for a girl like me, but when later in the night iNorthumberland was crowned the winners of the 2015 Next Gen Digital Challenge Award winner for Digital Skills and Inclusion, well I am not ashamed to say I cried. So fast forward to 2016 and I was absolutely bowled over to discover that our latest project, Be Digital has been shortlisted for the 02 Next Gen Digital Challenge Awards 2016, for the Digital Skills category.
As the Digital lead for Northumberland County Council, one of my key remits is to increase digital literacy and reduce exclusion. This is no easy task, and we often laugh as a team that our projects are like walking through treacle at times. Still, every now and then a chink of light appears and we develop and bring forward a mind blowing project which captures the imagination of the people we serve, Be Digital was one of those projects.
Be Digital was created when we were selected as a supplier for the Women and Broadband Challenge Programme launched by the Government Equalities Office (GEO). GEO were seeking suppliers to use broadband and digital technology, to increase women in enterprise and also support women back into the workplace. Be Digital was delivered by the lovely Anita Nicholson from my team and captured the imagination of over 100 women at our launch event. It has been lucky enough to receive the support of a very special business ambassador, Layla Welsh of French Grey Tales. Layla has been our compass, guiding our approach and helping us get to where we need to be. Having Layla on board has kept our approach authentic, she showed us that success was within us all, you just had to find your passion.
Be Digital delivered two key elements, firstly there was our Springboard Programme, an intensive business support programme led by Pascal Fintoni and his associates, Norma Foster and Leon Howe. We put 20 women-led businesses with low digital take up, through an immersive and intensive digital skills programme incorporating Masterclasses, Mentoring, Mastermind sessions and Meet Ups. This model created by Pascal Fintoni & Associates revolutionised our approach to how we support businesses. The women responded immediately to the small group intensity, it seemed to drive their accountability and soon they were tweeting and periscoping between sessions and working until the early hours on their homework, before rising with the larks to run their day job. After 6 months the results were staggering, the women all achieved considerable business growth, but most importantly they rose to a new level of confidence with digital, happily throwing themselves into Vlogs and securing contracts through social media.
As a sister element, Be Digital ran a ‘back to work’ programme for 40 women across four of our local Sure Start centres. We commissioned a local VCS company, BRIC to deliver this element, led by Tracy Machnicki. Tracy was the perfect fit, she understood the world of digital and had a background in working for Sure Start. Our SureStart programme covered all aspects of supporting women back to work and cleverly wove in digital tools and practices to introduce women to technology in a non-threatening way. I had the pleasure of attending some of the last sessions and the feedback was humbling. The women gushed about their new skills, proud to recount how they had only just met, but had supported each other through the training and how they now felt ready to take on the challenge of going back to work.
Be Digital has been an iconic project in not only my career, but in all of the women who engaged with digital and became part of the story of digital growth. It has been special in so many ways. Captured spectacularly by our project Photographer, Rachel McClumpha, our host Chloe Hall of Bumble and Bloom and our Videographers, Mark and Chris of MC-Media. It has proven that you can deliver hard digital growth outputs and real outcomes, but with a sprinkling of sisterhood, bunting, and lots of cake. So whether we win or not at the 02 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards 2016, described as the Oscars – for the best in next generation digital innovation – we already have our name in lights.