She’s many a young Sheffield entrepreneur’s favourite Fairy Godmother, the woman who instils them with confidence and helps their fledgling business find its wings.
Her alumni include local shining lights and national award winners, like city jewellery queen Jessica Flinn, Sophie Maxwell, whose Really Neet College for disaffected young people recently won praise from Prince Andrew, and Lewis Bowen, voted the UK’s emerging entrepreneur at Sheffield’s Made Festival Dinner.
But few realise the eternally positive Jill White, one of Sheffield’s best-known business networkers endlessly inspiring people to reach for their dreams, was once so shy she was terrified to set foot outside her native Wombwell.
Her dad, a pit manager, and her shop assistant mother were filled with pride when their only child got a place at university in Salford. But Jill felt so timid and homesick, she quit after only three weeks, went home and got a job down the road at Wombwell Job Centre.
It may have been unadventurous, but that first job set Jill on the right path in life. She discovered she loved helping people change their lives by finding employment.
She progressed into training schemes for the out of work and introduced courses for women returning to work. When she began promoting higher level educational courses to the women, she decided to do follow her own advice – and did an MBA part-time at Sheffield Hallam University.
It gave her the confidence to aim for a job with a private consultancy in Doncaster, one of the inspirational training providers she worked alongside.
But how to drop the a hint? Jill, to this day unable to blow her own trumpet, came up with a ruse. She mentioned to the company’s boss a clairvoyant had told her she would soon be getting a new job. “It was a true story. And the clairvoyant was right in a way. It opened their eyes to the fact that I was receptive to a move and I became their trainee consultant,” says Jill.
In five years with the company she thrived on helping businesses improve. I’m still in touch with some of them and am thrilled at how they’ve grown,” she says. “One local security firm I used to train from 9pm to midnight around their shifts now has over 400 employees.
“That job changed me. It stretched my timid boundaries. I now encourage people to step out of their comfort zone and reassure them that it will be as OK for them as it was for me,” she says.
It changed her life in other ways, too. Andy Hanselman, now her second husband, was a colleague. Their friendship sustained her when her marriage breakdown, then redundancy, left her reeling.
“I was living alone and terrified I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage. But redundancy became my pivotal moment. I am what they call a forced entrepreneur. I set up Jill White Associates, a development consultancy.
“It floundered, but Andy suggested we set up together to help fast-track businesses using research we had gathered from fast-growth entrepreneurial firms. Our company, Hallmarks Business Development, ran for 10 amazing years. We helped one-man bands flourish into established SMEs with 60 employees and watched clients win national acclaim. We’re also hugely proud of the fact that nine of our staff are now running their own businesses and creating jobs.”
She and Andy became a couple but after he had a triple heart bypass in 2004, they left the business. He set up Andy Hanselman Consulting and Jill found her dream job, matching entrepreneurs with pupils hoping to start up in business via the government’s Big Challenge. “I was working with my two great loves, young people and entrepreneurs. Out came my little black contacts book and my matchmaking began,” she grins.
Black book in hand, she became a business advisor for entrepreneurial students at Sheffield Hallam, a mentor with Sheffield University’s enterprise service and Sheffield College’s Peter Jones Academy and launched Generation Sheffield, a network for early entrepreneurs. Last year she and Andy set up PEER, professional entrepreneurs engaging for results, to give ongoing support to start-ups. Barber Harrison Platt, Nabarro, Santander and BegbieTraynor sponsored the project. This year Wosskow Brown and Sheffield University and BHP are supporting them.
The Fairy Godmother works many hours, mostly unpaid. Her rewards? Facilitator, matchmaker, opener of doors, she says: “When the dreams of the young people I mentor come true, so do mine.”
Ever modest, she adds: “But I’m just the broker. It’s down to the successful people who give up their time to listen to my appeals and give start-ups that leg up.
“To be honest, it’s not difficult. Most successful business people are not hard-headed racketeers. They are extremely caring and sharing and want to pass on their knowledge and skills.
“Our next Generation Sheffield even on December 9 will be about this very thing. The area’s finest entrepreneurs will be talking about how they have given support to the next generation. And I’ll be in the background, beaming!”