‘It’s about showing pride in Sheffield without being all posh and corporate’ – why 400 of city’s top influencers are getting together this week

The business world can be a cut-throat one but it doesn’t have to be that way, say members of Sheffield’s thriving entrepreneurial community.

By Robert Cumber
Wednesday, 13 February, 2019, 10:00

Sharing skills and ideas, and shouting about each other’s successes are playing a key role helping the city’s innovators and creators, both new and established, flourish.

#VibrantSheffield Live!, which brings together the city's leaders, influencers, decision makers and stars of the future, is a great example of that spirit of collaboration in action.

Some of the speakers who will be appearing at #VibrantSheffield Live!

More than 400 people are expected to gather for the latest instalment tomorrow morning at the Crucible, where they will hear from a diverse range of speakers, get the chance to forge new contacts and maybe even set the wheels in motion for some exciting new projects.

The event, which is the brainchild of accountancy firm Grant Thornton, last took place in the city in May 2018.

Global innovation is the theme this time, and the diverse range of speakers will include representatives from leading video game maker Sumo Digital, housing developer Strata and off-grid energy provider Mobile Power.

Elizabeth Shassere, founder and CEO of Textocracy

Paul Houghton, head of Grant Thornton Sheffield, said: “One of the things I love about Sheffield and the wider region’s culture is that we don’t shout about our achievements every five minutes.

“Whether you’re in Peddler Market or an independent coffee shop, we delight in being slightly understated and very down-to-earth.

#VibrantSheffield Live! was conceived as an event where we could be a little bit prouder of what’s going on in our city and the wider region, whilst not being all posh and corporate about it.

Iain Simons, director of culture at the British Games Institute, who heads up the National Videogame Museum

“It’s just local people, on the set of this week’s Crucible production, showing 400-plus other local people their innovative thinking and ideas.  And some of them will blow your socks off!”

He told how in putting together the latest event, he had been struck yet again by the ‘creative passion’ and ‘sheer determination’ of those involved, be they from a business behemoth or a fledgling start-up.

“This is about sharing knowledge, celebrating the great things going on, and then collaborating. We hope that everyone will have at least one conversation which leads to an opportunity, which in turn will drive our local economy forward faster,” he added.

Strata CEO Andrew Weaver

“It’s not about shifting our local culture - well, maybe just a little - it’s about bringing together the minds of leaders, influencers and the next generation so that we can positively shape an exciting future where, as a truly innovative city and region, we can thrive on the world stage.”

Elizabeth Shassere, who will be speaking at the event, knows only too well the power of collaboration.

She is the founder and CEO of Textocracy, which makes it easier for everyone from businesses to community groups to gather feedback from a wider range of users, who can share their views via text message.

Before setting up the company four years ago, she knew what she wanted to achieve but relied on the support and skills of existing entrepreneurs to make it happen.

Having spent 20 years in the public health sector, working as a consultant, it was a big change of direction for someone with no digital background but one she says was made infinitely smoother by the kindness and enthusiasm of fellow business people.

She took advantage of the various free events on offer, including the since-terminated MADE festival, which brought entrepreneurs together; and the Startup Weekend, where participants spend 54 hours brainstorming their ideas in teams before pitching to a panel of judges, to develop her business.

Rebecca Askham, recruitment and HR partner at Sumo Digital

"The business community in Sheffield, especially within the digital sector, is very community orientated, and I’m grateful for all the support that was available when I started out,” she said.

“The community welcomed me, despite my being a bit long in the tooth and not knowing anything about tech, and I couldn’t have done what I have without their encouragement.

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“There’s an understanding that the more businesses there are succeeding here, the better it is for everyone because it builds the city’s reputation for technology and helps attract more talent and investment.

“It's great how #VibrantSheffield Live! is bringing the community together to look at what we’re all doing and how we can support each other.”

Iain Simons heads up the National Videogame Museum, which he said had exceeded all expectations for visitor numbers since moving to its new home in Sheffield in November.

For him, Thursday's event is a chance to shout about the city’s gaming ‘pedigree’ and to make the connections which could help inspire the next generation of developers.

“Sheffield has as much of a claim to be the home of video games as any other city in the country. We’re keen for it to celebrate that pedigree more, because it’s got a lot to shout about,” he said.

“This event can help join up everything the city has to offer, from the moment young people visit the museum and become inspired, via them getting onto a course at Sheffield Hallam University or one of the colleges, to them working for one of the existing studios or setting up one of their own.

“The industry is demonstrably and obviously growing in the city and you can see that not just in the success of big studios like Sumo, which has created award-winning games like Snake Pass, but in the achievements of smaller ones like Boneloaf, which developed the hugely popular Gang Beasts.”

Strata CEO Andrew Weaver says the building industry hasn’t always been great at innovation, especially when it comes to addressing the housing crisis, but his fourth generation family business is trying to do things differently.

That involves offering buyers more bespoke options, in contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of many bigger developers, and building more homes off-site to speed up production and bridge the skills gap.

Crucially, though, he says it is not just about the end product but creating an experience for customers making what will probably be the biggest purchase of their lives.

“We’re a relatively small company, building 600-700 homes a year, but we have 24,000 followers on social media,” he said.

“Millennial homebuyers are looking for an experience, not just a transaction, and we’re trying to provide that emotional engagement for them.

“They don't just want us to sell them something, they want to interact with us, customise what they're buying and find a middle ground. It's like a democratised Grand Designs.”

Andrew is looking forward to Thursday’s event, where he hopes to make connections with other entrepreneurs sharing his passion for innovation.

“Grant Thornton are very good at bringing like minds together, and when people are open-minded that’s when the magic happens,” he said.

Mobile Power was launched in 2013 by Jono West to provide affordable electricity to the 1.3 billion people around the world living off-grid, many of whom must currently walk miles to charge their phones.

After years spent developing solar powered smart batteries, they are already helping to power eight villages in Sierra Leone and Zambia, and are ready to expand to serve many more communities.

Jono described Sheffield as a great place to do business, because you have the expertise on tap without having to pay the higher costs you would do in other cities.

“We were able to build a team of like-minded people here who share the same values and were willing to make sacrifices to launch a product which is going to make an impact,” he said.

“We’re able to do that without having to pay London or Manchester rates or rents. You can live a lot more cheaply in Sheffield, which means you can follow your dreams and take a risk.

“We’ve raised the majority of our investment in the city, with help from Accelerate Sheffield and Dotforge, and we’ve appreciated being part of the Sheffield tech ecosystem.”

#VibrantSheffield Live! takes place at the Crucible on Thursday, February 14, from 7.45am-11.30am.

Jono West, founder and chairman of Mobile Power Ltd