MEET THE TEAM: NICOLA SCHAEFER, COMMERCIAL AND PARTNERSHIPS MANAGER
From selling sweets as a schoolgirl to saving lives in Uganda, International Business Festival’s very own Nicola Schaefer has always got an amazing story to tell. She’s an entrepreneur, social science lecturer and humanitarian all rolled into one, but her real passion is helping people.
Nicola works as our Commercial and Partnerships Manager, she’s just delivered four preview events for our 2018 Festival and we caught up with her to discover how it went, find out more about her impressive CV and learn about her new role.
Nicola is a great fit for our team and force to be reckoned with.
So Nicola, tell me about your role in the Festival.
“I manage partnerships and commercial marketing. This involves working with the team to communicate the benefits of being a part of the Festival, both to individual delegates and to organisations and partners too. It’s a great role with a lot of scope, which I love.”
You’ve been very busy recently organising four preview events. What was the purpose of the events? How did they go?
“A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes with the Festival, since the end of June 2016 and we wanted to share some of these developments with new and existing partners, to keep them informed but also to reconnect with them.
“We’ve undergone a rebrand and our programme has developed to become focussed on nine key sectors. But, like any recurring international event, we’ve also re-examined the Festival in more detail and we’re going to be more clearly defining our offer. So, it was really important for us to communicate how we’re changing and growing and what this means for delegates.”
There was a great atmosphere at the events, really relaxed but informative.
“Thanks, I’m really pleased with how they went. We wanted to accurately reflect the fact that business is not just corporate, it’s diverse, dynamic and about innovation and pushing boundaries.
“We held four events and we split them across two of the Festival’s strongest catchment areas; two held in London and two held in our host city, Liverpool. We chose venues like FACT and OhMeOhMy, because they lend themselves to that kind of informal, creative atmosphere and help to generate the right vibe.
“I managed the event’s catering, operations, welcome and dressed the venues, which help set the scene, but the atmosphere is really created by the people. My colleague Jayne Leah, our Festival Programmer, selected some really engaging businesses for our panel debates, including Phil Charnock of Draw & Code, Justin Dooley of Caffe Cream, Aine McGuire of The Sensible Code Company.
“These businesses provided an honest and open account of the challenges in their respective sectors today and how they’re working to overcome them. Businesses respond well to these kind of frank, open discussions because they’re more relatable.”
I particularly enjoyed hearing from Jude Kelly, the Festival’s Creative Director.
“Yes, she’s amazing and so passionate about the Festival. The great thing about Jude is that she really understands the world of business and she can talk from a standpoint of someone who has lead businesses, like London’s Southbank Centre, to greater success. Businesses trust that and they love to hear from big achievers like Jude. She’s a great ambassador for the Festival.”
You’ve been a successful businesswoman yourself, I believe?
“Yes, since a very early age I was really entrepreneurial. When I was nine or ten I sold sweets on a local market stall, buying them and selling them for a mark-up. It all started from there.”
Really? What was your biggest seller?
“Hmm, let me think, probably Swizzle watches and necklaces, the perfect combination of jewellery and sweets! White mice were always a big hit though too.”
And this lead to bigger things?
“It did, growing up I was one of those kids who loved to work. I wanted to be independent and have choices, so I had two part-time jobs when I was still at school. I also set up little side businesses, selling raffle tickets, organising jumble sales from my garden and later, selling homemade jewellery in school. I was always interested in business, trading and making money by being creative.
“I started my adult working life in marketing and sales, this lead to me setting up my own retail distribution company, which took off, with a lot of work. That’s why I have such respect for small business owners and insight into the issues that matter to them.
“After eight years, I diversified into property development and sold my retail distribution company to a multinational PLC, after several buy-out offers. What this gave me was freedom. I’d always wanted to be in business and I didn’t really enjoy school.
“But after eight years in business I realised that I wanted to continue my education and travel, so I started studying psychology, sociology, law, politics and culture and committed to seeing as much of the world as I could.
“Whilst studying and researching, I also did some teaching and consultancy work for a number of businesses. This lead to me being offered a guest lecture position at Edge Hill University, which to my delight and amazement, turned into a permanent contract.”
"I’ll have to be careful, I don’t want to come across as too squeaky clean..."
What kind of lecturer we’re you? I’m guessing you were pretty easy going?
“Yeah, I’d say so, but I was lucky, I had really good students. Lecturing is not like teaching. You’re supporting young adults who on the whole want to learn. The difficulty is breaking down huge amounts of complex information in such a way that the students, not only get it but are inspired, even excited, by it and they seemed to appreciate the way I taught. To be honest, I never quite got over my nerves, but it was such a rewarding profession.”
Where did you go from there?
“I was approached to run an international summer school within TUI travel group, which was one of the biggest and best professional learning curves of my life. I oversaw the education programme, operations and budgets and managed 64 people from all over the world. Alongside this, I was also charged with ensuring the well-being of 520 international students. It was quite a role. I don’t know how I did it when I look back.
“I was then headhunted by the international private education company, within GUS group and appointed as a Director, which was amazing. That was actually how I came to hear about the Festival and became a 2014 delegate.
“But I was getting further and further away from the type of work I enjoyed the most; supporting smaller businesses. There were less and less opportunities to do something that I felt made a difference. So, I made the difficult decision to resign and take on new consultancy work. I also took some time off and travelled around Thailand and Bali and accepted a role as a business mentor for the Prince’s Trust, which is hugely rewarding.”
And then we snapped you up?
“The 2016 Festival needed someone who could design and facilitate SME advice services, so I was initially brought in for ten months, to develop that function. But the role grew and I also worked on increasing Festival engagement through events, developing content and curating 30 masterclasses, which took place during the Festival. It was a perfect fit for me.
“I’d worked across private and public sector, national and international businesses, set up and run my own business, and worked in a corporate environment, so I was able to tap into all my experience up until that date to ensure the Festival’s offering was valuable and relevant to businesses.
“After 2016 I accepted a permanent position within the Festival team. Helping business people succeed is something I’m really passionate about. The knock-on effect of business succeeding and growing is that it can create opportunities for generations to come, creating future jobs and supporting future talent. That’s why I think that an event like ours, with a real festival feel, is just what the business world needs.”
You also do a bit of work for charity. We’ve only just started working together, but I get your emails updating me on your latest crusade. You don’t stop.
“That’s funny. I’ll have to be careful, I don’t want to come across as too squeaky clean. As cliché as it sounds, I like to be busy and I love helping people. I’ve just got back from Uganda working in an orphanage there called Isaacs House.
“It was really tough to witness such poverty but humbling to see first-hand the strength of the human spirit, in the face of such adversity. We had to rush two babies to hospital with malaria and rehome families in crisis. You can’t understand the daily fight for survival unless you see it for yourself. It was a very sobering experience. It puts everything in perspective.
“Helping businesses through a three-week festival is much less dramatic, thankfully. No life or death challenges, but it’s still rewarding positive work, nevertheless.”
What’s the biggest challenge of working on the International Business Festival?
“The nature of the Festival is very different to any other event. It’s nothing like your standard one or two-day conference and it’s not like a typical ‘festival’ either. It’s unique and that is both an asset and a challenge.
“The Festival presents huge opportunities to access a global marketplace, take part in over 100 events, get tailored expert advice and genuinely be inspired by forward-thinking businesses. The biggest challenge is communicating this offer in a way that is easy for businesses to comprehend and interact with.
“That’s what we’re focussing on now. Our new format is more creative, reflecting the changes and greater diversity that’s emerging in the business world today. Our four recent preview events gave our partners a sneak-peak preview of that, but there’s much more to come.”
What are you working on now?
“I’m currently establishing new commercial partnerships and building on existing ones, to further shape the 2018 Festival. Away from the festival, I’m still mentoring for The Prince’s Trust and I’m developing a new charitable project proposal, to provide sustainable business opportunities in Uganda.
“Business can be a real force for good in the world. That’s why I love being part of this Festival. It’s effective but engages in a different way and it’s completely focussed on helping businesses with ambition to succeed.”