Brent Woods is the chief executive of The Media Centre in Huddersfield and a self-confessed Anglophile. Ismail Mulla spoke to him.
A lot is made about the economic potential of Manchester and Leeds. But nestled between these two core cities is the town of Huddersfield, which has it own rich diverse business community.
The Huddersfield Media Centre is playing a key role in encouraging this diverse ecosystem of start-ups.
Brent Woods, CEO of The Media Centre, is passionate about bringing people, places and ideas together.
Mr Woods is originally from Toronto, Canada but is a self-confessed anglophile.
“I started my career pretty young. I got an apprenticeship with a music promoter in Toronto,” he says.
In that role he became a part of a team that helped put together summer music festivals in Toronto.
Mr Woods said: “It was really exciting, a fantastic first job and one of the perks of that job was that I used to get to travel to the UK to check out bands and see what was happening.”
He ended up helping produce Womad Festival, the world music festival started by Peter Gabriel in the 1980s.
“We did the first Womad Festivals outside the UK in Toronto so we used to come over for meetings with them,” recalls Mr Woods.
It was on these trips that Mr Woods says he fell in love with England.
“I kind of never really wanted to go back home,” he said. “I found England to be an incredibly exciting and creative place. I was always really stimulated by the music, design and the whole cultural scene here.”
While Mr Woods was born and raised in Toronto, and to this day he still has a Canadian accent, his family actually originated from the UK.
“My grandmother was from Sheffield,” he says.
Using this he managed to obtain a work permit in 1995, coincidentally the same year as when The Media Centre was established.
Mr Woods says he came over with enough money in his pocket to get through four months. He didn’t envisage staying long but 21 years on and Mr Woods is now helping bring businesses together through The Media Centre.
“The Media Centre is a campus of buildings,” he explains. “There’s four distinct buildings that are home to 120 businesses that are largely working within the digital and creative sectors.”
Mr Woods added: “Our purpose, we’re a non-profit social enterprise, is just to try and create that density of businesses in close proximity to each other because when you do that, just as you see in financial districts in large cities, it results in an increase in productivity.”
Before becoming the CEO of The Media Centre seven and a half years ago, Mr Woods played a role in helping set up Sheffield Doc/Fest.
“That introduced me to this whole world of film and television. I started developing a lot of interest in digital media,” he says.
When the opportunity to run The Media Centre came up, it was ideal for him. Combining his interest in towns and cities, buildings and developing cultures around them.
The Media Centre though is more than just an office space for small businesses. The non-profit organisation goes to great lengths to create an environment where people and ideas meet. It does this through activities it puts on.
Any profit from these activities is then ploughed back into programmes that cater to the various needs of the creative and digital sector.
Currently a key issue for the sector is access to skills but Mr Woods says that the needs are ever evolving and he aims to ensure that The Media Centre does what it can to help small businesses and start-ups thrive.
One of the activities that it has been running is Code Club, which sees volunteers from tech businesses based at The Media Centre help to mentor eight to 12-year-olds on coding during the half-term holidays.
The success of the Code Club led to interest from parents and a version called Code Up was launched to help adults learn coding as well.
There are the obvious benefits of upskilling people with these coding sessions, “but coding also provides you with the tools to express yourself creatively”, says Mr Woods.
He added that there are coding programmes that enable you to create music without learning how to play an instrument.
“What we are seeing with Code Up is we’re getting a lot of parents coming in.
“Simply to speak the language that their kids are starting to speak as they learn coding at school,” says Mr Woods.
Last Wednesday The Media Centre hosted the first ever Huddersfield Soup, a crowd-funding event that allows local people to judge new creative ideas for a £5 donation and in turn they also get a bowl of soup. The winning pitch on the night is given a micro-grant.
“The Soup movement originally started in Chicago. It became really popular in Detroit and has been spreading across the world,” says Mr Woods.
He added that he became interested in the soup movement because it encouraged the sharing and express of ideas.
Mr Woods says the first Huddersfield Soup was “absolutely fantastic”.
“They were all great pitches. We were fully booked for the event and it just had this fantastic atmosphere,” he said.
Speaking to Mr Woods it’s quite clear that he has a passion for the region. He fondly recalls the story about his great-grandfather running his own wholesale businesses in Sheffield.
Looking to the future, Mr Woods says The Media Centre will see how it can continue to help small businesses thrive.
Brent Woods Factfile
Title: Chief executive of The Media Centre, based in Huddersfield
Date of birth: May, 1969
Favourite holiday destination: Muskoka, Canada
Last book read: Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy
Favourite film: Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam
Favourite song: Reconstruction Site, The Weakerthans
Car driven: I’m a committed user of public transport
Most proud of: My family
Education: I chose an informal apprenticeship instead of art college