Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry is passionate about breaking down the North-South divide, writes Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright
THERE’S a foolproof way of discovering the true state of morale at any company.
What sort of mood are the staff in when they return from their festive break?
The former Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry knew that she had found kindred spirits when she popped into the offices of BigChange, the Leeds-based mobile workforce management technology company, in early January, the grimmest time of the year.
She said: “When I went back to see them on the first Monday after the Christmas holiday the energy was so exciting and so positive.”
BigChange has hired Ms Dewberry as an ambassador. It’s the latest chapter in a formidable business career that has taken her from the checkout to the boardroom at some of the biggest corporate names.
She will support sales and marketing activities for the BigChange Collaboration Network, which allows customers to win new business, collaborate with suppliers and contractors, and deliver services more efficiently through the BigChange platform.
Ms Dewberry has an instinct for spotting a winner. She had originally been asked to visit BigChange to deliver a motivational speech.
“I’ve rarely met a company that has such a happy and energised workforce,’’ she said. “I really was attracted to it and started talking about their future plans.
“The firm employs such a cross section of people. There is a freedom and responsibility culture. I was also really struck by the genuine care the organisation has for its employees. My career has been around leveraging technology to help people.”
Broadcaster and businesswoman Ms Dewberry shot to fame overnight when she won the BBC reality television show The Apprentice.
Since working for Lord Alan Sugar following the programme, Ms Dewberry has founded three startups and provided consultation services to organisations including Comic Relief, Tesco, and Merlin Entertainments on digital transformation. She is also a non-executive director and a qualified coach.
At BigChange, Ms Dewberry will promote the company alongside two other well-known ambassadors: former England football captain and manager Kevin Keegan, and the British racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, who supports BigChange’s campaign to reduce the number of people killed on Britain’s roads by people driving for work.
Ms Dewberry, who grew up in Hull, left school at 16. She started her career as a YTS with St John’s Ambulance before moving on to work at one of Hull’s biggest employers - KCOM. She started at the bottom, juggling this role with part time work on the checkout at Kwik-Save.
She still feels strongly about the need for policies to reduce the North-South divide.
She has run for Parliament twice - as an independent in 2017 and for the Brexit party last year.
“I have had a lot of adversity in my life, particularly in my childhood which has made me very resilient,” she said. “I learned to rely on myself and it has given me a core toolkit.”
Fourteen years ago, Ms Dewberry beat rival Ruth Badger to win the second series of The Apprentice. She was praised as a shining example to business students by her former lecturers at Hull College.
“My experience on The Apprentice made me very confident,’’ she said. “I take things in my stride. I have to go out and grab new opportunities and experiences.”
But what was it like to face Lord Sugar across the boardroom table, while surrounded by a host of intensely ambitious people?
“The experience of appearing on The Apprentice was exhausting,’’ she said. “You are locked in the house, morning, noon and night. It was an intense experience but it gave me recognisability. It opened doors for me in all manner of areas.”
She is an ambassador for Women’s Aid and The Prince’s Trust, which reflects her belief in life-long mentoring.
“You should try and help people wherever you are in life, even in the smallest ways,’’ she said. “I enjoy coaching people and motivating them to be their best. There is not much better reward.”
Ms Dewberry believes the North of England must retain the brightest and best staff.
She said: “You have to stop the brain drain and people leaving these Northern cities to seek opportunities elsewhere.
“We are in the fourth industrial revolution which means geographic boundaries mean less and less.”
She believes education has a powerful role to play in nurturing a new generation of leaders.
“It starts at school,’’ she said. “You need to instil a sense of ambition and self worth. You start with the skills pipeline.”
She would love to see more powers devolved to the North.
“They should start investing money and taking the North seriously. The Tories have managed to get a lot of seats in the Northern heartlands.
“People in the North will stick with the Tories if they play their cards right.”
But she believes measures are still needed to entice more people to set up enterprises in Yorkshire, such as changes to business rates.
“Hull has had a big change in terms of perception,’’ she said. “It was a place of ridicule but becoming the UK city of culture did help. Hull has become a much more dynamic city. There are areas of deprivation and also really exciting projects. You have got to raise people’s aspirations.”
Above all else, her career journey has taught her the value of self-confidence.
“If I could say something to my 16-year-old self, it would be, ‘Sweetheart believe in yourself. It has taken me decades to achieve that.”