Why Bruntwood's Deb Hetherington believes tech is about to transform our society forever

Deb Hetherington is one of the best known figures on the Leeds tech scene. As she embarks on a key new role at Bruntwood Scitech, she spoke to Mark Casci about the fascinating sector.
Deb HetheringtonDeb Hetherington
Deb Hetherington

Deb Hetherington is perhaps the best known figure on the Leeds digital scene and given the preponderance of her work it is not hard to see why.

Reeling off the list of areas in which she is involved requires a very deep breath before saying out loud.

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She is one of the organisers of the Leeds Digital Festival, a member of Leeds.tech, a member of the Digital Board for Leeds City Council, a steer for Leeds Business Improvement District, the co-founder of Women in Leeds Digital and the Information Panel for the Leeds City Region LEP.

And that is before you even get to her day job.

For several years Deb worked as business innovation manager at Leeds Beckett University, where she came into contact with hundreds of digital entrepreneurs and advised them on to bolster their businesses.

Late last month it was announced she was to take up a new role at Bruntwood SciTech, the 50:50 joint venture between Bruntwood and Legal & General, as Head of Innovation.

The new role will see her work with Leeds’s burgeoning digital and tech sector and work closely with businesses to connect them to finance, talent, markets and advice.

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However, when she describes her background she is at pains to portray herself as any sort of digital guru.

“I am referred to as a woman in tech,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“I have been put up for awards as a woman in tech. I find it almost embarrassing as I am not a techy.”

Deb’s remarks are of course fairly typical for the tech sector. Lazy marketing has always portrayed the profession as being populated by hardcore coders, usually male, who work in the seclusion of basements and have a strong scientific background.

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The reality is different, however, with professionals from all kinds of disciplines and educational backgrounds making up the sector.

Deb is no different. Her father was a military man and his work saw the family travel all over the world during her childhood. He would eventually settle at RAF Linton on Ouse, providing

Deb with her entry point to Yorkshire.

A history graduate from York St John University, she would later obtain a masters from Leeds University in law.

After stints teaching English as a foreign language in South Africa and helping to build a school in Malawi, she moved into client facing marketing and business development roles with Leeds law firms Freeths and Ward Hadaway.

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It was at the latter where she began to become embedded in the tech and digital ecosystem, working with commercial and tech lawyers to help start-ups.

The journey through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia was all encompassing for her.

“I realised that this was something that was going to change the world and very quickly,” she said.

“I really wanted to understand that better. The career side has kind of happened by accident, but the thirst for knowledge about the rapid change that is coming from digital is what has really spurred me on.”

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Deb can very much be described as a lifelong learner. She has three degrees and is continually attending webinars and courses.

Before long she took up an opportunity to work at Leeds Beckett University in the innovation services, offering business support that didn’t necessarily have a massive invoice that end.

“I jumped at the chance,” she said.

“It was brilliant move for me. It was just such a wonderful job and a wonderful team.”

In time she would migrate into the myriad other roles she holds. When asked what the biggest barrier to digital firms and their ability to grow she could not be more clear.

“Funding, funding, funding,” she laughs.

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“In terms of support itself, pitch readiness. Ensuring the right things in place for a successful pitch. But also having a relevant innovation in their business plan. A lot of companies think they have a great business plan but when it actual comes to it is not necessarily the case.”

She has praise for Fintech North and said that the willingness of lenders to back digital entrepreneurs was increasing as understanding of the sector improves.

“The more funders there are they are more likely to jump on a train and come up here. I don’t think we are far off that. That is something I really want to push for with this new platform is to create an investable showcase, get investors up here and show what we can do. There is an appetite for it because the competition in London is phenomenal.”

The current healthcare crisis has inevitably taken its toll on the sector with many tech start-ups having to wind down operations. But for Deb she hopes that opportunities will continue to present themselves.

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“I don’t want us to blindly go back to the way things were before. We have got a real opportunity here and it is up to society now in terms of what we do.”

When Deb was initially approached by Bruntwood she was less than keen but was eventually persuaded regarding the opportunity it could offer.

“Integral to what we need to do is both the physical and nonphysical advancements of the Innovation District. With customers that come into the building need to have business support that is of a high enough level and calibre to ensure genuine growth and see the effect on both bottom line profits, innovation in its truest sense and in the creation of jobs.”

With so much change coming to the region, Deb says the main focus remains ensuring that everyone is brought along for the ride.

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“We need to make sure digital is representative of society. It is important not just because it is the right thing to do but also that, as digital advances, that it is representative of society because otherwise it will be flawed.

“I sound a little bit of a conspiracist, but a lot of people are not aware of the intense advancements in terms of digital that are coming our way. It is a boiling frog scenario. We are in a period now where we could have a say in terms of technology and if we are not careful it could be biased and flawed.”

Title: Head of Innovation – Bruntwood SciTech

Date of birth: 02/09/84

Education: History BA Hons - Law LLM

First job: Hairdressers assistant at 14

Favourite song: Blackbird

Favourite film: I can’t get through a full one without getting distracted!

Last book read: The Future Is Faster Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Biggest inspiration: People

Favourite holiday destination: Anywhere outside my apartment, literally, anywhere.

Thing you are most proud of: My annoying brilliant wife.

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