Meet Vanessa Wood – the powerhouse behind Darlington’s new, female-focused business centre
More women than ever are starting businesses in the UK.
Research by The Rose Review shows more than 140,000 all-female founded companies were created in 2021, with the figure growing by over a third each year.
But how do we best design workspaces to ensure our region continues to build on this momentum? What do women want when setting up a business? And what would make the decision to start up an even easier one to make?
These questions have been at the forefront of Vanessa Wood’s mind in her role as Centre Manager for Innovation Central, Darlington’s newest business space at the town’s Central Park development.
Along with a largely female team overseeing the design, construction and delivery of the site, Vanessa has poured her hard-earned experience into creating a supportive environment that nurtures entrepreneurial ambitions and offers opportunities to everyone.
Ahead of its opening in October, we chat to Vanessa to find out what makes Innovation Central tick, how it prioritises what women in business need, and how it promises to be so different from other workspaces.
Innovation Central certainly seems female-friendly. What difference does having so many women involved make on a project like this?
Things have improved so much in recent years when it comes to the gender balance in business, but there are still opportunities to go much further. An important step towards encouraging others is ensuring we have plenty of females in plain sight at all levels of business and in all industries.
At Innovation Central, we are starting as we mean to go on – even the construction is being largely led by women. Our Design Manager, Senior Quantity Surveyor, Capital Project Manager and Site Administrator are all women and I’m managing the running of the centre on a day-to-day basis. Not so long ago, people would have expected every one of our roles to have been filled by a man over the age of 50! It’s fantastic how much has changed and we’re determined to use our experience to encourage other women to fulfil their own ambitions.
How has this female perspective shaped what is offered at Innovation Central?
I’ve worked in buildings dedicated to supporting businesses for years and I also manage the hugely popular Business Central facility on the site, so I know what works and what doesn’t work. I used all of my tried-and-tested ideas to create a really workable space. I’ve been involved in the physical design of the new centre from the outset and my initial design has inspired the final plans. I’ve poured all my personal experience into creating a workspace that is not only welcoming and supportive to all. but makes starting a business as simple and affordable as possible.
Practically speaking, why is it so simple to start up at Innovation Central?
Firstly, the size and layout of the workspaces. Most of the 45 Grade A offices and lab spaces will be relatively small – ideal for those starting out, as they’ll be under the threshold for business rates. And rents will be kept affordable thanks to the shared approach to staffing, systems and facilities with neighbouring Business Central – including meeting rooms, the gym and the micro spa.
Tenants will get one bill from us that includes internet and a phone line, a staffed reception and the flexibility to fit out their own office. Lots of business centres try to flog tenants expensive furniture packages and we’re happy to help tenants to fit out their space if they’d like that, but we’re just as happy for them to bring in their own stuff if they want to keep the start-up costs right down.
And what about the ethos of the facility?
I believe this is our main differentiator. Our caring and collaborative approach is what will make a massive difference to business start-ups and especially to those run by women. Becoming a tenant at Business Central or Innovation Central is like becoming part of an extended family. Our team is aged from 27 to 70 and, between us, we’ve probably experienced everything you can expect in personal and work life.
We can relate to our tenants and we’re always glad to lend a hand or an ear. I’m a single mum, so I know how hard that can be, and we accept that people’s lives are a blend of family and business. The two can’t and shouldn’t always need to be separated.
So, in the summer, you’ll see more kids around our centres – tenants bring their children to events and, on occasion, they’ll even bring in parents they are caring for and we’ll make them a cup of tea and pop the TV on for them. We just want people to be happy at work because if they’re happy they’ll do great things.
What support do you offer start-ups as they take their first steps into the business world?
The centre is owned by Darlington Borough Council and they’ve appointed the North East BIC team to run it because we have 27 years’ experience of helping to grow successful businesses at sites across the region.
We’re using that knowledge to develop a full events and business support programme at Innovation Central, designed to nurture a new wave of innovative
businesses across the Tees Valley with inspiration, support and valuable connections. The events will create a ready-made network for tenants.
We know how daunting and time consuming it can be to attend events for start-ups. But if you’re a tenant who can just pop downstairs to meet new potential customers, suppliers, employees and collaborators whilst grabbing some breakfast, then that’s a totally different proposition. It leads new businesses into situations and opportunities they might not otherwise have had.
How do you feel about the future of the site?
I’m confident some amazing ideas will come out of Innovation Central that will change the world for the better. It’s going to be great to see what businesses in Darlington can do with access to a facility like this. So many brilliant people are already working away in their own silos, but if we can bring those people together who knows what we can do!
Innovation Central is jointly funded by Darlington Borough Council, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), £3.55million from the Tees Valley Mayor and Combined Authority, and the Government’s Getting Building Fund.
Innovation Central, Union Square, Central Park, Darlington DL1 1GL