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Big interview: 'London talks a lot but doesn't do enough, Bristol does a lot but doesn't talk about it enough'

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Written by: The Business | Posted 04 April 2016 6:30

Big interview: 'London talks a lot but doesn't do enough, Bristol does a lot but doesn't talk about it enough'

Monika Gierszewska has been impressed by the talent of Bristol’s technology companies since she bought a weekend home in the West two years ago. Now, as the new director of business incubator SETsquared, has the opportunity to help them reach the next level. Gavin Thompson finds out how she plans to do it

IT’S tough taking over at the top. When an organisation is at the pinnacle, where can you go next? Ask Tim Cook at Apple, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer or short-lived Manchester United manager David Moyes.

The challenge didn’t deter Monika Gierszewska from becoming SETsquared Bristol centre director. In 2015, SETsquared, which comprises centres in Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, was named the best university business incubator in the world.

Not only that but Monika has to almost literally work in the shadow of predecessor. Nick Sturge is now focusing his efforts on being director of the Engine Shed, which is where the Bristol SETsquare centre is based.

No pressure then.

If that wasn’t enough to take on, Monika, who has been in the role for just a few weeks, is also renovating her home in the Forest of Dean and planning her wedding next month.

Good job then that Monika likes to graft. The daughter of entrepreneurial Polish shopkeepers, she started working to earn her pocket money at the age of seven.

“I learned how to count money so they sat me behind the till,” she says with a smile.

When she first came to the UK to study at the University of Westminster, Monika was, to put it diplomatically, somewhat surprised by the different learning culture.

“In Poland full-time university is at least 40 hours of teaching each week,” she says. “You go to lectures in the day and study in evenings and at weekends. That’s what I was preparing for.

“But after two months I realised, ‘gosh I have so much time, what do I do with all this time?’ That’s when I started looking for a job.”

She took on a number of jobs during her studies, ultimately working to help create a student enterprise incubation centre the university called Westminster Enterprise Entity. It’s still going strong today and Monika remains involved through mentoring and offering support when she can.

Hard work alone won’t be enough to keep the SETsquared centre on top of the world, however. So what can Monika, who turns 30 later this month, bring to the role?

“The team has done an amazing job so far,” she says. “I can’t top the achievement of being global number one! But the challenge is that the tech scene is changing and we have to keep innovating in order to continue to be the best.”

Monika doesn’t plan to radically change the set-up but has identified a number of priorities.

One is to take on the challenge of gender diversity. The tech industry is notoriously male dominated.

“It’s a very difficult issue to tackle,” she admits. “But we will be increasing involvement of female entrepreneurs and having better representation of [female] mentors and role models.”

Her own appointment is a step towards that, particularly as she will chair the business review panels which each SETsquared company goes through every six months to make sure they stay on track.

“I also want to tackle the issue at the root,” says Monika. “In schools there are similar numbers of boys and girls taking STEM subjects then somehow throughout education system women drop out and by the time you get to postgraduate level it’s very skewed towards men. We need to get out there and inspire girls to enjoy STEM subjects.”

Next, and not unrelated, are mentoring programmes and using the expertise of the centre’s alumni.

“We have some SETsquared companies that have gone onto great success but they’ve been busy running their businesses and there hasn’t been much opportunity for them to engage,” says Monika. “I’d like to find a way to get them involved. I’d like to have mentor programmes to tap into the pool of knowledge in Bristol.”

Monika Gierszewska at work in the business lounge at the Engine Shed

Pictured: Monika Gierszewska at work in the business lounge at the Engine Shed

Moving to the area from London, Monika also believes Bristol should do more to raise its profile on the world stage.

She and her soon-to-be husband, entrepreneur and investor Charles Radclyffe, who ran data consultancy BIPB and writes a blog called dataPhilosopher, bought a home in the Forest of Dean two years ago.

“It was meant to be a weekend house, we would work in London and live here at weekends,” she says. “And that’s what we did. But because we were on this side of the UK we started paying attention to what was happening here and the opportunities.

“I was very impressed to read about everything happening here and the collaboration between businesses and universities. You don’t hear about it in London, London insulates itself from anything outside of London.

“It was eye opening for me to see SETsquared being at the centre of that and being rated the world’s number one incubator last November. I was really impressed. So when I saw the vacancy for this role over Christmas I thought ‘it sounds amazing’.

“I’m amazed by the quality of businesses and technologies coming out of SETsqaured and of Bristol as a whole.

“I feel London talks a lot but talks maybe too much compared to doing where here it is the opposite. People do a lot and achieve a lot but don’t talk about it enough.

“There’s definitely an opportunity to raise awareness of the Bristol and Bath tech cluster on an international level.”

And finally Monika wants to tackle the million dollar problem for Bristol start-ups: How to get more investors on board.

“I see huge investment opportunities here,” she says. “I would like to see more investment activity done locally, it will be on my agenda to facilitate that. We organise an annual innovation showcase in Bristol and a SETsquared investor showcase in London. That’s great but it’s not enough, it’s only once a year. So we are thinking about organising more regular events inviting investors.”

Getting men and women with money to invest on a train or plane to Bristol has been one of the struggles for those at the forefront of the region’s tech cluster.

And this is an area where Monika’s experience could help her make an impact. Particularly the work she did for global business and technology services consultancy Cognizant

“Our job was to create new revenue streams and business opportunities by collaborating with start-ups and academia,” she says. “We would have people coming to us with specific challenges, for instance a large retailer says ‘I can track my business online but I can’t track analytics in the store, where people come from and what the demographics are’. We knew a start-up in Israel who had already done it.”

She was a match-maker. Seeking out businesses with problems and start-ups with solutions and bringing them together.

“The role involved a lot of travelling to Silicon Valley, New York, Chicago, Israel and the rest of Europe,” she says,

This experience has taught her that to get more investors backing Bristol businesses, you don’t necessarily have to get them to Bristol. Or at least, not as the first step.

“You need to find a hook to get them excited about a certain technology,” she says. “Once they see the potential, they will come. When I worked with Cognizant I was always looking for investment matchmaking opportunities we were looking all over the world. You facilitate that introduction then once they have seen there’s a match, that’s when they meet.”

So rather than saying ‘come to Bristol and see what we’ve got’ you find companies with problems that Bristol innovators have the solution for and introduce them.

Monika’s CV boasts a number of other roles which will equip her for her newest challenge.

She was managing director at Dreamstake, an entrepreneurial network which she took from having 3,000 members to 7,000 and from being purely online to having a physical workspace and events.

And as marketing director at start-up Chitter, a social e-commerce platform where people would get commission on sales for products they recommended to friends, Monika experienced failure. Something she says gives her insight into the pitfalls and hardship faced by SETsquared members.

Earlier in her career, Monika had a nagging feeling that it was time to “get a proper job”. She wanted to be an accountant, perhaps inspired by those early days counting money in her parents’ shop.

When she finally got that job, largely thanks to the recession it wasn’t in a blue chip accountancy firm but for a start-up called MyCityDeal. Soon afterwards that company was acquired by Groupon.

“That’s when I realised that accounting isn’t for me,” she says. “But that working with small businesses when it is growing quickly is very exciting.”

It was a personal discovery for which Bristol’s fast growing technology businesses may soon be counting their blessings.


Profile

Monika Gierszewska

Name: Monika Gierszewska

Title: Centre director of SETsquared Bristol

Age: 29

From: Poland. I moved to the UK when I was 19. My intention was to do a business management course in London. My parents are both entrepreneurs so I wanted to focus on business. But for the first year I wanted to work while I got to know the city and save up for my studies.

Education: University of Westminster, business management with specialisation in finance

First job: In my parents shop when I was seven years old. I learned how to count money so they sat me behind the till. That’s how I was earning my pocket money.

Inspiration: My parents Jolanta and Jerzy are both very inspirational. They were always pushing themselves to the limit both in terms of business and also personal development. They had a shop serving the needs of the whole town and my dad also had a workshop doing electronic repairs, mum had a flower shop. My mum now is an artist and we’ve set up a business called Macrame Art to promote her artwork on an international level and organise workshops. We got her artwork on the set of Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp. My dad decided to go to university at the age of 50. He’s now retired but always studying something.

Working day

I arrive at 8.30am and schedule the first hour or so to catch up on emails. Right now it’s mostly meeting most of the ventures but typically it would be meeting new applicants, we have an hour interview with each one, catch-up meetings with members, preparing for and chairing our Business Review Panels which each venture has every six months. We have about one workshop a week so I sit through them and make sure the content is suitable. I finish about 6pm.

I’m doing quite a lot of networking as I get to know everyone. I’m signing up for everything out there. I London the networking events go on to midnight and you catch the last Tube home. Here it’s more balanced, they finish at 7pm and then go home and see your family.

Downtime

Renovating the house, there’s a lot of work to be done there. I love gardening. Planning my wedding in May. And working with my Mum.

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