Digital entrepreneur, Lou Cordwell, became GM LEP co-chair in March 2020 and is optimistic that Greater Manchester can emerge stronger from pandemic, supporting UK economic recovery with a vision that addresses inequalities and green growth.
Digital pioneer, female entrepreneur, proud exponent of all that is good about Greater Manchester… yet determined to address the things that aren’t.
Recently installed as co-chair of Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership, Lou Cordwell embodies the spirit of the organisation and the place, intent on driving economic recovery from coronavirus in a way that brings environmental and social benefits for all.
“I always say that if you were to pick anywhere to be during this crisis, it would be in Greater Manchester,” she says. “The calibre of the public and the political leadership, and the general willingness to collaborate and look after one another, means that we have the best chance of riding this out and ending up in a better place on the other side, a place that works for all our people and our planet.”
It was in January 2020 – just weeks before the first national lockdown – that Lou became GM LEP co-chair.
A board member since 2013, she’d previously served as deputy chair, SME representative and the lead for communications, digital broadcasting and Skills Fund.
2020 has presented unexpected challenges for the LEP, which supports business and local authorities to grow the local private sector, tackle major barriers to growth and develop shared strategies for the local economy to increase job creation.
But Lou remains optimistic.
“By nature, the citizens of Greater Manchester are incredibly positive, tenacious people,” she adds. “We’ve faced adversity in lots of different forms throughout our history. Whether you call it innovation, creativity, or entrepreneurialism, it’s just there, hardwired into our very ethos.
“So while there’s lots of this we can’t control about the situation at present, one of the things that’s amazing about our city region is that we do have a plan, we’re all united behind that plan, and there are really strong frameworks for public and private partnership that enable us to do things at a pace that other places probably find harder.
“I think we’ve got a really significant role to play in terms of the levelling up agenda, which is even more important than it was before. We’ve got an important part to play as an engine for growth.”
That sentiment sits at the heart of the new GM Economic Vision, which Lou has led on architecting. It’s a vision for the region’s economic recovery with an emphasis on innovation, green growth and addressing inequalities.
Acknowledging that economic and social value deserve equal weight, it includes measures to address the challenges facing female entrepreneurs, something Lou herself has long championed.
Awarded an OBE in 2018 for services to the digital and creative economy, Lou is founder and CEO of Manchester-based digital design studio, magneticNorth which was launched in 2000 as the internet was only just beginning to provide commercial opportunities.
After high school and sixth form college in Salford she studied economics at York University before embarking on a career in one of the UK’s leading advertising agencies. It was during this early part of her career that she realised the opportunities digital presented and decided to strike out on her own.
“I had no ambitions to run a business,” she recalls. “If you talk to a lot of female entrepreneurs, they have a default position that they need to be able to live with what they imagine to be the worst scenario before they take the plunge.
“What I couldn’t live with was being 65 and thinking, ‘I wonder would have happened if I’d just have given it a go?’”
With a raft of international and big-name clients, magneticNorth’s success has mirrored that of Greater Manchester’s digital sector, which Lou says only recently started to live up to its billing as the birthplace of computer science.
“I remember having those conversations, saying, ‘we bloody invented the computer here… Why couldn’t the epicentre of digital innovation be in Manchester?’,” she recalls.
“I’ve passionately believed that for a very long time and what seems odd now is that was 20 years ago, and in the last few years we’ve seen that ambition starting to play out at a pace: there’s a real spotlight on our digital capabilities and on Manchester’s very particular flavour of digital success.”
By that, she means digital innovation that leaves no one behind and creates opportunities regardless of age, gender, social class and ethnicity. It’s a flavour which is evident across all the work that the LEP delivers, which has always been about levelling up by developing skills, infrastructure and opportunities. But Lou is particularly passionate about the opportunities presented by digital.
“For me, technology and digital has got huge transformational potential still,” she adds.
“We’ve got an opportunity to build businesses that didn’t exist a year ago and to reskill people who didn’t even know these industries existed, to change the way that we buy things, consume things, look after our wellbeing, learn, and to take the people of our city region with us on the journey.
“We have a chance to grow and scale our city region but to democratise that, to make that available to anyone. That’s still the really exciting thing about technology and the digital opportunities it affords.”
Leading a business is one thing. Leading economic recovery and growth across an entire region is something else. So why did she think it was important to join, and then co-chair, the LEP?
“Often those positions are taken by people who have technically more time on their hands,” she explains. “They’re semi-retired, or they’ve got a larger corporate career.
“I think it’s harder to be running an SME and to be involved in some of the work that we’re undertaking but at the same time I think it’s really important to bring a different perspective because we know the role that SMEs are going to play in economic recovery.
“If I thought about it then the reasons to be involved probably run pretty deep. Tony Wilson was a massive influence on me, a very big hero of mine. And for a lot of us from that generation, he imbued a sense of civic pride, he gave us a sense of responsibility to do something to help keep making the place better. And I think it’s that spirit, never settling for the status quo, that does make Manchester quite exceptional.
“The other influence was my dad. He worked for Trafford Council his whole career, could have earned a lot more money in the corporate world, but passionately believed you had a responsibility in your time on the planet to make things better and to effect change. We didn’t realise quite how much he’d done until he died, two months before he retired, and the number of people who came up and talked about the things that he’d shaped and the people he’d helped and made happen was startling. Anything that was in his gift to influence for the better, he did that, and he did that quite quietly and under the radar.
“My dad and Tony remain my heroes today and, like everyone, I continue to be heavily influenced by the moral compass of the people you looked up to as you grew up.”
Visit www.gmlep.com/insights to find out more about the work of GM LEP.