Belfast Telegraph

'We need to expose children to failure so they can move on from it and learn not to give up...'

Emma Deighan talks to Carol Fitzsimons, chief executive of Young Enterprise, about why every student needs to know the highs and lows of business

Carol Fitzsimons
Carol Fitzsimons
Winning student company Poppin from Banbridge Academy celebrate with Young Enterprise CEO Carol Fitzsimons

Carol Fitzsimons MBE, chief executive of the charity Young Enterprise, is in a role that is, coincidentally, something of an amalgamation of the careers previously held by her parents.

The Bangor native's father, John Stringer, was the former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce while her mother worked as a primary school teacher. And today, Carol's job is to educate and equip children with the skills needed to access and succeed in business.

"I think this job I have now is the only one that they both agreed on," Carol says.

"It's that role modelling of jobs that you see and environments that you understand get us to where we are.

"I grew up with business and education around me.

"I think if you grow up with parents who both work in the public sector, then you aren't aware of the business world and that's what my job is about, to make young children aware."

Carol will celebrate 10 years at the helm of Young Enterprise this year. The charity, which is part of the 100-year-old global organisation Junior Achievement, was set up here in 1984 and today works with 85% of NI's post-primary schools with 174 centres here. Last year it worked with around 90,000 students.

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Carol says: "When I first came into Young Enterprise, the Company Programme was its best known initiative which involved getting sixth formers to run a company for a year and that was something I was familiar with.

"But I had other ideas that would make sure every young person had an opportunity to run a business because traditionally that opportunity was only accessible to those studying business studies.

"For me it was important that we changed that so everyone could understand that developing those skills is relevant for everyone no matter what they do."

Young Enterprise now offers a wider variety of initiatives spanning all educational age groups and, more recently, community settings where piloting schemes are running.

Its aim is to inspire students and give them the skills needed for the world of business. And it is also keen to focus on failure.

"In the end, parents will push for results at school but we want schools to have the opportunity to help students develop softer skills, and part of that is about learning how to cope with failure," continues Carol.

"As parents we mean well and want to protect our children but we do have to expose them to risk and we give students the opportunity to run a business and experience the highs and lows and the failures, but we control it so they learn from it and learn not to give up."

The journey Carol took to get to the role she's in now is one that traverses the fashion, retail, training and consultancy worlds.

Having studied economics and geography at university in Exeter, she cultivated a passion for "social economic geography, town planning and how cities developed".

She then returned home where her first job was at Desmond's textile firm which, when she joined, had 13 factories here and around 13,000 employees.

"I made my own evening dresses and that was part of that interest in Desmond's," she reveals. "I really enjoyed manufacturing and industry because it was very real and if there was a problem you could see it and fix it."

Carol says the management development she experienced at Desmond's set her up for the rest of her career, part of which was spent at Donaghadee Carpets.

"But I could see the manufacturing industry was massively in decline and I moved out of that and went into training consultancy and down the route of HR," she adds.

Before joining Young Enterprise, Carol was head of learning and development at Gem, a fledgling start-up which went on to become the business services giant, Concentrix.

"It was a start-up then and I was there before it had any customers and was at a really early stage. I spent nearly 10 years at Gem and we went through a journey from having a small team of people to when I left there was 800 staff and multi contracts with customers like Amazon and There was a speed of growth and it was a very exciting time seeing that evolution," says Carol.

"It was where the interest and passion for start-ups came from," she adds.

But pre-dating any of the mother-of-two's professional career roles is her involvement with the Northern Ireland Scouts. It's another facet of her work and personal life that intertwines with her job at Young Enterprise.

Carol is a Beaver Scout Leader for children aged 6-7 in the Bangor area, where she lives today with her family.

"The Scouts are still very popular and offer children skills for life, while Young Enterprise is about offering skills for working life.

"Today, those skills at the Scouts are traditional but some are more modern and what I find is the children love the traditional stuff because they wouldn't usually get access to it.

"I mean things like crafts that you actually make, not just stick on. All the values-based stuff is the same as it's always been and it's about developing those children to reach their full potential."

A champion of future generations, Carol's plans for Young Enterprise are big. She wants to set up an alumni database so those involved in programmes can be tracked and their careers and professional successes documented.

"For us to be able to uplift a younger person to have self belief to go and do well at an interview is sometimes, if not more, important than setting up their own business.

"There is a lot of research that students who have these skills are as likely to start up their own business and earn twice as much. It's these stories that we want to document and we will do that through an alumni tracking programme.

"Our big aim is to have a programme that keeps students engaged and when our programmes are completed more than 42% say it would encourage them to consider setting up their own business.

"They may not go on and do that but how do we go on and nurture them? That's what we're also looking at."

It's no easy feat for Carol and her team to set up and reach the latter goals. Ultimately, the organisation is a charity and fundraising is a huge part of Carol's role.

"We always have to make sure we have enough to be financially stable and we are lucky that we have an element of support that we draw in from businesses across NI.

"We also apply to trusts and foundations, but my job is to make sure we have enough income to do what we want to do but also work with the board and set strategies that prioritise what's more important."

Carol's two children, who are aged 11 and five, will both be privy to Young Enterprise's courses throughout their education. It's something Carol is very passionate about.

She says: "The main thing for us, and we are a small team, is making sure that we get that message out that all young people need that experience and we are here to support schools in allowing young people to develop."

‘I’ve been inspired by talents of the young’

Q What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?

A You can have it all — just not all at once.

Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A Make sure you have a mentor to support you through the journey.

Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?

A I always wanted to be a photographer, so would love to try that out.

Q What was your last holiday?

A Italy, near Vesuvius. I love the warmth, food and friendliness of the place.

Q Where are you going next?

A I have no plans yet.

Q What are your hobbies/interests?

A I enjoy baking when I get time, and am also a Beaver Scout Leader.

Q What is your favourite sport and team?

A I’m not a huge sports fan, but always follow Ireland in the Six Nations.

Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A The World According to Garp, by John Irving.

Q How would you describe your early life?

A I’d a great childhood in Bangor, with two supportive parents and two big brothers. I loved spending time down at the beach.

Q Have you any economic predictions?

A Sadly, I sense that we will see another recession soon. It’s a very challenging time economically.

Q How would you assess your time with Young Enterprise?

A I’ll be there 10 years this year and it’s flown in. I’ve been inspired by the potential of young people and the talents they can show and confidence they can gain if they are given the opportunity.

Q How would you sum up what it’s like working in the third sector?

A It is so rewarding seeing the impact on the lives you work with. It makes up for the challenges of the short-term focus of the constant funding cycle. It is a sector that I am proud to work in.

Belfast Telegraph