Business Technology

Forget football, Leicester is aiming for the top of the business table

11 min read

09 June 2016

As the founding principal of De Montfort University’s new Leicester Castle Business School, Dana Brown is building on the legacy of Jamie Vardy and Richard III to create a brand of business education that is relevant to firms large and small and the communities they are part of. Real Business spoke to her about how football, robots and entrepreneurship are shaping her vision for 21st century learning.

“When I moved from Oxford to Leicester, I started to get all these letters of congratulations from people saying what a great city you’ve chosen to live in, and I think that had a lot to do with the football,” Brown explained when we caught up with her at Leicester Castle, which is soon to be the site of the new institution.  

In many ways, she couldn’t have chosen a better base from which to shake up educating leaders for success. The headlines the city garnered when its football team overcame odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League in May 2016 came just a few years after the skeleton of one of history’s most strategic and controversial figures, Richard III of England, was found in one of the city’s car parks.

There’s no doubt that her business students will be able to benefit from their proximity to the football club – Brown has secured 100 internships to allow them to learn from its success and is in talks with the team’s owner, King Power, to create opportunities in Thailand too. But the philosophy she intends to embrace when it comes to teaching learners about leadership couldn’t be farther from the Machiavellian principals espoused by the infamous Duke of Gloucester.

“I think business schools have historically been very much focused on the issues of shareholder value and personal career success,” Brown explained. “How do you make a lot of money for the organisation and how do you make a lot of money for yourself?

“But the concept of shareholder value has been really radically challenged by the global financial crisis, and the failure of globalisation to address the ongoing issues of poverty and climate change – they’ve all given rise to a pretty significant movement to challenge those notions, and as business educators we’re now preparing students for a world in which they will be asked to think about business in a very different way.”

In response to this, Brown’s vision for the organisation means being “very interdisciplinary” in a way that other schools are not, so that it is bringing together humanities and design with and history and technology, and looking at business education not narrowly but actually as means of solving social problems and social challenges.

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The new campus will certainly be in a location befitting this aim. The Great Hall of Leicester Castle is a 12th century building previously used as both the meeting place of the English Parliament and the court in which the famous “green bicycle” murder trial was carried out. The school will be the result of a £4.2m investment to transform a disused building into a 21st century institution of learning.

For its principal, nurturing the desire to create new businesses amongst her students will be key to achieving this. “We’re very much focused on entrepreneurial skills and activity, on developing responsiveness and understanding the customer, creating individuals who are able to function in a variety of different roles rather than thinking of people who are going into very narrow professions,” she explained. “That’s what small business leaders need in order to be versatile – to know how the business works from top to bottom.”

As well as a host of new courses at both undergraduate and masters level focused on these skills, including programmes in global leadership and creative industries business management, Brown is committed to teaching methods that develop students’ creativity, despite the challenges of doing so. “It’s not something you can just put up on a PowerPoint on a screen. You have to teach it through experiential learning and practice. What you really need to do, as an educational institution, is to put people into contexts in which they have to make those kinds of decisions, whether that’s using a case study or using a simulation or going out and working on a real project for a company or a community organisation.”

As one of Amazon’s first employees, entrepreneurialism has always played a part in Brown’s career. Her commitment to creating a business school which embraces interdisciplinary teaching and learning is also reflected in her academic background in Russian and Eastern European studies at Oxford and political science at MIT.

She has also worked with social enterprises and community organisations, co-directing the Said Business School’s interdisciplinary forum on corporate social responsibility and working with Warm Heart, a social enterprise providing opportunities for children in Thailand. And she believes that involvement with such organisations is invaluable for aspiring business leaders.

“Very often community organisations need help, and they’ll let students have free reign to go ahead and develop something really substantive,” she explained. “If you as an educator can get students engaged in those types of activities, and make sure you’re beside them the entire way, helping them understand the decisions that they are making and guiding them through that process then you also help them to absorb lessons from what they’re doing.”

Working with the community in the city is also key to her mission to make sure the Leicester Castle Business School is an asset to small business owners already there as well as burgeoning entrepreneurs within her students’ ranks. The university’s Square Mile initiative, which takes academic expertise and student volunteers out into the local community, is one way she hopes to boost the number of alumni who stay in the city or return to it during their careers.

“We have an obligation to help Leicester to market itself to the world, and that is a big part of what we want to do is be part of saying that, actually, this city is a nice place to live, it’s a nice place to raise a family, and it’s a nice place to work. I think one way that Leicester will succeed and grow is through small business generation, and we as a business school need to be really supportive of that, because that’s were we can add a lot of value.”

The development of the new institution, and the city’s football success, comes hot on the heels of an impressive phase of economic redevelopment which is all too often overshadows by discussions of the London business bubble or the growth of the Northern Powerhouse. Corporates including Next and Caterpillar have seen the potential of the East Midlands as a base, while Amazon is moving in soon and creating 1,000 jobs in the process. “When I talk to people who lived here ten, 20 years ago that’s the sense I get, that this is a very positive time for Leicester, and we’d like to be a part of that,” Brown explained.

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Despite the city’s growth, Brown agreed that the future contains a host of challenges and uncertainties for the leaders of businesses of all sizes. Asked about how entrepreneurs can compete with the threat posed by the mechanisation of increasingly complex forms of managerial work, she emphasised that there is no easy answer, though innovation is likely to play an important role.

“I think that’s a change in our environment that we will have to accept,” she explained. “It’s going to be harder than ever to find the levers of competition in the world. Whole industries we know are going to be gone, or they’re going to look different, and the people that will win will be those who can look at very different markets and create very different consumer experiences.”

For Brown, the role that SME leaders have to play in this future is vital, though the challenges they face are particularly acute. “Leaders of a large corporation can buy in experts in culture or experts in politics, but small business owners can’t do that,” she argued. “Good business is not about delivering the services and the products that we have today, it’s about figuring out what’s next, asking what people actually need out there and understanding customers really profoundly.”

Whether they do it within existing organisations as intrapreneurs or by creating new ventures of their own, it’s hard to imagine a business school or a city better placed to help students achieve this. And if Brown’s vision comes to fruition, Leicester will be back in the headlines soon, not for football or dead royals but for creating a new generation of business leaders.