Driving a digital future: In conversation with Stuart Clarke

Big things are in the pipeline for Leeds, and there’s no one better equipped than Stuart Clarke to dispense all the details. From Leeds Digital Festival and Yorkshire Dance to multiple start-ups and global investment, he speaks with the passion and positivity of a city ready to embrace the future. I wanted to know more.

Dreaming in digital

Stuart and I sit down on a bitter Monday evening. It’s two weeks before Christmas, which somehow makes festive jumpers, seasonal ales and raucous laughter an inevitable part of the conversation. As such, it seems appropriate to begin proceedings with a trip back in time – and back we go, back to April 2017, to the second Leeds Digital Festival.

‘We had 115 events across 58 venues, with people flying in from Toronto, Paris, San Francisco, Estonia all over,’ says Stuart. ‘It’s been great to see Leeds adopt it, and every single digital company can become involved. It’s a connective force.

For a festival that initially ran for just a week, now two, it certainly feels like more in terms of its impact. The Festival’s open nature gives it licence to incorporate every type of digital activity around – whether that’s sports tech, data, health tech or app development. Stuart talks about a platform for skills, a shared network for homegrown talent, and his goal to cement Leeds as ‘The Digital Capital of the North’.

‘We’re booming as a digital sector, as a tech sector,’ he says, looking ahead to 2018’s two-week digital extravaganza, which is set to accelerate through the City in April. ‘The key thing for this year will be getting the right events for the City. It’s all about the impact.’

Starting up in Leeds

With that favourite of buzzwords ‘impact’ still hanging in the air, I ask Stuart about another of his projects, London to Leeds. A programme designed to bring innovative start-ups from the capital on a journey to success here in Leeds, London to Leeds exists to shout about Leodensian charm, and show Londoners it’s not so grim up north.

‘It’s often easier to start a business in London,’ Stuart explains, ‘but once you’ve got going, it’s expensive. Why not come to Leeds, where you can scale up, private accommodation costs are a third, and the beer’s better. Why not build your business here?’ Like many of Stuarts ventures, London to Leeds taps into something ostensibly obvious, facilitating growth for all parties by simply connecting up the dots. He just seems to have a knack for spotting where those dots are.

Making things happen

For Stuart, two more of those allimportant dots lie in the education and dating industries, where he’s firmly made his mark as non-executive director for upcoming startups, Synap, Signin and JigTalk. Using machine learning to help students learn faster and more efficiently, Synap is the brainchild of two recent medical grads, currently working with Oxford University Press to distil learning materials into bitesize chunks.

‘Synap is a fantastic, innovative education tech company.’ says Stuart, ‘We work with 80% of medical students in the UKit’s going to be one of the most successful start-ups to come out of Leeds.’

As for the dating scene, ‘blind’ dating game app, JigTalk, is making heart-shaped waves, forcing potential partners to ask each other questions to reveal each other’s faces, piece by piece. It’s another exciting, Leeds-based project that’s brought investment and interest to the City, putting it further into focus as a digital hotspot. ‘More people are coming to Leeds and staying,’ says Stuart, moving back to that theme of connectivity, of platforming talent and helping it grow with a joined-up mind set. Signin continues that connectivity theme: it helps to match universities, graduates and graduate employers and has already partnered with some of the leading employers and universities in the country.

‘We’re keeping students because we’re telling them more and more about what’s going on in the City,’ Stuart muses, as we ponder over that all-consuming student bubble, and how it needs to be broken as early as possible. ‘There’s such sheer talent from universities,’ he says. ‘If we can encourage [students] to set up a business, and help them get mentoring and funding, we can keep them here – and make Leeds a better city.’

Inspiring digital diversity

If nurturing and retaining talent is one way to enrich Leeds, then fostering a culture of diversity and inclusivity has to be another. When it comes to making sure people from all walks of life have access to the resources and support they need, Stuart is ready to speak up.

‘In terms of skills and talent, we need to get more people into the tech vacancies we have, and expand them to absolutely everybody.’ He says emphatically. ‘Over the last couple of years, we’ve done courses with the Ahead Partnership and the WISE Campaign to engage young women with tech,’ and there’s more planned for the coming year, with the focus on promoting STEM subjects and making tech more accessible for everyone. Of course, increasing diversity is not just about gender, as Stuart acknowledges: “The sector doesn’t reflect the cultural diversity we have in Leeds so we all need to engage with those areas less represented.”

With diversity comes connectivity, and for Stuart, that’s as important for the many elements of the digital industry as for its people. He tells me how ‘digital’ and ‘creative’ are blending, as the traditional notions of each skillset combine to enable greater energy and collaboration. As a board member of Yorkshire Dance (no, I don’t know where he finds the time either), Stuart works with community organisations all around the county, combining marketing and digital expertise with creative culture to take arts to a wider audience.

‘If your theatre has 100 seats, then you’ll sell 100 tickets – but how do you stream that, how do you film it in a different way and get 500 or even 5000 people watching?’ Stuart muses, emphasising his drive to make digital an enabler – to take arts, culture and creativity out to the masses, and make sure everyone can benefit.

Sponsoring the age of disruption

Before our conversation draws to a close, leaving us to face the heady hordes of festive shoppers teeming past the window, we turn to the topic of sponsorship. The Digital Festival has a host of great sponsors and partners, with big and small names sitting side by side on the roster – but I ask Stuart about the potentially contentious issue of choosing Sky Betting and Gaming as the event’s main sponsor.

‘Sky Bet encourage tech and digital in Leeds, they sponsor an amazing number of meetups and they’re a big supporter of investment,’ says Stuart, telling me that despite first appearances, Sky Bet is a great asset to Leeds. ‘Big companies may disrupt the job market for a while, but people outside Leeds see the likes of Sky Bet and see success – they think “What a great place to be.”’

Shaping digital agencies

As we look forward to a brave new year full of bold change and digital development, the launch of Stuart’s latest product, Provend, is at the forefront of the conversation. Designed to help owners of digital marketing agencies improve their business structure to be more attractive to potential buyers, the service aims to take pressure off directors, working with third party professionals and forming the beginning of a strategic growth, support and communications plan.

‘It makes sense to bring everything together in a formal process’, says Stuart – and there’s that passion for connecting up the dots again. ‘Buyers will pay more for agencies that have certain characteristics, so we’ll help firms to shape themselves into the optimum structure.’ Watch this space.

In the fast-evolving world of digital, it’s clear that a healthy amount of disruption, competition and challenge is exactly what’s needed to drive success. As Stuart and I part ways, I’m left feeling energised and inspired by what’s next for Leeds. And with so much talent, passion and potential right on our doorstep, it looks like our ‘Digital Capital’ status is set to reach far beyond the North in the years to come.

The Leeds Digital Festival runs from 16th to 27th April.  To get involved please visit: leedsdigitalfestival.org


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