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NICKY MARR: Collaboration can mean learning from each other

By Nicky Marr

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Nicky's workshop at Bad Girl Bakery last week.
Nicky's workshop at Bad Girl Bakery last week.

I’ll be facilitating proceedings at the Focus North conference in Wick on Tuesday.

Last year saw the launch of the group, which brings together an essential combination of public sector, local government, academia, and industry. Focus North has a stated aim to generate economic growth, attract investment, and attract and retain skills and talent for the region.

In February 2023, we heard of the tremendous opportunities that are, will, and could be available to Caithness and Sutherland, should everyone pull together. Conference thought Focus North’s stated aims were at risk from a decline in working population, transport underfunding, lack of connectivity, and a dearth of affordable housing.

On Tuesday, we’ll hear of the progress made in exciting renewable energy projects, the spaceport, peatlands, and more. Crucially, we will see that progress has been made, and that more is still to come. I’m genuinely excited about that.

Last week, at a roundtable business dinner in Aviemore, the talk was also about pulling together. How can public bodies operating in and across the national park, and nationally, work together with private businesses to enhance the lives and opportunities of those living locally?

And there’s more evidence of collaboration. After another roundtable dinner in Inverurie on Thursday, this Friday I’ll be hosting the Highland Heroes Awards, honouring those extraordinary unsung individuals, schools, charities, servicemen and women, and volunteers, who pull together to make our communities that little bit better.

There’s a quote about collaboration, sometimes attributed as African: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

There must be something collaborative in the air because that is the underlying theme of everything I’m doing at the moment.

And that cheers me. As a child of the Thatcher years, where Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko spouted “greed, for lack of a better word, is good”, it feels as though we’re finally moving away from the notion of every man (or woman) for themselves. Even in writing those words I can feel my shoulders drop.

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Collaboration is happening on a less public scale too. Last week I ran a workshop at the inaugural ‘in real life’ gathering of some of the members of the Highland Cake Collab, the brainchild of Jeni Ianetta. As co-founder 10 years ago of Bad Girl Bakery, Jeni still remembers the loneliness and isolation of starting out in business.

An incredibly accomplished baker, she knew her craft inside out, but felt she was learning the rest of her business from scratch. Pricing and packaging, employing staff and taking on premises, bidding for contracts and buying equipment and ingredients, were all skills she had to learn, learn alone, and learn fast.

And while her business has now undeniably made its mark, with a glossy recipe book and a celebrity fan (Nigella Lawson, no less!), Jeni still remembers what it was like at the beginning. So she has reached out to others to prevent them from feeling stuck or isolated, and so they can learn from her (and each other’s) mistakes.

The group now comprises 80 small independent bakers. They are mainly women who are running cafés, or are baking bread, cakes, or patisserie at home to sell directly and at farmers’ markets.

And over coffee and shortbread (warm from the oven) I was overwhelmed by Jeni’s generosity of spirit in creating this community. By the end of the day, instead of being competitors, bakers were swapping tips about costings, and for dealing with rude customers, and understanding that there is space in the market for them all. Together they will raise each other higher than each could rise alone.

I’m belatedly learning that the less we care about who gets the credit for a great idea, and the more we share common aspirations of success, wellbeing, and economic stability, the better we will all be.

The only question is: Are you in?

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