Entrepreneur network and marketing consultancy founder Nadine Campbell

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Nadine Campbell is an award winner for both the marketing consultancy she founded, and the ACE Entrepreneurs business network. We spoke to her about growing both businesses, and the lessons learned along the way.

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Can you introduce yourself, and your business?

Hi, I’m Nadine, I am the founder of The Digital Helpdesk, which is a marketing consultancy launched in 2012 and also the founder of ACE Entrepreneurs, an organisation that specifically helps diverse and underrepresented entrepreneurs grow, scale and start up their businesses.

I have 20 years of experience in business and marketing, I am a Partner level Marketing Consultant and Digital Lead, with extensive experience within media agencies, brands, start-ups and consultancies. I'm an expert in business strategy and management, marketing, partnerships, tactical campaigns, analytics and data. Previous Digital Helpdesk clients include brands Sky ShowTime, Sky Group, Huawei, Samsung, Unilever, Ford, Virgin Media and Mobile, Britvic, Group M and Omnicom agencies.

My recent achievements include 2022 IPSE Outstanding freelancer of the year and Community Awards finalist, 2022 YunoJuno Marketing Specialist of the Year, TechRound 2021 BAME 50 under 50 Entrepreneurs list, IPSE 2021 Success Story Award for ACE Entrepreneurs, 2021 WATC Inspirational Woman, led the team at Samsung to win the 2020 eCommerce Social Campaign of the year, 2019 YunoJuno Marketing Specialist of the Year Finalist.

ACE Entrepreneurs is a membership organisation with a network of over 5,000, launched in 2020 to support and provide investment for marginalised entrepreneurs and black-owned businesses in the UK. ACE supports the diverse community and provides free access to over 20 key business & finance content hubs, alternative start-up funding and grant finder for non-profit and social enterprises. The mission is to make it easier for diverse entrepreneurs to run successful businesses. Most importantly, we have a growing network and collaboration is at the heart of the work we do. 

I specifically use my transferable skills from 10 years of running The Digital Helpdesk, to empower diverse entrepreneurs via ACE. Being self-employed, a freelancer or an entrepreneur can be lonely sometimes, so it’s all about networking, working together, and supporting each other with our services.

The two go hand in hand and so that’s what I do at the moment.

How long have you been freelancing, and what led you to start both sides of your business?

So, I fell into marketing a little bit. It was my backup subject to Fashion in uni but ended up being my main career choice. I was really curious about the way that businesses talk to consumers and the way we were marketed towards. When I left university went into marketing full-time because I also happened to be good at it. I was working perm for about eight years, and then I thought, 'I really want more variety', and that’s what made me go into freelance Marketing a few years later in 2012. 

I then started ACE Entrepreneurs in 2020 because I had gotten to the point where I’d been working for about 18 years, and I had so much rich marketing and entrepreneurial experience that I wanted to share. Although I love my corporate consultancy work, I knew I could make a massive impact on the diverse startup community too.

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You started ACE Entrepreneurs during Covid. Can you talk about starting a business in the middle of the pandemic?

I’d left an amazing client, Samsung which I had worked with for the previous 18 months and had a very young son. I finished in Dec 2019 to start another business, I wasn’t 100% sure what it was going to be however I had met a couple of great self-employed women at Samsung, and I knew I wanted to help women excel in self-employed roles.
Then the pandemic happened. It was just the right time because there were so many people who weren’t working anymore, or had lost their jobs, many of which were women. So, it just happened quite naturally, starting up a business during the pandemic delivering well-needed services and support.

I think it was a great time to start a business actually because you’re on lockdown, you’re at home, and there’s only so much time you can spend with your loved ones not doing anything. If you’re like me, career-driven, you want to do something. So, it was a good time, it meant I had a focus, and it meant I had people that I could help and support.

It also meant there was a way to get away from some of the negativity that was constantly coming in through the media and our timelines. It wasn’t just Covid, it was actually the whole reason for the Black Lives Matter movement, even though the pinnacle of that happened in the U.S, it’s a global feeling. So it was great because there was something positive to do during that time, I think it really makes you super focused. There weren’t those distractions that you have when you’re working, or if you’re trying to fit this alongside another job.

How did you discover a need for ACE to help underrepresented communities start businesses?

It became more apparent during my last role, where there was only me and there were two other women of colour. We became friends because the office was not very diverse, and it’s just kind of natural to connect with the females or the people that are from similar backgrounds to you.
What I realised when I was speaking to them, was that they had the same problems I did, or they could fix a problem I had, or they had some experience they could share with me, or it was just motivation to see how well they were doing. I thought 'I’ll just start a WhatsApp group' and it was just us three. Then before I knew it I was meeting more and more people that were just starting businesses and we were all just asking the same things.

That motivated me, and I started researching to see what companies were out there for underrepresented females or those in self-employment, there really weren’t many for us. There were maybe three, and one of them was just strictly for women, and the others were more for the general UK population. Unless you’re from a different background to the country that you’re living in, you might not realise that there are nuances that make your work life and business life different. There are different challenges, our journey is slightly different, so we need people that have been through that and understand how to navigate that, to share and help the community that they are from. 

So, it went from three of us on WhatsApp to me saying “I’m going to ask a few more people and see what they think”. Then I thought, '"I'll start a business directory and I’ll put all the businesses on it, and people can use the directory' to connect and collaborate, and also, I can promote it. Before I knew it, we just got bigger and bigger. Then I said, 'well I'll start doing services too', and it turned into a real business.

So, the community need just came from asking questions and speaking to people that were on the same journey.

Can you talk about the different challenges of being a woman of colour in business? And especially having your own business?

I think they fall into a couple of different buckets. The first is around funding. If we think about small businesses and funding for underrepresented or diverse communities, it’s about 2% of all funding. Then you move down the scale to around 0.02% if you are a woman too. I mean it’s really, really tiny.

If you’re thinking about starting a business, before you even get to that, you’re thinking “Will I even be able to do it in terms of financing? Can I afford to do it?” And on the flip side, when we think about wages for women in business, I think we’re at 82 pence to the pound right now in terms of the pay gap and pay equality. So, we’re not getting paid the same and it goes down for diverse women.

You have women that are usually the main lead in the household. They go from a full-time job at work to a full-time job at home. If the kids are sick, they’re probably the ones that are off and they still have to do everything at work. So, these are the challenges that women face. And by going into self-employment, or starting your own business, at the end of the tunnel, there’s that freedom, right? That you can set your day and set your timing, and set your rates to what they should be.

When you look at the board of most companies in leadership positions, in the C suite or at the board level, we’re not there, so that visibility is lacking. How do you even get up to the C-suite? You’re also not being paid enough, you don’t have time to do everything and there are no other diverse women up there. There are so many different challenges.

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If you’re diverse and you go to work, there’s assimilation that happens; where you want to make sure you’re 'fitting in'. You just want to be yourself, but to get ahead, everyone is assimilating to that English male way or working or using whatever traits they have, usually, that’s tailored towards a male perspective. As a woman of colour, you can be labelled very, very quickly. Women of colour 'have attitude', whereas men might be 'forthright or direct'.  So, you have to change the way that you are to work. Saying sorry a lot, men just don’t do that and women do it all the time. 

These are all the different disparities that mean we need extra dedicated support, not only as women of colour, but women just in general.

Have you noticed a change in these challenges by becoming self-employed?

Having worked in corporate for so long, you have to be a certain way, or act a certain way, to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. That’s just business, it’s an everyone thing. But then these community businesses are a passion. I feel I get that energy, I’ve been there. So, it reminded me of that excitement when you first startup.

Then also, I’m just not used to working with so many people of colour. I just feel way more relaxed. I’ve learned from them as well that the way that you act in the corporate world, you can’t do the same with small businesses. So, I spent the first year telling people who I am, explaining what I do and why I appeared here just out of the blue to come to support the community. Explaining 'this is my story, this is my upbringing, this is my experience, and these are the reasons I can help you'. But the delivery had to change, the way I approached business had to change, and the visuals had to change too. It’s not the same as corporate, so it’s given me another skill which I didn’t have before.

I’ve started businesses, but I’ve not talked to other small businesses because I’ve always spoken to big corporate brands. So, they’ve helped me, taught me you can do whatever you want, as long as it’s somehow tied back to your business.

If you had to summarise, what would you say makes either of your businesses great?

What makes ACE Entrepreneurs great is it’s specifically helping people that need that support and it’s calling out to everyone, but positively, saying "we could do with more support here, because we drive a lot of revenue each year and here are some solutions to change the status quo".

What I noticed during the pandemic there was a lot of diversity and inclusion signposting. That was all corporate brands were doing. But what ACE is trying to do is to say, if you’re trying to help this community, here are some tangible ways to do it. Just try to see if you can give more funding to people from underrepresented communities, try and speak to a business owner that is from a different background, or try to diversify your vendor list. So, I feel like there are big ways we can drive change by helping people make those decisions as not everybody knows what to do to help.

Can you explain a few more of the tangible ways ACE is helping the community and new business owners?

‚Äč‚ÄčNumber one, we have a Micro Investment Fund. I got together with some very forward-thinking people in the investment industry to put together a fund each year that tries to help small diverse businesses grow. We start with a micro-investment because we don’t just want to give money, we want to support growth.

We have this community, it’s for men and women because if we are about equality, we’ve got to do this equally. So, we focus on the underrepresented and diverse and put their interests first in all of our promotions. 

I’ve been in business and marketing for a while and have lots and lots of connections with amazing brands, investors and entrepreneurs. So, where some ACE members might not have access to these people, I can put their brand in front of bigger brands, that are interested in doing something for the community and genuinely want to know what the gap is.

The directory was really about helping people diversify their vendor list, and ensure if they’re looking for a business it’s not only small but diverse too. We ensure that everyone gets the benefit of shining and showing off their business. So, we’re doing a lot of work on this to show it to a wider audience. 

We deliver stats and ask questions, then we share that with the wider community which means initiatives can be built around them. There was a piece of work I did with a previous client from Sky group where they wanted to create an initiative for black-owned businesses, but they didn’t have any data behind that. So, I went out to my community and we came up with four different pillars which now other businesses can use to inform how they help the community too.

Is there a project or achievement that you’re especially proud of?

For ACE specifically, I think it’s winning the IPSE Covid Success Story award. In 2020/21 unemployment was at apx 45% for people from diverse backgrounds, which was high compared to the general population, which was about half that. I worked for a year and wasn't taking any revenue, it was a passion project because I just wanted to help.

What was nice was at the end we had so much to show in terms of the number of people that we supported and the award was fantastic and said, 'we see the work you’re doing, we think you’re making an impact, and we think you have a bright future'. So, winning the IPSE Covid Success Story award for ACE was a highlight. I think the other big achievement was winning the Top 50 BAME entrepreneurs last year, that’s part of TechRound. I don’t do a lot of competitions or awards, this is new, and it’s all just happening.

What’s the best thing about being self-employed?

The best thing for me is the flexibility. For the early years of my career, I was grafting and that means very late nights, very long days, and intensive work. The best thing about self-employment is that I can pick and choose those peaks and troughs.

In 2019 I went away for pretty much three weeks to Kenya with my son. For me, travel is a great thing, because I know I’m working hard otherwise. I don’t believe work is all life should be. We are more than our nine to five, or whatever hours that we work. That’s the best thing.

The second-best thing is being able to move up the ladder as I feel I deserve, within reason. I’m not saying I shot up since being self-employed however, I feel like the work I’m doing is at the right level and the achievements that I’m making are because of being self-employed. I don’t think I would have had all the same opportunities had I been employed.

How do you balance founding two successful businesses?

The way I’ve done it so far has been while I’m doing consultancy work, ACE takes a backseat. I know that when I’m doing consultancy, it’s about keeping my skills in touch and up-to-date, bringing in revenue, working with new clients and all that kind of stuff.

When I’m doing ACE, I’m taking all of the stuff I’ve learned and applying it to the work I’m doing there. This isn’t just a passion project, it's a business, I've got to follow all the usual processes, structures and apply a strategy – and so it keeps me focused.

In the beginning, they were more separate. Now I’m doing them in parallel. The difference is I’ve taken on my first employee, which is fantastic and he’s so good. He’s helping me with all those things I would have been doing in the night once my son’s gone to bed. So that’s how I’m managing it. Also, I’ve embraced outsourcing, so I outsource a lot of the tricky jobs in order so that I can maintain both roles.

Do you have specific plans for the future of your businesses?

The only thing we haven’t talked about yet is the mentoring side of the business. This is something I want to work on a bit more and expand it. I have some wonderful young women that I’m mentoring now and the feedback has been they really like it coming from a female perspective, that has been there and done it.

It’s not about giving people ‘the answers’ because we live in a different world now in terms of how things have changed. But it’s the ‘you can do it’ mentality that's resonating. It makes a difference to women that are trying to get on the career ladder or understand how they can make an impact and grow within their roles.

Throughout my career, I’ve had three amazing English male mentors that have shaped the way that my career has turned out. Now I can take that information and pass it back down to young women in business that are looking to make the same changes.

What’s the best advice you could offer to other self-employed people?

My top advice is that you have to believe in yourself. And I don’t think that’s just for freelancers, I think it’s just for anyone in business, especially women. When you’re ready to go out to clients, you must believe that. You have to say "I can do this, this, this and this is my rate" – you have to be strong. What you’ve learned so far is all valid, but ensure you can come in at that level, make sure you’ve researched what your remuneration should be, and stick to it as closely as you can.
If you’ve been self-employed for a little bit longer, I always say, don’t forget to go up the ladder. Don’t get stuck at the same level for ages and ensure that you’re reviewing what you’re doing every couple of years. Every 18 months I personally do a review and ask; 'Is this the right level for me? Am I being paid correctly? And am I learning as well?'

And the last thing I would say is no one’s going to tell you to take holidays. Take a holiday. 

How do you maintain your work/life balance?

From Friday at 5.30 pm until Sunday evening, when I do my prep for the week, I don’t do any work. I'm quite strict that I don’t open my laptop because that will damage my relationship with my son.
He knows I’m working all the time, but I prefer it if he doesn’t see that while he’s at home. He makes me maintain my work-life balance, to be honest. 

During the week, I just keep it down to a couple of nights, versus every night. Friday nights I make sure that that’s my relaxing time, Saturday is always with my son, and then Sunday’s kind of a free day where there are always things to be done at home. And I feel during those complete downtimes, I have recharged ready for the next week ahead.

I’ve done my years of working to 10 PM five days a week and pulling 3ams finishes, 5.30 pm is fine.

What did winning the IPSE Covid Success Story mean to you?

I think it’s immense that what we’re doing makes sense not only to our community but to the wider people who are looking to ask for guidance on how they can support us. So, it means a lot to me.

There was a lovely lady who first reached out to me on Facebook, and that was my first interaction with IPSE. Who knew it would turn into so many different and wonderful opportunities?

It also means people have reviewed what we’re doing, and they have seen we’re creating impact, so it gives ACE gravitas, and it gives us verification of what we’re striving to do. It really is amazing.

What’s your experience of being involved in National Freelancers Day and being judged for an award?

The last National Freelancers Day was virtual for safety and availability, so that was really good. I did a morning talk on helping small businesses understand free and low-cost marketing. That was really cool and there was a great app so you could see the agenda. You could pick sessions and watch recorded talks back, and there were loads of contacts. I got to meet loads of other freelancers adjacent to me, like copywriters and video editors, and things that I need within my business.

The awards were amazing. The judging process was really seamless and quite smooth. You had to write your submission – that was quite lengthy and detailed - and then there was a virtual judging panel. It’s still quite nerve wracking to get your pitch out, but great to meet people genuinely interested in your story and hear their questions.

And then the event was wonderful. We were meeting in person with the other winners, talking about our stories and other nominees. So, I made a load of new connections again on that day. The awards were nice, you’ve got to get up and actually take a physical award. It was really excellent. I loved the process and I’d encourage everyone to try out for it.

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How long have you been an IPSE member and has it benefited you in any specific ways?

I joined late last year, and there’s more stuff to do than time to do them, because you’ve got so many different perks. You’ve got all the advice, there’s loads of templates, member stories, blogs and just help with IR35. And all of the different things you need to know when you’re becoming self-employed about pensions, everything. So, it’s really cool and I think it’s definitely worth it.

And the networking as well, I think is a major part that I didn’t realise was so strong. I’ve met so many new people, it’s amazing.

In particular for me it’s the events, they’re really well organised. There’s been National Freelancers Day, the awards, My Money Week, International Women’s Day. I feel like each time I’m learning something. Of all the seminars and webinars I’m going to, I feel like there’s always something you can learn and apply to your freelancing.

Is there a particular circumstance or business problem where IPSE membership has helped you?

Not necessarily a business problem, but I think there’s a fine tuning to be done when you’re a freelancer. There’s things you just haven’t thought about properly. I know there’s a lot on pensions and getting mortgage for the self-employed.

I have a mortgage, and I’m self-employed, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. When you’re self-employed, it’s not as straightforward. So, some of those quite detailed bits of help I found the most valuable and useful.

Have you supported, or been involved with, any IPSE campaigns?

I’ve done two last year. The first one was around IR35, and I submitted something. I’ve asked to join the Policy and Research board on the different changes for freelancers, and I’m looking forward to getting more involved. I don’t know everything yet that’s available, but as I do, I’m like “I’ll do that!”

Would you recommend IPSE membership?

Absolutely. Because I think it’s just the same as ACE and you don’t know how many people out there are in the same situation and how much knowledge that IPSE has that you can tap into and save yourself time with.

I highly recommend joining, and then once you join, be active, so go and check out all the different things. There’s everything from health and wellbeing to the knowledge bank and sharing your story. So, it’s a really good, really amazing organisation.


If you’d like more personal insights into freelancing and self-employment, why not take a look at our previous interviews:

If you’d like to share your own experiences or know someone who would make a great subject for a quick chat, then let us know via email.

Watch the highlight video

Member Story Entrepreneur network and marketing consultancy founder Nadine Campbell

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