“What Young Enterprise provides is the opportunity to understand other people’s strengths and be part of a team. As we move into a digitally enabled world, with AI and robotics, we don’t want to lose that human interaction, that teamwork, the ability to get the best out of each other, understanding where each other’s strengths lie, ensuring there is equal effort and attainment.Jo Maher
Now CEO and Principal of Loughborough College, Jo Maher took part in Young Enterprise’s Company Programme in 1999, when she was a Year 10 student at Wade Deacon High school in Widnes.
Describing herself as the kind of student who would always seek out opportunities, Jo commented: “I was keen to get involved with everything, from the French exchange to Young Enterprise, because that’s how you learn.”
Jo wryly recalled the team name and product idea: “Nexus was our team name and it became a key learning point for us about Trademarks. This was before easy access to the internet so we couldn’t check whether that name was already in use.”
Jo elaborated on the team’s product: “We designed a decoration from pieces of plastic, melted in the oven, moulded into twirly shapes to hang in the garden. When I see what ideas young people come up with now, like silent alarms to prevent women from being attacked, our product was terrible!
But we were good at public speaking, so we won a regional presentation award.
The finances stacked up, we learned the marketing, accounting and sales side, the really practical stuff.
For me, who was a strong critical thinker but not at all creative, that’s one of the real benefits of Young Enterprise, there is something for everyone as part of the competition. So even if the product a team develops isn’t that great, there’s still a huge amount that young people can learn and benefit from the experience.”
Speaking about her career journey and the leadership skills that she developed as Managing Director of the Company Programme team, Jo quipped: “At 14 years old, I don’t know if my leadership style was motivational or just bossing people around. We all got stuck in, everyone had different strengths.”
Jo also reflected on the impact from presenting at a regional event and seeing other Company Programme teams as a moment which helped to sharpen her sense of wanting to succeed in the competition. From this experience, Jo gained a sense of what her team could have done differently in order to make it to the national final, which she recalls was absolutely their ambition.
After leaving school, Jo studied Sports Science at Loughborough University and her early career was as an accredited Sports Psychologist. She combined this and her education career for 10 years, ceasing to practice as a Sports Psychologist only when she was appointed Principal and CEO at Boston College in 2017.
Jo reflects on her early ambition to be a Psychologist Practitioner in professional football, at a time when opportunities for women were limited. Job insecurity in this sector was also a factor in determining Jo’s career pathway. She secured a teaching role at Loughborough College aged just 21 and was studying for her Sport and Exercise Psychology Masters at Loughborough University at the same time as teaching.
Jo reflected: “I carried on lecturing while building up my accreditation as a sports psychologist. My career goal at the time was to work as a Researcher at a University, but I realised my skills set is much more practical, working with people, extrapolating their potential.”
Jo elaborated: “I fell into leadership within Further Education aged 24 or 25, when I realised there was much better job security and earnings working in education than at a football club. I progressed at Loughborough College and became Head of Department, before I moved on to an Assistant Principal role at Reaseheath College.”
This was Jo’s first Executive role and saw Jo move from Loughborough to Shropshire, thanks to supportive backing from her wife.
Jo recalls learning a lot about capital investment at Reaseheath, with wealthy equestrians forming part of student demographic. No greater contrast then when Jo, aged 31, secured the role of CEO and Principal at Boston College in Lincolnshire.
Jo commented: “At the time, there was no handbook for being a CEO and Principal. I relied most on my psychologist background, developing trust relationships, understanding motivational climates, making decisions under pressure and reading people. Resilience and bounce-backability was key. To this day, how you recover from a setback is far more important for me than how you handle success. It’s about being a reflective practitioner and learning from it.”
Recalling this experience, Jo highlighted the importance of self-belief, one of the key traits which Company Programme enables young people to develop. “If you could bottle self-belief you’d be a millionaire overnight. The ability to back yourself is key, as the higher up you go in your career, the less you get guidance, direction and coaching, unless you actively seek it out. Early in your career, there’s more team working, support from your peers. So it’s crucial to get out of your comfort zone, find ways to develop your resilience.”
Jo’s career journey developed with her return to Loughborough College in 2020, which she describes as “always the plan, as sport is what I do, it’s my background.” As CEO and Principal of the largest sports college in the UK, home to 3000 elite athletes and sports students, Jo has the opportunity to strategically direct the agenda. Not just at Loughborough College, but also through her membership of the FA Council and Chairperson for England Colleges Football Association, Jo describes her roles in sports leadership and governance as part of her day job.
Jo credits an inspirational role model in defining her career ambitions in sports leadership when she was aged just 19 and studying at Loughborough University.
Jo recalled volunteering at a Dreams and Teams Camp, a week-long residential experience involving international students. Organised by the Youth Sport Trust, Jo heard their CEO Sue Campbell (now Baroness Campbell) give a motivational talk to the students.
Describing this as a lightbulb moment for herself, Jo recalls thinking: “One day, I’m going to be doing that.” Jo’s experience highlights how important inspirational role models are for young people, in creating aspirations for the future.
Jo quipped: “If you’d told me as a 19 year old I would one day be having dinner with Sue Campbell (as I did recently), and looking at sports leadership, I wouldn’t have believed you. We share the same belief in sport having the power to improve and shape society, creating life chances for everyone.”
When asked what part the Young Enterprise experience played in Jo’s career journey and what she would wish for the next generation, Jo summarised:
“What Young Enterprise provides is the opportunity to understand other people’s strengths and be part of a team. As we move into a digitally enabled world, with AI and robotics, we don’t want to lose that human interaction, that teamwork, the ability to get the best out of each other, understanding where each other’s strengths lie, ensuring there is equal effort and attainment.
Whether it’s Young Enterprise or sport, you can create positive messages around health, wellbeing and inclusion. Both are fundamentally about competition and performing under pressure, so they need you to be resilient, confident, able to communicate and to critically appraise.
I honestly think Young Enterprise is the entrepreneurial skills Olympics.
Young Enterprise provides opportunities for young people to play to their strengths, but they’ve got to turn up on time, be competitive, perform under pressure, believe in themselves and work hard.
All of that, the things which make Young Enterprise great is the same stuff that makes sport great. If Young Enterprise can leverage that into the future, young people will continue to thrive and have brilliant experiences.”