Innovation and enterprise blog

15 January 2021

Meet Alison Cork, Ambassador for the British Library’s Business & IP Centre

Amidst all the uncertainty of 2020, becoming an Ambassador for the British Library's Business & IP Centre has been a definite highlight, and it caused me to reflect upon my lifetime journey with books and learning.

I remember libraries vividly as a child. The distinctive smell of beeswax polished wood and slightly musty odour of much borrowed books – I particularly liked the way the pages seemed to soften the more they were thumbed and read. I wasn’t so keen on the plastic protective covers that used to crack with age and scratch my fingers. I also remember the pleasing silence of the library and the squeak of the wooden floor boards as I explored new categories, each one a new world to me. My favourites were history, biology and fiction. At one point I was reading up to nine books a week. Sitting on the purple boucle sofa at home with a pile of them by my side, I would devour each title until the pile had disappeared and I had an excuse to go back and get more. I loved having my dad read to me, and the way he carefully turned the pages as he narrated each story. Without realising it, books became my path to a world of imagination and possibility, and a love of learning.

Alison Cork sitting in armchair

My next clear memory of books was at school, in my case a convent in south east London. There, courtesy of an inspirational Latin teacher, I discovered the great love of my life – the Classics - despite the fact that the nuns had neatly ruled through any text they felt to be unsuitable for young ladies, which, let’s face it, meant most of Catullus. Sadly for the well-meaning nuns, this had quite the opposite effect on me and piqued my curiosity further. Latin led to Greek and a change of school, as there weren’t enough students who wanted to study Greek to merit a state school teacher’s salary. Happily for me, the teachers in my next school were just as dedicated and I was surprised but thrilled to win a place to study Classics at Cambridge - not bad for the great granddaughter of a hackney carriage driver from Brixton. But that’s the thing about books, they are totally democratic. They will take you where you want to go.

At Cambridge the doors of life opened for me and I learned to become an independent thinker. That in turn led me to realise that I didn’t want to follow any well-trodden career path of accountant or lawyer. I wanted to drive my own destiny. It was no more than an instinctive feeling, but I followed my gut and after graduation, started a little publishing business. Again, books were in the mix. All of a sudden I realised that I was an entrepreneur, albeit an accidental one. I was running my own show. The challenge for me at the time was that I lacked any role models or mentors. No-one in my family ran a business and there were very few women blazing a trail that I could point to, with the exception of Anita Roddick of Body Shop, Debbie Moore of Pineapple Studios and Margaret Thatcher, if you count running the country as a form of business.

Fast forward almost thirty years and I was surprised to find that still, only one in four businesses was owned or run by a woman. So I started a not for profit called Make it Your Business, to support and encourage other women to start their own business. Then I heard about the Business & IP Centre and in particular their success with female and BAME led businesses, and once again curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know who they were, what they did, and why more people didn’t know about their brilliant Business & IP service. I was amazed by what I found – a truly results driven business advisory service that was dynamic, authentic and successful, helping businesses to start up and scale up in equal measure, delivering a fantastic return on investment. Best of all, a service open to all and almost entirely free.

Alison Cork working at desk

Which brings us to the current moment. Whilst Covid has been an enormous challenge, I can’t think of a better time to be a part of the team at the BIPC. This uniquely valuable service has become even more important in the current climate. Our goal now is to ensure that this service is made available to every community in the land, as we rebuild the economy and create much needed jobs post Covid. I’m looking forward greatly to the challenge.