The Cambridge Network celebrates its 21st birthday this year, proving its success as one of the world’s most effective and best-established business networking organisations.
The concept of formalised business networking was a new one when the Network was set up in 1997. Fast forward 21 years and networking is commonplace – Cambridge alone has more than 60 diverse organisations dedicated to the practice – but their forerunner, the Cambridge Network, remains.
And it continues to flourish, having evolved over time to meet the changing needs of its members. In fact it grew by 15% just last year.
The Network was founded by an influential group comprising the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, now Lord Broers, with, among others, businessmen and entrepreneurs Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely. Both continue to sit on the Board of Directors of the not-for-profit limited company which supports the Network.
It began as a simple idea, to emulate what was arguably the first formal network, San Diego Connect, by bringing together business and academia. The University of Cambridge had already spawned some innovative companies and the university had a busy technology transfer team, but the Network’s founders knew there was scope to do more.
David Cleevely comments:
When Hermann Hauser, Alec Broers and I first discussed the idea of a networking organisation for Cambridge none of us had any idea how successful or long lived it would turn out to be.
Before Cambridge Network, rivalry and tribalism were the order of the day. Now Cambridge leads the UK in showing how a city can use collaboration and networking to deliver sustained growth and a hugely successful economy, due in no small part to the connectivity and support which Cambridge Network has provided for 21 years now.
Cross-fertilisation and serendipity
The Network’s CEO, Claire Ruskin, explains;
Ideas were being shared in pubs and cafes in the city, but there was no structure to grow that experience, where people could learn from each other intentionally and perhaps come up with new businesses. So the Network was established to connect people both physically, through regular face to face meetings, and virtually, through a comprehensive online member directory and news system.
And what we’ve found as the Network has matured is that meetings result in hugely valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas and best practice. Serendipitous conversations prompt unexpected partnerships and deliberately unpredictable outcomes, she says.
Sometimes these conversations lead to initiatives for the Network itself. We are always keen to hear from members who have new ideas for activities we can develop, like our more recent School for Scale-Ups, which is growing fast.
In the late 1990s the idea of a hub in the form of a website – especially one that allowed members to interact and add their own material – was innovative, but the Cambridge business community was ready to embrace it. The first Network site was ground-breaking, a flagship model for networking organisations across Europe, followed by those in Munich and in Leuven, Belgium.
The site has gone through several iterations, with its core still the member directory; listings of events run by the Network and members, and a news service which allows members to post press releases and company information.
Today the site includes full details of the immense variety of courses and peer learning groups run by the Network’s training division, the Learning Collaboration, and also boasts what is known as the best jobs board in the region – the Recruitment Gateway.
Both these services came about in response to the needs of Network members. Other activities have evolved and changed but the Network’s purpose has not changed: to sustain and grow the vibrant, multi-sector cluster of Cambridge and to bring its diverse, highly-skilled members together to meet and share ideas, and to collaborate for greater success. Cambridge Network continues beyond its 21st birthday to help Cambridge to be the best small city in the world to live and to work.
As part of the birthday celebrations, the Network has a gala dinner in July for top level members and is planning a party open to all members later in the year.