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(Editor): Hello and welcome. Today’s guest is someone I’ve been itching to talk to for some time. Suzanne Dibble is a former corporate lawyer who’s worked alongside the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Simon Woodroffe, the founder of the YO! Sushi restaurant chain and one of the original Dragons on BBC’s Dragons’ Den. Well after winning many awards for her legal work, a few years ago, Suzanne decided to step away from the corporate world to start her own venture, The Small Business Legal Academy. Fast forward to today and she’s recently published a bestselling dummies guide book on the subject of GDPR. And if you’ve never heard of GDPR, don’t worry, you soon will. Suzanne, welcome.
Suzanne Dibble: Thank you. It is an absolute pleasure to be talking to you today.
(Editor): You’ve done so much already. It’s really hard to know where to start, but perhaps you could tell me a little bit more about where you’re from and how you ended up as a corporate lawyer.
Suzanne Dibble: Well, I can give you the abridged version or the very long version. I think for the sake of the listeners, we’ll stick to the abridged version. And now some of you, if you listen to me talk a little bit longer you’d notice my flat A’s. So even though I’ve lived down South now for about 25 years, you can still detect the Northern accent. So I grew up in the Northwest in a county called Cheshire, and I went to a private school, actually. And it was the type of school where if you were good at science, you were going to be a doctor. And if you weren’t good at science, you were going to be a lawyer. That’s about as extensive as the career advice was back then. And as you can tell from the way that my career went, I wasn’t very good at science.
So it was really, you were pointed in those directions. I did a placement, I seem to remember, at the local and I mean, very local, high street law firm. And the managing partner drove a very fancy Jaguar and I thought, “That’ll do for me. I’ll go into law.” I’d love to give you some tale about, I went down to the criminal law courts and saw a travesty, a miscarriage of justice that I wanted to remedy in some way. But actually, it was a little bit more superficial than that. But saying that, it’s been a brilliant career for me. It’s allowed me to do pretty much everything that I’ve wanted to do. It’s exercised my grey cells certainly, it’s enabled me to meet some incredible people.
Like you mentioned, I’ve worked alongside Richard Branson and Simon Woodroffe, and other fascinating entrepreneurs. I’ve been doing the kind of deals that you would read about on the front of the FT. I’ve worked to ITV and led the biggest deal that they ever did when we were transmuting over from the analogue signal to the digital signal. So I’ve had a fantastic career in law. And then I was very blessed that I was able to start my own practise, which has allowed me to work totally flexibly around my children.
So I consider myself very lucky actually to have not been good at science, say that I’ve gone down the legal route rather than the medical route. Although saying that, I am suggesting to my daughter that she might consider medicine, because obviously, I’ve had lots of experience of doctors with my husband and my mum and other family members who’ve needed the support of these brilliant people.
(Editor): And I’d obviously have to say that doctors are, well, I don’t know, maybe I’m doing lots of lawyers a discredit here, but certainly, I think doctors are able to give obviously a lot up on your own, that’s a huge achievement. And as you mentioned, you have worked with some of the biggest names in the corporate world, like Richard Branson. What was that like?
Suzanne Dibble: Well at the time, to be honest, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Having now been in a circle of entrepreneurs for the last 10 years since I’ve set up my own business, I’ve realized that most of these entrepreneurs would literally give their right arm to go for dinner with Richard Branson, and not just people in this country, but all around the world. And I did that many times.
I went to his house in Holland Park. I went for dinner with just him and three other people to a very cosy little restaurant in Chelsea. We went clubbing together on the King’s Road. And at the time, I really didn’t think that much of it. He was a great guy, we had a lot of fun but I wasn’t thinking, goodness me, I’m here with a living legend in the entrepreneurial world.
And he was fantastic. I wrote a blog post actually about the things that I learned from him. And what he was excellent at doing was finding really good people and then letting them get on with it. So he wasn’t one to micromanage, that’s for sure. And I think that actually is a real skill.
But also just such a people person. When we went for dinner, we went to the pub first. I can’t remember the name, but lovely little pub on the corner of the King’s Road in Chelsea.
And everyone was staring and pointing and saying, “There’s Richard.” And rather than getting annoyed by it, he’d give them a little wave. I thought, “Well, that’s jolly nice of him.”
And then we went to the restaurant and I kid you not, by the end of the meal, the whole of the restaurant had pulled up a chair around our table.
It was only a cosy little place. It’s like maybe 30 people in there, and he was regaling the 30 or so guests with stories about his life, about Virgin and they were loving it. And he was so giving in that way. He didn’t seem in any way annoyed that these people were interrupting a private dinner. And he was like that all the time. He’d come into the office and he would… Virgin were very good to their staff and I believe still are.
There was a games room downstairs with a tennis table and some games consoles and free food and free fruit and et cetera. And he would regularly pop in and he just made everyone so at ease and a really huge people person. And of course, there’s his legendary vision. I think that was evident in the way that the company was set up.
We had a specific team that purely looked at ideas that people sent him. And every single one was looked at. And obviously, the ones that had viability were taken forwards. But he had about 25 group companies at that time. And he still had this venture capital arm that was actively looking for new ways to make the customer experience better, which is really what the Virgin Group was all about.
So yes, fantastic time working at Virgin and getting to know Richard and learned a lot from him.
(Editor): Would you say he’s influenced you in any way, Suzanne?
Suzanne Dibble: Even before I met him actually, I’d read all of his books. And if you’d have asked me who I wanted to be when I was 15, I would have said I want to be the female Richard Branson. So, I’ve obviously failed on that and unless in the next 20 years, I’m going to build and grow 25 companies to the level he has. I think I’ve failed on that. But he certainly ignited in me my entrepreneurial spark.
And I think that, that was what made it a lot easier to walk away from quite a structured corporate life to set up my own business. And I’ve spoken to lots of lawyers since who I know would, particularly women actually, who at the point that they had children wanted to still have some career, but they didn’t want to have the demands that the corporate job placed on them. They just weren’t brave or they didn’t feel that they were brave enough to walk away from that and set up their own venture. So I think that he certainly gave me that, and working there as well or even, there was already always an entrepreneurial yearning there, but it gave me the confidence almost to see that through.
(Editor): That’s great. You must’ve been worried as well about stepping away from that well-paid corporate job to set up your own venture?
Note from the editor:
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