It was a little over a year ago that Christine Esson set off a fair-sized firestorm on LinkedIn after spotting news of what was then a new initiative to help 12 Scottish companies scale up into major operations with a combined turnover of more than £1 billion.

With an extensive background in building networks for Scottish exporters, along with a newer focus on supporting female entrepreneurs since her return to Scotland, the co-founder of the Scottish Business Network quickly spotted that the list of 14 leaders providing coaching on the Scale Up Scotland 2.0 programme included just one woman. She decided to call it out as yet further evidence of the gender bias taking place “time and time again”.

“I wish I could say I really thought about it,” she recalls, “but there’s something in your gut where you just go ‘Really? Is nobody else seeing what I am seeing?’

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“First and foremost, I want to say [Scale Up] is a great opportunity. I am in no way dissing that opportunity, but what led me to speak out was the fact that while I was reading this, I could literally come up with a minimum of 20 names in my head of women who could tell their story and be supportive, be great mentors and give great insight.

“Not just about exporting, but raising finance or pivoting a business, but where were they on that list, and why had nobody else commented on that?”

She pressed the send button in the evening and didn’t think much more about it, but by the next morning her phone was “red-hot”. Ms Esson says her main aim was to start a conversation where others could give a shout out to successful female entrepreneurs – and that was the case – but it was additionally clear that she had hit a nerve.

“What I also got was other women feeling the same, and men as well,” she said. “This wasn’t just a black and white thing. There was very clear support from men.”

There was one notable absence, and that was the lack of any comment from the organisers of Scale Up Scotland 2.0 – the Scottish National Investment Bank and The Hunter Foundation.

“I have to say the individuals who were part of this and who were named [as mentors] have never contacted me, and the people who started the project have never contacted me,” she said.

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Ms Esson grew up in Bearsden and gained a business degree from Glasgow Caledonian University before joining the McCowans toffee business in Stenhousemuir, at that time owned by Nestle, as a financial controller in 1987.

In 1991 she joined the newly-established Scottish Enterprise where she initially worked primarily in finance. She spent a spell as senior operations director at Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley and then moved into senior roles focused on business development.

She took a year-long career break to travel the world as the global banking crisis was starting to unfold in August 2007, and upon her return joined Enterprise Ireland as the development agency’s UK manager based in London. It was during this period that she started to form the idea of setting up what would become the Scottish Business Network (SBN).

“Down in London, unless you were a lawyer, or a golfer, or played rugby, there really wasn’t a great deal that sort of connected you to what was happening in the Scottish business community with regards to entrepreneurs, and that gave me the idea to do something to really connect Scottish entrepreneurs seeking to go global with the Scottish diaspora,” Ms Esson said.

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After a “chance meeting” in Café Nero in London’s Tottenham Court Road, she and co-founder Russell Dalgleish set up SBN in 2016. Funded by approximately 150 members, SBN focuses on creating networks to assist Scottish-based businesses keen to export their goods and services.

She stepped down as chief executive of SBN in 2023 but remains among its global ambassadors. Since returning to Scotland she has shifted her focus towards supporting women in business by becoming an ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) and joining Smart Works Scotland as a trustee and volunteer careers coach.

Founded in England in 2013, Smart Works is a charity providing free high-quality interview clothing and coaching to unemployed women looking to get back into work. It expanded into Edinburgh in 2014 and opened in Glasgow’s Merchant City in 2022.

“Many of these women have been rejected from 20-plus jobs, have been unemployed for over a year and in some cases over five years, so that’s who we work with,” Ms Esson said. “We have the satisfaction that 69% of the women who come through our doors secure employment.”



Where do you find yourself most at ease?

Usually on a long walk in the fresh air and even better if I am walking with pals or my husband and just catching up. I don’t mind the weather just as long as I am wearing the right gear. 

If you weren’t in your current role, what job would you most fancy?

Could I have Lauren Laverne’s job as interviewer on Desert Island Discs please? The opportunity to research into someone’s life and then sit down and interview them while accompanied by their favourite tunes, would for me be my dream job. I am always interested in people and their stories and motivations.

What phrase or quotation has inspired you the most?  

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou.

What is the best book you have ever read? Why is it the best?

I am an avid reader and at the end of each year I do pick out that year’s highlights. In 2023 my top recommendation will be Still Life by Sarah Winman. It paints a beautiful picture of life post-war in Florence and how one random act of kindness can change your future – for the better.

For business there is one book I continually go back to and refer to: “Build your Dream Network – forging powerful relationships in a hyper connected work” by J Kelly Hoey.

What has been your most challenging moment in life or business?

Leaving the security of full-time employment with Enterprise Ireland and branching out to start up our now global Scottish Business Network with Russell Dalgleish. We had had a vague idea that this would work but we never imagined the global network and supportive community that we have established.

What do you now know that you wish you had known when starting out in your career?

Trust your gut feelings – it is rarely wrong.