Nicky Goulder

Pure passion fuelled Nicky Goulder's mission to transform people's lives though the arts, but when it came down to the nitty gritty of launching her charity Create, she went back to the model business strategy she had written as a Lancaster undergraduate, 13 years before, for help.

The irony of this is not lost on this unstoppable chief executive, who left school convinced that university and a degree had no part in her life plan.

Nicky explains: "From the beginning, it was incredibly important to set up a really professional business, with rigorous financial management, assessment and policies. If you are setting out to change people's lives for the better, using other people's money to fund work, you have to be able to show that you are really doing it."

Create has spent the past 10 years using art, music, photography, dance and storytelling to transform the lives of some of the country's most disadvantaged people - prisoners, refugees, sick and dying children, people who are disabled or living in poverty. More than 600 workshops take place a year, involving professional artists and performers from a team of 77, and have reached more than 25,000 children and adults already.

The success of Create and the galvanising power of Nicky have won her the Clarins Most Dynamisante Woman of the Year 2013 award, with a £30,000 prize, which she is planning to plough into developing lasting projects with disabled children all over the country.

Cynics doubting the value of the arts to change lives only need to spend some time listening to her stories. She cites the teenager on the edge of expulsion from school, who took part in a Create photography workshop and is now at university studying the subject. Then there's the despairing adult with a serious drink problem, whose life was transformed by attending Create music workshops and eventually undertook counsellor training.

The 18-year-old Nicky would never have visualised this kind of future. The Surrey teenager disliked classical music, fancied nursing but realised it was not for her while volunteering in an orthopaedic hospital, and had discounted university. So she did a secretarial course - invaluable in teaching her organisational and business skills - and got herself a job as PA to a senior manager at the accountancy firm KPMG.

Two things happened to send her to Lancaster. The first was unwillingly taking a music-mad weekend visitor to a classic concert and leaving it 'floating four feet above the ground' with an evangelical desire to share what she had just discovered. The second was meeting a professor in the buffet car of a train to Exeter. By the time she reached her destination her decision was made - to go to university and go into arts marketing.

Only three universities, including Lancaster, were offering marketing degrees at the time. She approached a KPMG partner to ask whether the company would sponsor her through university and to her astonishment the answer was 'yes'. This gave her money for working in the holidays in the national marketing department, a sponsorship fee and real work experience, though not in the arts arena.

It required some adaptation to leave her London job and flat for student halls. She also found the academic challenge frightening at first, as one of 60 selected from 800 applicants.

She had opted for marketing and independent studies, which enabled her to incorporate aesthetics, visual arts and music and a whole unit on arts sponsorship. She was supported by Professor Denis McCaldin (a renowned Haydn scholar) who was interested in wider musical issues, and gave her invaluable support for her thesis on arts sponsorship.

"I had lots of ethical issues about marketing," she recalls. "I felt that it was often about making people buy things that they neither wanted nor needed. A lot of what I learned was theoretical. But then years later I used a model I had devised at university to set up Create."

More vital, she feels, to her career pathway was joining Nightline in her first week. After the second term she was asked to run the service. She was in a dilemma about accepting, as she had set out to obtain a First and this would require major commitment. In the end her conscience pushed her to agree - and she still ended up with a top degree.

'Nightline was incredibly important to my career," she says. "There was a lot of responsibility and I learned a great deal about training and marketing. It was also very good socially as we would all meet at lunchtime. Most of the friends I have kept from university days were also in Nightline."

Her every spare moment was spent going to as many concerts, plays and exhibitions in Lancaster and Manchester as possible to learn about the sector and demonstrate her commitment to potential arts employers.

After graduating, she went travelling for nine months and on her return was offered a job as development manager (a new post) for Manchester Camerata orchestra - run by a contact of Denis McCaldin's who she had interviewed for her thesis.

From there, she went on to a job with the City of London Sinfonia, then to chief executive of the Orchestra of St John's, where she extended the range of community outreach (alongside its concert schedule) to include work with homeless people and prisoners, further convincing her of the power of the arts to change lives.

She says: 'I had a strong vision of a charity working across all the arts with different groups of vulnerable people.' Create started life at her dining room table and has flourished since, with Nicky a very hand-on, collaborative and self-reliant figure at the helm.

Nicky still finds time and has the multi-skilling ability to volunteer weekly for the Samaritans, be a trustee for the Queen's Nursing Institute and to be a youth leader at Southwark Cathedral - just as Lancaster University taught her.