Apprentice contestants: Breaking down barriers

Go-getters like former Apprentice contestants Saira Khan and Tim Campbell are trying to raise aspirations within the ethnically diverse communities they came from.

Growth Business talks to them about why so much of the UK’s entrepreneurial potential remains untapped.

Black and minority ethnic (BME) owned businesses contributed £20 billion to the UK economy last year. Tim Campbell, winner of the BBC’s The Apprentice and founder of social enterprise charity The Bright Ideas Trust, says that figure could be a great deal higher if only minority groups got more encouragement to set up their own businesses.

‘There is an economic imperative to encourage ethnic minorities into enterprise as the UK does business across the world. A more diverse workforce will help us to engage internationally,’ he says.

Having come from a socially disadvantaged background himself, the question of equality in business is close to Campbell’s heart. And he believes that one of the most effective ways to raise aspirations is for corporates to shout louder about their most successful BME employees.

‘Ethnic minorities are highly involved in entrepreneurial activities. I know a lot of people doing fantastically well.

‘The problem is that as you go higher up through organisations you see less and less, and that tends to be the case for women too. What we need is a more diverse workforce at every level.’

Campbell’s point is a pertinent one. A report by Business in The Community, which promotes corporate responsibility, found that only 6.8 per cent of managerial positions were occupied by people from BME backgrounds, although they represent 10.3 per cent of the population. A meagre 5.6 per cent of senior management jobs were held by people from an ethnic minority.

James Caan, of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, was recently appointed co-chair of the government’s ethnic minority business task force and agrees that role models are key as a way of raising aspirations. ‘I think they are really important as they give people something to aspire and look forward to,’ he says.

In his position as co-chair of the task force, Caan is calling for an extra 100,000 BME businesses to be created. ‘There are a great number of talented individuals who never move from thinker to doer,’ he adds.

But Caan is optimistic about the progress that has been made: ‘There are more ethnic minorities involved in business than when I first started as an entrepreneur. This sector adds billions to the economy, and has grown significantly.

‘Ethnic minorities by nature seem to be more entrepreneurial and have genuine ambition to be their own boss. Creating something from nothing was the biggest driver for me certainly, along with that feeling of taking your future into your own hands.’

Corporate responsibility

Saira Khan, runner-up in The Apprentice and presenter of BBC children’s programme Beat the Boss, believes that while many entrepreneurs from BME backgrounds are doing well, there is still a major disadvantage due to a lack of representation at the corporate level.

‘In my opinion, the Asian work ethic has changed the face of British retail – in terms of late opening times, for example. There’s no doubt about the hunger and drive. The problem is many Asian and ethnic minority businesses seem to be successful up to a certain point.

‘There tends to be a knowledge gap when it comes to branding and marketing to a more mainstream audience, and I think that comes from not having experiences of corporate practices.’

Kavita Oberoi, founder of advisory firm Oberoi Consulting and star of Channel 4 series The Secret Millionaire, set up her own business after being employed at a large pharmaceutical company.

‘Working for a corporate is a great learning experience, and helps you to move your own business forward. My husband’s expectation was to run the lighting business that his father ran and he feels he’s missed out on a lot, having not worked for a larger company,’ she says.

‘I still think we have a problem with integration in this country’

However, Oberoi believes that there are encouraging changes in the corporate world. ‘There has been a definite shift to more ethnically diverse representation in the last ten years and that has been down to the sheer hard work of a lot of individuals. So I’m positive about the future.’

There is still a long way to go for many companies. Khan believes that corporations have a responsibility to be more creative when it comes to recruitment. ‘I still think we have a major problem with integration in this country, and the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in business is a reflection of that,’ she says.

‘When I speak to Asian kids, they don’t seem to be using Britain’s opportunities to go beyond what their parents did. The aspirations are there, but there’s a lack of confidence.’

Khan has experienced first-hand the wealth of ideas out there. ‘Since I’ve been doing Beat the Boss, lots of kids have come up to me and said they’ve got some great business ideas.

‘If a young Muslim girl sees the show and then says, “Look Saira’s doing it, I can do it too”, then that’s a really positive thing,’ she adds.

For Oberoi, the most powerful weapon in achieving equality is education. ‘Where there are groups of people pushing through, the colour aspect doesn’t matter. There are a lot of Indians doing well and that’s because there is often a focus on education,’ she says.

Family expectations play a large role in levels of aspiration, especially where gender differences are concerned, says Oberoi. ‘My experience was that girls weren’t supposed to go to work and I had to push against that, but I was lucky because I got a lot of backing from my mother.’

Class war

Jay Patel, director of investment firm Spark Ventures, recently helped to launch the Shadow an Entrepreneur programme with charity business network The Indus Entrepreneurs. The scheme aims to give young people a taste of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.

Patel says a lack of representation in business goes beyond the question of ethnicity. ‘I think when it comes to ethnic minorities, it’s too easy to just group them all together. At the heart of this there’s a class issue.

‘With my firm Spark, we do work with a range of different entrepreneurs and the reality is that most are from [privileged] backgrounds. As a result, they are able to accelerate quickly once they set up a business because of the advantages they have started with.’

Patel says that schemes like this can be a useful way of reaching out to communities. ‘It is a way of giving young people who might not have any role models a sense of what it’s like to hold your destiny in your own hands,’ he says.

Nineteen-year-old Sonia Abboussad Sugar recently took part in the Shadow an Entrepreneur programme and says she has benefited from the experience.

‘There aren’t enough culturally diverse role models, but I think schemes like this one help. To see someone being successful in practice makes the idea of going into business much more tangible,’ she says.

Abboussad Sugar says that some young people can be intimidated by the appearance of business people. ‘I think some might see a successful man in business suit and think “I wouldn’t be able to do that”. I recently went into London and saw the Lloyds and AIG buildings and lots of men and women in suits. This was something I was aware existed, but I had never seen before,’ she adds.

Greater expectations

Sarah Lu, who appeared on Dragons’ Den and got £350,000 in funding from Deborah Meaden for her toy product You Doo Doll, agrees.

‘I don’t feel my ethnic background has been a barrier at all. I came from a poor family and my parents were refugees from Vietnam. However, I do think a lot of people, for whatever reason, automatically think they can’t do certain things because of their backgrounds.’

Lu says that more role models are needed for young people in general. ‘When I went on Dragons’ Den I didn’t wear a suit and you could see my tattoos. Afterwards, I got some calls from kids who wouldn’t normally have contacted me, asking for help with their business ideas.

‘I think a good way of encouraging a wider range of people into business would be to get individuals who don’t look like the stereotype of a businessman speaking to kids in schools,’ she says.

But for Abboussad Sugar, chutzpah isn’t a quality she’s lacking. ‘Schemes like the Shadow an Entrepreneur Programme could definitely help improve the self-confidence of a lot of young people, but I always knew I was going to set up a business. Now I just have more determination to take it even further.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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