Most of us are aware that more diversity within the workplace leads to a better performing business. The WEF recently published a report that shows overwhelming evidence for this. Increasing diversity is also vital to ensure that the business remains relevant to its customers and stakeholders in the way that it both delivers and develops its products and services. This is especially important for social enterprises, as we are trying to ensure that we build more inclusive products and services that are designed to support those that are marginalised from the mainstream market.
The Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted how Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people and communities are often designed out of solutions or ignored completely in favour of those that fit with our own images, biases and privileges. We would hope that this is not the case with social enterprises, and the figures from last year’s State of Social Enterprise report are more encouraging, with 13% being BAME led, 35% with BAME directors and 42% BAME social entrepreneurs. However, we certainly cannot sit on our laurels and say we are anyway close to being a truly diverse business sector when it comes to leadership and, in particular in my observations, thought leadership.
I have observed that social enterprise thought leaders are overwhelmingly white and in the main, male. Having been in the social enterprise sector for more than 20 years I think that this trend has become even more embedded without many noticing.
Fundamentally different, by putting social value at the heart, as social enterprises we need to live and breathe our values through our leadership and promotion. Thus, thought leadership is a central plank to our business model and its development. We often play a unique position in policy formulation, advocacy and delivery to those marginalised from mainstream society and the economy on many different levels. However I have observed that social enterprise thought leaders are overwhelmingly white and in the main, male. Having been in the social enterprise sector for more than 20 years I think that this trend has become even more embedded without many noticing.
So, why is this happening? I have been pondering… it may be because we have been trying to over compensate around the business message of social enterprise, thus veering to emulate the business sector? We want to be taken seriously as a business (not a bunch of ‘hippies’ as some would phrase it!) and stereotypical business tends to be dominated by white men talking to other white men.
Without more diverse voices leading the discussions about the direction of social enterprise for the future, we risk narrowing the dialogue and missing the real social issues by ignoring the marginalised voices to whom our goods and services aim to help.
I also think it’s about the assumptions around business growth. Often new-start businesses are much more diverse in their roots and leaders (and the stats show this). However, when it comes to business growth/scaling, the language becomes more complex and finance led, which can alienate and push the original social motivation sideways, i.e. you need the right set of language skills, ‘business speak’ and connections with the likeminded to fit in and get on. Ironically we are asking for our economy to become more people led, but it feels like social enterprise has to fit the old finance led economy mould to grow. I was interested to see for instance, that Divine Chocolate has recently had to change their business model away from social enterprise to grow and gain investment.
Therefore I would argue that we should be promoting, encouraging and supporting far more varied voices in the analysis and leadership of the sector, alongside challenging our recruitment and governance mechanisms. Without more diverse voices leading the discussions about the direction of social enterprise for the future, we risk narrowing the dialogue and missing the real social issues by ignoring the marginalised voices to whom our goods and services aim to help.