OPINION - I’ve been the Black leader in the boardroom for years. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020 15:30 GMT

People stand in front of a fresco in memory of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black Frenchman who died in a 2016 police operation, and George Floyd, whose death in police custody has sparked unrest in the United States, with the slogan "against racism and police violence" painted on a wall in Stains, France, June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Racism is part of a systemic failure with consequences for you and your business.

Victor Adebowale is Chair of Social Enterprise UK and former Chief Executive of Turning Point, a health and social care social enterprise providing services for people with complex needs.

The death of George Floyd is a seminal episode not only in the history of the United States but across the world. It sadly is not the first time that we have seen this type of incident. Breonna Taylor, Dominique Clayton, Trayvon Martin – the list goes on. What has made this incident unique is that due to technology, we have been able to see vividly through smartphones the slow horizontal lynching of a black man while representatives of the state, supposedly there to protect his rights, looked on.

Tragedies like this can lead to systemic change across the whole of society and while it is right that we look at policing, we must not ignore business. As we saw from the toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol, business has underpinned the very racism which led to the death of George Floyd.

The question that I am grappling with, like so many other black people around the world, is whether this moment will change anything?

As the Chair of Social Enterprise UK, the former CEO of Turning Point and co-founder of two other ventures, Visionable and Collaborate CIC, I have plenty of experience being the “black leader” around the table talking about racism. What have I learnt?

Number one, we need more black business leaders. It is no surprise to me that we have not seen systemic change when there are far too few people that have experienced structural racism in their everyday lives around the table. Social enterprises are more likely to be led by women and BAME CEOs than other forms of business. Social enterprise isn’t perfect and I am not entirely clear why social enterprises are more presentative. My hypothesis would be because social enterprises are more concentrated in the poorest communities where BAME people live and that social enterprises tap into the desire for change that reflects the aspirations of these communities.

We need to recognise that if we want a different future we need to encourage different forms of leadership. Just look at Silicon Valley, where many of the companies that own the platforms which host debates about Black Lives Matter are located. How many of these tech giants are led by people that look like me? Not many. Giving a hand to the types of businesses led by black people, including social enterprises, would be a far better thing for business to do than merely changing their Twitter picture.

Leaders of all businesses, social enterprises included, also need to take a long hard look at themselves. My two starting points for every leader are asking what you need to learn about yourself and what do I need to ask my business as a result. What has been your reaction to the death of George Floyd? Why did you not see this racial inequality before? Has it made you feel uncomfortable? Once you understand yourself, then you are in a position to shape your business.

The job of leaders is then to articulate why things need to change. This requires a variety of different levers. A lot of this is moral leadership. We know racism is wrong but leaders need to keep saying it and stand up to racism in their organisations not just in the wake of tragedy but every day. But moral leadership should not mean that we avoid making the business case. I believe passionately that not only is diversity morally right, but it is good for business. I have always led diverse teams, and as a consequence, we have achieved great results. We need to make the business case for change too.

It is fine to be shocked by the death of George Floyd. But now is not the time to just ‘discover racism’ for yourself and your business.

Now is the time to recognise why you haven’t realised racism is normative and part of a systemic failure with consequences for you, your business and society. Only when leaders of all our institutions, including businesses, are prepared to confront the system that got us where we are today, will we create a truly inclusive economy which doesn’t perpetuate the racism which killed George Floyd. 

 

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