ARE Associate and Communications Advisor, Alex Louis recently supported Black women and other business leaders under-represented as entrepreneurs on our Inclusive Entrepreneurs and Enterprise Support Programmes with Islington Council. In this blog, she takes a look back at her own route to becoming a business leader.
In 1993 I started my own business. To say I was clueless about what that meant, is a significant understatement. I didn’t even have an in-depth knowledge of my business public relations, at the time. I was on a very steep learning curve. I’d trained as a radio journalist and while I understood the media, I knew I had a lot to learn about my own business and the business world.
The 1990s began with the UK in recession: high interest rates and unemployment were features of the economic climate. In my bit of London, the local Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) worked with the council to run business support for small businesses. Between them they were offering £40 per week – no business rates and cheap rent for an under-used business premises 20 minutes from my house, and a business mentor. It seemed silly not to apply.
My assigned mentor was the relentlessly robust Bill Ball. He didn’t know much about PR either, but he knew about business, and he was very helpful.
0.02% of total venture capital invested over the last 10 years went to Black female entrepreneursDiversity Beyond Gender, Quantitative Research Report, November 2020
There was a lot, however, that Bill, with all of his experience, could never understand. Bill was an LSE graduate, an economist and business owner. He’d opened an artists’ co-operative and shop in south London which grew into three successful businesses including a nightclub and a clothes design and retail firm.
He knew what he was talking about.
What Bill didn’t know was what was driving the intimidation I felt talking to the bank manager about what, if any, financing my business might need. Yes, it was influenced by the usual nerves of making a good impression and talking about the figures clearly – but there was something else. Several years earlier as a school leaver I’d gone straight into employment and opened a bank account, and sometime in the early eighties my bank account went into overdraft.
I was assured by my colleagues in the office I worked in that this wasn’t a problem, it was after all only about £40. But the bank manager informed me that “people like me” needed to be careful that they didn’t live beyond their means and closed my account. Bill didn’t know and I couldn’t discuss why, as a Black woman, I had no intention of ever approaching a bank for money for my business.
Thirty years after starting my business, I was thrilled to be asked to work with ARE on two programmes aimed at supporting entrepreneurs and business owners from minoritised communities, women and people with disabilities. Thrilled, because I know what a difference it makes to be able to talk to people with similar lived experiences, particularly when starting out.
So, I can understand when one of the entrepreneurs on the Islington programme told me she wanted to reach a very specific group of potential customers because, as I would know, “they have very high aspirations, and are focused on success at work and at home”. I knew what and who she meant, and we moved quickly to discussing the implications of that approach.
In line with this, women were less likely than men to report having returned to pre-coronavirus activity, with 14% of women reporting business was at normal levels compared with 21% of men.
I don’t know what Bill’s family circumstances were at the time we worked together on developing my business. I didn’t have children at the time, and I’m fairly certain the subject would never have arisen. I do know that when I talk to young female entrepreneurs who don’t have children, we will talk about the implications for their business if that situation changes.
We’ll talk about their routine, the people around them who support them, when might be the best time for them to do the things we’ve talked about. We’ll even talk about what happens when, not if, ‘life’ gets in the way. How will they stay motivated when the kids are sick? When the parents or best friend are away on holiday and can’t do the school run for a week, making it impossible to promote the business at a local two-day, ‘can’t miss’, event?
These are the things that also affect their business, and its chances of success, as much as financing, stock control or marketing.
The Islington Council programmes targeted both entrepreneurs and established owners, and I’ve found both groups face similar issues. One of the women had been running a family business for over ten years – hit badly by the impact of Covid 19, she was struggling to make use of opportunities to trade online and develop a side of the business that was suited to buying online.
We made some simple changes to the website together helping her to think about the services she really wanted to offer and concentrate on. During all of our sessions she was at the counter of the shop and managed our conversations whilst serving customers. I was amazed at how she had prioritised our time and stayed focused on our conversations. This same ability was there in abundance with one of the entrepreneurs – a mother of three young children under three who also works.
Both women throughout our conversations showed a level of determination to succeed, adapt and take their businesses to the next level. They knew what they had to learn and shared apprehensions about marketing and social media. Together, we talked about those fears and how with some planning and thought, they could not only manage their marketing, but they might even enjoy the creative side.
It’s vital not to underestimate the value of representation. With it comes easier conversations, more time to listen and the ability to provide more empathetic and feasible advice. If I mention the need to keep an eye on their grammar in their online content to another woman of colour, they know it’s not a veiled comment about their standards of literacy. How do I know? That’s what I’ve been told. And, because almost 40 years after the “people like me” comment, I remember how it felt to be accused of being somehow unworthy, or even too stupid to have a bank account. I want their content to be as brilliant as they are, and they know I do.
As a young Black woman, the idea of starting a business is very intimidating and makes you question whether you should bother embarking on it. Having this type of opportunity for women from Black, Asian and Minority ethnic backgrounds is important and also having business consultants from similar backgrounds is so crucial as they are relatable to me and the difficulties I face and are successful role models to drive me.”Islington Inclusive Entrepreneur Programme participant
I applaud Islington Council’s support for Black, Asian and Minority ethnic-led businesses, and those run by women and people with disabilities. Especially for their willingness to hear first-hand from the individuals instead of relying solely on the data. I hope they will also share their experiences with other councils who doubt the value of representation.
It’s vital not to underestimate the value of representation. With it comes easier conversations, more time to listen and the ability to provide more empathetic and feasible advice. It means a focus on the individual wins or barriers that exist for minoritised communities, women and those with disabilities – people whose experiences of the world of business, is different, whether we like it or not.
To find out more about Alex’s work supporting women, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic entrepreneurs, contact Alex@actionforraceequality.org.uk
Blog by Alex Louis, Managing Director of ThinkFirst Comms and ARE Communications advisor.