'Hidden Figures’: the film formed part of an events programme to celebrate diversity © Rex
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

The film Hidden Figures tells the story of three black female mathematicians who worked at Nasa, the US space agency, in the 1960s during the space race. They endured sexism, segregation and career obstacles that directly related to the fact they were black.

But the experience of staff at FDM, an IT support specialist, is very different. The company showed the film as part of a programme of regular events celebrating diversity and cultural differences. These events include a day when employees are encouraged to wear their national dress. Others see employees bring in their national dishes to share with colleagues.

Sheila Flavell, FDM’s chief operating officer, says a culture of inclusivity is ingrained in the organisation. “The more ethnic and racial diversity you have, it brings about new ways of thinking and it brings about new ideas,” she says.

A number of studies suggest that diversity improves the bottom line. A 2015 study by McKinsey, for example, found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their industry’s national average.

FDM’s numbers on ethnicity are impressive. An average of 48 per cent of its annual intake of new recruits over the past three years have been from a black, Asian, and minority ethnic background.

The numbers are even better — 60 per cent — for those on its returners’ programme, which started 18 months ago for women and men returning to work after a career break.

The company’s commitment to an inclusive working culture has existed from the beginning. When Ms Flavell’s husband, Rod, started the company 28 years ago, he immediately ensured a 50/50 gender split by employing his wife as the first staff member. The management team has maintained this ratio ever since and FDM has set up a diversity department. This commitment to inclusion has also been written into the staff handbook, backed up with staff training on unconscious bias, inclusion and diversity.

Sparta Global may be smaller, with 279 employees, but it is also making diversity a priority. Last year, 23 per cent of staff at the company, which supplies technology consultants, were from a BAME background. This year, it is more than half.

When the company started in 2014 it was more focused on launching a successful service, says Lexie Papaspyrou, diversity and inclusion lead. Now it recognises how important a diverse workforce is to that success.

This recognition starts at recruitment, which is based on an applicant’s competency rather than their degree. This means many arrive having studied business rather than computer science or other Stem subjects.

The company also works with organisations such as Code First: Girls, a social enterprise, and Codebar, a non-profit initiative, to reach potential employees in the community. The organisations’ free programming workshops and other events help Sparta find those who want to work in tech but may not have the support or confidence to apply. “It’s how we get our best consultants,” says Ms Papaspyrou. It is also key, she says, to look at people during the recruitment process as human beings rather than just the sum of their qualifications. Achieving a diverse workforce, Ms Papaspyrou adds, has become easier over time. As more consultants arrive from different backgrounds, more offer to hold workshops or recruitment schemes for others like them.

Ishbel Matheson, vice-president of corporate communications for World Remit, which specialises in money transfers for migrants, agrees that “creating a diverse workforce is a virtuous circle”. Employees from minority backgrounds recommend others, she says.

The story behind the company, started by a Somali migrant, Ismail Ahmed, resonates with potential employees from BAME backgrounds, Ms Matheson says. But the company does not take this for granted. It has run workshops with Codebar and its London office has hosted the Muslamic Makers event, a monthly meet up bringing Muslim and non-Muslim techmakers together to share creative ideas.

One of the best ways to hire diverse staff is through apprenticeships, says Kiri O’Brien, co-founder and director, of Druthers Search, a tech recruitment company. It has partnered with Future LDN, which provides apprenticeship programmes in digital skills for young Londoners to identify potential recruits.

“We encourage clients to be more open-minded about the things they look for,” says Ms O’Brien, who highlights that employers will often insist on specific degrees from a Russell Group university when they would be better off looking at people who have attended more ethnically diverse universities — or perhaps no university at all.

Venture capital: disparate voices raise the volume

© Eight Roads

As an ethnic minority in the venture capital sector, Lillian Li (pictured) always wondered whether her background would hinder her career ambitions.

Ms Li, who was born in mainland China and came to the UK when she was a child, was turned down for a number of jobs in private equity before joining the VC world and was never quite sure if the rejections were down to not fitting the mould.

“It was never explicit whether ethnicity was going to be a handicap,” the 30 year-old says. “But I never saw it as an asset because the [industry’s] mindset has been of having a culture where people come from similar backgrounds.”

Being an immigrant and a woman of colour was not going to be a clear cultural fit, she adds, “it meant companies were taking a big bet.”

Ms Li, who now works at Eight Roads Ventures, is part of a small but increasingly more vocal diverse pool of people in an industry that has traditionally had a bias for white male executives.

In the US alone the figures show that close to 60 per cent of employees in the venture capital sector are white and male. The analysis, by Richard Kerby, a black partner at Equal Ventures, was based on the public information available on close to 200 companies.

In Europe, there is no comprehensive study of its kind but industry insiders believe the continent is even less diverse.

Still, some point to the rise of prominent leaders of ethnically diverse backgrounds, like Sonali De Rycker, a female executive of Indian origin at Accel.

There are also new initiatives designed at making venture capital firms more diverse, including Diversity VC, a London-based lobbying group, and Your Story (YSYS), a start-up community, also based in the UK, aimed at making the workplace more mixed.

Francesca Warner, co-founder of Diversity VC, says she set up the initiative partly because of the lack of industry data on diversity and how a broader workforce helps the sector.

“A diverse workforce is important on different levels,” she says. “We want the sector to represent the society that it invests into. We think that way the industry will be a better industry.

Ms Warner points out that if VCs are making decisions about which companies are going to thrive in the world, then representatives that can understand markets in a certain way are important.

Others agree. Tom Bradley, chief executive at Oxford Capital Ventures, argues that companies like his need to have a more diverse team that reflects the wider base of companies they invest in.

“If you hire narrowly, you only get a narrow view,” he says. These days, however, he worries that the decision of the UK — where a lot of venture capital firms are based — to leave the European Union may hinder the prospects of ethnic diversity in technology.

“We need to make sure that the UK remains an attractive and welcoming place for people to come and start businesses,” he says. “That’s critical to VC but also to our cultural life and what makes London and the UK an exciting place to be.”

Deborah Okenla, YSYS founder, says she is seeing change develop, albeit slowly. The black entrepreneur says that one day she looked into the room and realised “I had never seen an investor that looked like me.”

Not everyone is trying to be like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, she says. “Otherwise the industry is missing out on opportunities because they are not asking the right questions [due to lack of having diverse views within workforce].”

However, some warn that the debate should not place the sole emphasis on an ethnically diverse workforce but one where the views are also disparate.

Suranga Chandratillake of Balderton Capital is of Sri Lankan origin but grew up in the UK. He says the firm is trying to invest in very small companies that would become extremely large over a short period of time.

“For them to be large they will touch an extremely large base of customers,” he adds. “The biggest issue with the lack of diversity, if everybody has the same way of looking at the world, they miss entire markets.”

But Mr Chandratillake says that ethnic diversity on its own will not cut it. “It is not about the right number of brown people and the right number of women. Are they actually more diverse in their thinking than a white guy that grew up on the wrong side of tracks?”

Get alerts on Workplace diversity & equality when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article