Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a number of people – colleagues, partners, funders and stakeholders who I value and respect – question whether we should still be prioritising diversity and inclusion during the COVID-19 crisis. Comments like the following have been coming at me on an almost daily basis:
- People are struggling to keep their organisations afloat; we just can’t talk to them about diversity right now.
- The world is a different place: are you sure this is still relevant?
- Doesn’t this just prove that entrepreneurship is too risky for some people?
- Tech startups and entrepreneurs will be fine – they don’t need any extra support.
I’ve been working at what has at times felt like breakneck speed and I’ve listened and generally agreed that what we are living through now will change everything. & I’ve been thinking, maybe we DO need to change our narrative, approach and mission. Maybe OneTech – which was set up to connect underrepresented communities with opportunities in Tech Startups – ISN’T as relevant as it was.
And then over the long Easter Weekend I have finally found a bit of time to regroup emotionally and to reflect on what has been an epic and exhausting month. I have also found myself moving slowly (at least today) towards a place where I might be able to start to think more strategically about the future of OneTech again.
I have to give some credit here to Emily Maitlis who summed up how I was feeling in her amazing intervention just before Easter:
‘The disease is NOT a great leveller, the consequence of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth, which needs debunking. Those suffering on the frontline right now – bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers – are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease, because they are more exposed. Those that live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown tougher. Those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health ’
From where I sit, these societal issues will also be hugely affected by our response to the crisis, as there are also ‘huge ramifications’ for economic inclusion, equality, and equity and for diversity.
International organisations and economic experts are warning that we are entering the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes.
My twitter feed is full of data and anecdotal evidence about women and people of colour from London’s most deprived communities being hardest hit.
So, Why would now be the right time to stop prioritising diversity? Surely, as we effectively reboot society, now is absolutely the right time to be putting inclusion and diversity at the forefront of whatever comes next.
It is true that the outbreak of COVID-19 is creating challenging times for all. Many SME’s, entrepreneurs and startups are struggling. But, as with any macroeconomic shock, what is becoming increasingly clear is that people from excluded communities with little or no savings and reserves will suffer most.
History shows that from such dreadful circumstances come incredible responses. Innovation and entrepreneurship, and the resilience and transferable skills required for both, are going to be a vital part of the effort to bring our economies back through the recovery period.
We have learnt a lot in the first 2 years of OneTech. And the first few weeks of the crisis tell me that a digital economy is more relevant than ever before. We have moved all our services online and have witnessed a further increase in demand for the entrepreneurial support services we provide. I believe that when the worst of the virus is behind us, diverse entrepreneurs will form a large part of the solution to re-building London’s economy.
So, maybe initiatives like OneTech are more important now than ever before. The unemployment rate in the UK has doubled in less than a month due to COVID 19 and over 1 million young people will be leaving full time education this summer and face limited employment prospects. As in other recessions or economic shocks, interest and demand to start a business will rocket upwards from the new army of unemployed and as is the case now, starting a business in the tech sector or starting a business that is digitally enabled for marketing, sales and distribution will offer the best opportunities for success for these first time entrepreneurs.
The situation for under-represented communities is particularly challenging. Founders from these communities often do not have access to social capital or the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to tide them over when things get tough. They need support to navigate the help that is available and to work out a clear plan of action which will enable them either to sustain their start-up journey, press pause in a constructive way &/or use the valuable skills they have learnt to pursue meaningful knowledge-based employment options.
The second half of 2020 is a critical time and critical thinking will be needed. People will be looking at the world through an entirely new lens and exploring different opportunities. They will be asking questions like ‘what can I do to prepare for the recovery?’, ‘How can I create a meaningful and sustainable economic future for myself? I believe that entrepreneurship provides opportunities for our target communities to stay relevant in this ‘new economy’ and I would very much like to hope that OneTech can play a part in this.
At Capital Enterprise we have been fortunate to secure additional funding from JPMorgan to launch a new StartUp Resilience Programme for tech founders who can’t access the help they need elsewhere.
But it is already clear that, in the future, access to funding for initiatives like OneTech will change as funders from both the public and the private sector start to question their underlying assumptions and make difficult decisions about where to invest their resources. We are already facing challenging conversations and decisions about the multiple trade-offs that are necessary when people look at all the competing funding priorities. How will it be possible to get the balance right between all the different needs and demands? How can we make these impossible decisions quickly whilst simultaneously dealing with the immediate impact of the crisis?
I would ask people to consider the cost of NOT considering inclusion and diversity as we build solutions. And the opportunity we have to actually bake these principles in to everything absolutely everything that comes next. My view is that, within our own individual margins of manoeuvre, we each need to do what we can to ensure that this crisis does not continue to feed into the growing divisions in society. When we bring this together into a collective effort, which we will, it will have impact.
So, in answer to my valued colleagues and friends, YES, upon reflection I think that what we are doing IS still relevant. Digital and tech entrepreneurship will be vital components of our economic recovery. Through OneTech, I believe that we have a robust framework and a great partnership within which we can adjust the format and content of our support so that we can continue to connect underrepresented communities with opportunities. This will be more, not less, relevant than before. I hope that I can continue to play a small part in this. Please get in touch if you do too.