In the latest blog in our Voices from the Community Micro Business blog series, CREME share insight from their research and from their partners on key lessons for stakeholders interested in collaborative approaches to supporting Ethnic Minority Businesses in the West Midlands.
Ethnic minority businesses (EMBs) play a vital role in economy, yet rarely do they receive the recognition they deserve. The UK economy will need the entrepreneurial qualities of diverse communities in the post-Brexit and post Covid-19 era. Action is required to encourage and support the creativity and talent in the richly diverse West Midlands region.
This year Aston University’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) hosted an online workshop to discuss the opportunities and challenges of supporting EMBs in the West Midlands. Eighty delegates from across the UK joined to examine these issues and to contribute ideas on the development of a post-Covid strategy to support EMBs. The aims were three-fold:
- share CREME’s research and practitioner insights on the evidence and experiences of supporting EMBs
- learn lessons from earlier and existing initiatives to support EMBs
- developing collaborative approaches to developing support strategies.
The need for the workshop was all the more urgent because of the racial inequalities exposed by COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and Brexit. Policy makers may consider supporting entrepreneurship amongst ethnic minority communities to be part of a range solutions to address these intractable challenges.
Speakers at the event represented several stakeholders, including academics (Professors Richard Roberts and Monder Ram) from CREME, business owners – Dr. Jason Wouhra (also President of the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce), Diana Chrouch (special adviser to the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Sue Bedward of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Claire Spencer (senior policy adviser to West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), and CJ. Webley, founder of the Black Pounds project.
This note combines insights from the event with CREME’s research to identify key lessons for stakeholders interested in collaborative approaches to supporting EMBs in the West Midlands. We start with an assessment of the ‘size of the prize’: the contribution of EMBs to the UK.
Grasping the ‘size of the prize’
Recognising the economic and social contribution of EMBS is an important first step to the development of a strategy. Prof. Richard Roberts reinforced this point in his summary of large-scale study of EMBs, which found 250,000 EMBs, contributing £25 billion Gross Value Added to the UK economy. The study also re revealed EMBs were more likely to export, innovate and grow than their white-owned counterparts. This contribution is amplified by EMBs’ social role in providing employment and opportunities for social inclusion for ethnic minority communities excluded from wider labour markets.
Creativity, resilience, and entrepreneurialism will be vital to Government’s aspiration of ‘building back better’ and for the West Midlands policy of ‘inclusive growth’. Ethnic minority communities have always possessed these attributes, and the evidence indicates these qualities will be much needed in the region and in the wider economy.
Five lessons for the development of policy to support EMBs
- Be guided by the evidence
New research from CREME and others highlight the increasing complexity of EMBs; this needs to be taken into account by policy-makers
CREME’s Professor Richard Roberts presented several new insights on the characteristics of EMBs, as well a number of enduring challenges, notably, access to finance, over-reliance on informal networks, concentration in saturated markets and perceptions of discrimination. This evidence base needs to inform initiatives to support EMBs.
2. Abandon ‘one size for all’ policies
EMBs have distinctive needs which need to be recognised by business support providers
Attendees agreed that the history of business support was littered with generic policy initiatives which were ill-suited to diverse needs of EMBs. Diana Chrouch, APPG Group & BAME Policy Unit for FSB, Special Advisor & Chair provided several compelling illustrations for from a consultation exercise with EMBs carried out by the APPG on BAME businesses. She suggested that Government’s emergency support measure did not work for many EMBs because of: poor public information, lack of sign posting, no language options, and the paucity of tailored information. Ms Chrouch revealed that a third of the 439 business owners attending the APPG consultation were unable to access the emergency funds.
Sue Bedward, of Midlands Business Leadership Academy (MBL) and a representative of the FSB, was also critical of the ‘standardisation’ of business support. Drawing on her extensive experience of working with small firms, Ms Bedward reiterated the importance of developing ‘bespoke solutions’ for EMBs.
3. Build on examples of ‘good practice’
Learn the lessons of history by supporting promising initiatives for EMBs that are proving impactful
The West Midlands has a long history of policy initiatives for EMBs. Despite cuts in public sector-funded business support over the last decade, some EMB programmes remain and new ones are emerging. The Asian Business Chamber of Commerce (ABCC), formed in 1987, is one of the most enduring initiatives. ABCC President Dr. Jason Wouhra outlined the importance of the services it offers to its members, which include advocacy, practical business support and networking. The ABCC’s services have been in high demand in the pandemic; it has provided advice on accessing finance, the furlough scheme, and emergency support. The ABCC has worked with local councils in West Midlands to ensure documents are translated into Bengali, Urdu and Punjabi for businesses owners from those backgrounds.
The Black Pounds Project is a new initiative aimed at supporting black business owners. Its founder, CJ Webley, believes that entrepreneurial talent in the black community is being stifled by a lack of engagement with the ‘mainstream’ business support provider. The Project provides ‘a platform to bring people together so that they share their experiences and bring back black business owners to the right places’. Many black business owners are turning to the Black Pounds Project because of a lack of guidance from elsewhere in the business support ecosystem.
4. Involve EMBs in the early stages of the policy-making process
EMBs need to be genuine partners in the ‘co-production’ of policy initiatives
Attendees were keen a process of genuine co-production should underpin any future strategy to support EMBs in the West Midlands. Claire Spencer, Senior Policy Advisor at West Midlands Combined Authority (WCMA) highlighted key points for the WMCA. First, the timing of the workshop was opportune because the business support in the region was currently being reviewed to establish whether the ‘ecosystem is fit for purpose’. Second, the barriers to EMB support were similar to the those for firms in the ‘social economy’; Prof Roberts’ findings would be helpful to current WMCA plans to develop an inclusive business support system. Finally, the WMCA is formulating bids for the ‘Community Renewal Fund’ and is mindful of the need to develop propositions that encompass the needs of EMBs.
5. Develop long-term relationships with EMBs and their representative groups
‘Mainstream’ business support organisations need to work collaboratively with EMBs to develop trust-based relationships
Delegates wanted mainstream business support providers to develop long-term and relationships with EMBs. EMB owners and representatives were critical of what they saw as insincere episodic consultation exercises.
CREME has a number of long-term relationship with EMB owners and intermediaries. The Centre works in this way with Ashley Community Housing (ACH), a nationally acclaimed social enterprise; Citizens UK Birmingham, an independent membership alliance of civil society institutions and; Punch Records, a business with a strong social mission to promote artists from deprived backgrounds.
Next Steps …
CREME will continue to collaborate on ways of strengthening the links between different stakeholders with an interest in supporting EMBs, for example the upcoming workshop The Silent Majority: Why does people management support for microbusinesses so often fall short? The Centre has also developed an ambitious range of partnerships with EMBs that encompass research and knowledge exchange activities. Building relationships is central importance. This core ingredient is at the heart of CREME’s approach and is central to its mission of advancing research and practice on ethnic minority entrepreneurship.