The first panel of VenturefestWM 2019 centred on ‘Diversity in Innovation and Entrepreneurship’, a topic that is becoming increasingly pertinent for the West Midlands as a region with a growing richness of diversity. The region is home to one of the youngest populations in the UK, with over 108 languages spoken and more than 12% of residents identifying with an ethnic minority group. It is more important than ever before to embrace our differences and promote inclusivity in the West Midlands’ innovation ecosystem.

Kiran Trehan, Professor of Leadership and Enterprise Development at the University of Birmingham, chaired the discussion to explore what opportunities can be exploited to ensure all individuals have equal access to innovation resources. The core message communicated by the panel was that entrepreneurial and business opportunities should be granted on the basis of merit; irrespective of age, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or socio-economic background; not only is the ‘right’ thing to do, but it will bring business benefit. The panellists speaking on these issues from a wide range of perspectives were Joel Blake OBE, from Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP; Rosie Ginday MBE, Founder and Chief Executive of Miss Macaroon; and Qasim Majid,  President of the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce.

To kick the discussion into full swing, Kiran posed a provocative question: “can we afford to include diversity in innovation?”. To which the obvious answer is, of course, yes. It needs to be about reframing the negative perspective that some businesses have of diversity, as quotas, regulations and added expenses. It is imperative that diversity strategy reflects the potential benefits of inclusion, as opposed to the financial burdens. There remains, however, a major action gap between grassroots activists making progress at the heart of communities and the slower pace of public public policy implementation targeted at individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Joel spoke of the importance of the right leadership to encourage diversity, respectively suggesting that leadership and diversity development need to be knitted together, and that the crux of good leadership is enabling people then getting out their way.

Following on, Qasim emphasised that within the context of the digital revolution, agile thinkers will be integral to business survival. Innovation and disruption are cousins and increasing diversity can be the key to enabling businesses to pick up on customer demands and move the fast paced, monumental changes are becoming the norm for the innovation ecosystem and drastically altering the way we do business. For a business to survive, it needs the right people with the right skills. Diversity of employees will aid the efficiency, creativity and flexibility of the workforce.

Although it is all well and good to commit to hiring the ‘best’ person for the job, without being influenced by social prejudice, it is necessary to acknowledge the positions of privilege that are at work. How can you offset the fact that some individuals may have been given more chances in life to become the ‘better’ candidate? For example, it is likely that an individual from a wealthy background will have received higher-quality education, compared to someone from an underprivileged area. Yet, the disadvantaged individual may have the same if not more potential to make outstanding contributions to the business if given the opportunity.

There is not a panacea to avoid the complexities of achieving a diverse innovation ecosystem. As such, it is vital that businesses understand the true nature of diversity and diverse leaders are trained for the future. Diverse leadership, mentoring and engagement initiatives have the power to alter the trajectory of innovation in the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy and other reports by the West Midlands Combined Authority have begun to consider issues of inclusive growth and diversity. Many have undermined this shift as merely an add-on or a fashion statement, whilst others see signs that the region is championing diversity as the foundation for innovative breakthroughs.

The segment of the panel that appeared to receive the greatest level of audience engagement, regarded the most effective methods with which to reach out to smaller businesses – ‘healthy high streets need healthy back streets’, said Cas. Joel indicated that start-ups in marginalised communities have their own way of surviving and are thriving a lot more than many would recognise. In addition, he identified the prohibitive nature of local government process and jargon to be a key barrier to innovation participation. Businesses need to be understood in all their diversity and policymakers need to meet people where they are to catalyse growth in a multitude of forms. “The potential is there.” These businesses are surviving and resilient, and an added boost could have phenomenal implications for local communities and the region as a whole. At this point, the strong sense of pride and anticipation that both the panellists and attendees felt for the potential of the region could be palpably felt.

Ultimately, diversity is in the DNA of innovation. From the diversity of business to gender, ideas to race, strategy to socio-economic background – diversity is at the heart of everything Venturefest is aiming to achieve and will be a significant factor for the success of innovation in the West Midlands.

(Author: Lucy Page, University of Warwick. Co Author: Pam Waddell, IAWM)