Equality, Diversity and Inclusiveness (EDI) in business has become mainstream. Evidence for this is the commitment of Innovate UK (the government’s innovation agency), UKRI (the government’s research agency) and in parliament, the establishment of All Party Parliamentary Groups, for Disability Rights and for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Business owners. However, entrepreneurship and innovation policy and intervention are still hampered by a lack of evidence on the extent of networks which support BAME and disabled entrepreneurs, their geography and how their location facilitates or impedes their ability to function most effectively.
This is where our RSA project comes into play. In 2019 Innovate UK commissioned the Innovation Caucus to undertake an eight month project (Jan 2019-August 2019) to understand barriers and opportunities for innovation for BAME and disabled people. The team comprised researchers from Sheffield, Nottingham and at Birkbeck, myself. It focused on the needs of disabled and BAME groups rather than on those organisations that support business innovation. It soon became clear that information on the geography of kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation support is badly needed.
Our follow-on project actively addresses that issue. It adopts a regional stakeholder approach to understanding the structure and agency in how the landscape of support functions, and where and how change needs to happen.
The first stage of the project was to map the networks which exist in each region. This has been a long and sometimes frustrating process exacerbated by the pandemic which disrupted academic (particularly through online teaching) and other life. The project was initially scheduled for January 2020-December 2021 but is now due for completion at the end of April 2021.
In this first stage I have been in touch with 54 individuals and organisations in every region in the UK in order to arrange interviews. Replies, conversations and interviews have happened with 44 with another 11 yet to reply. Of the 44, 16 formal interviews with disabled and BAME networks and entrepreneurs have been conducted with 1 more to come. Of the others contact has been made with major policy bodies -Innovate UK, APPGs, Cabinet Office Disability Unit, UKRI – along with universities in the UK, Ireland and the US.
Table 1 shows that 36 networks so far identified, 24 for BAME and 11 for people with disability with another one which provides support for both. It also gives examples of other relevant initiatives. It shows that there are over twice as many networks for BAME than disabled entrepreneurs. Unexpectedly London dominates but the West Midlands is notable for the support for BAME entrepreneurs. London also has headquarters in of national initiatives for both groups. While some networks have wide geographical coverage, Table 1 also shows in some parts of the UK there is little activity and in some regions there is no specialised entrepreneurial support for either grouo. Overall there are many small scale isolated activities. This is a key message to policy makers – that action is needed to connect organisations.
The All Parliamentary groups for Inclusive Entrepreneurship and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Business owners have the potential to spearhead these networks. The Cabinet Office Disability Unit has a regional stakeholder group of 14 organisations – but only one involves disabled entrepreneurs. This current project is also part of that process by putting people in touch.
We have found inspirational leadership in advocating better opportunities for both BAME and disabled entrepreneurs. Many networks have a public facing role acting as advocates for policy change for both BAME and disabled communities. At the policy level, there are new developments in Northern Ireland NI and in Wales.
The next stage of the project is to analyse the interview data and triangulate with the welter of grey and academic material. This will then be used to show how the UK approach compares with that in other countries. For example, similar issues to those in the UK have been found in Ireland while good practice has been found in Novia Scotia in Canada (Cooney 2020).
Cooney, T (2020) Pathway to Entrepreneurship for People with disabilities in Ireland. TU Dublin
Research Team: Helen Lawton Smith and Dina Mansour
|Enterprise NI with British Business Bank addressing support for under-represented businesses
|Business Wales – addressing under-presented entrepreneurs including BAME and disabled people
Disability Wales Endeavour Crowdfund programme
|One organisation has a Diversity in Innovation initiative
|Yorks and Humberside
|1 (no longer operational)
|2 (one of which is no longer operational)
|East of England
|One organisation covers both groups
|Numerous national initiatives e.g. Leonard Cheshire Stelios Awards (Disability)
Business Disability Forum
UK Black Tech
African Caribbean Business Network
Table 1 Specialist Business Support Networks for BAME and Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK
Source: Authors’ survey
Helen Lawton Smith is Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Department of Management at Birkbeck, University of London
Are you currently involved with regional research, policy, and development, and want to elaborate your ideas in a different medium? The Regional Studies Association is now accepting articles for their online blog. For more information, contact the Blog Editor at RSABlog@regionalstudies.org.