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(B)lack of Colour

In the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones discusses the lack of racial diversity in the food and retail industry – something he says is holding back more black entrepreneurs from starting businesses.

A self-proclaimed ‘poor boy done good’ entrepreneur, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is The Black Farmer. Having grown up in Birmingham, Wilfred left school without any qualifications. But his professional life has been dedicated to food. He worked in catering before moving to the BBC to produce and direct food and drink TV programmes, bringing the likes of Gordon Ramsey, Brian Turner and James Martin to the small screen for the first time.

In 1994, he launched his own marketing agency focused on working with food and drink brands. Then, in 2005 at the age of 46, Wilfred embarked on his journey as The Black Farmer. Whether it’s sausages, burgers, poultry or cheese, The Black Farmer products promise ‘Flavour without Frontiers’, which also perfectly summarises his personality.

Wilfred is someone who will not be confined by race, convention or tradition. He loves British eccentricity and all that it is to be British, and the traditions that come with it. Perhaps unfitting of the British stereotype, however, Wilfred is quite outspoken. Never afraid to have his say, he is someone who holds strong opinions on rural affairs, justice for small food producers and giving young people more opportunities. More than anything, though, The Black Farmer refuses to be pigeon-holed as an ethnic brand. The term ‘ethnic minority’ creates more problems than it solves, he believes.

Recently, a black colleague and I got caught up in a security alert at the head office of one of Britain’s largest retailers. Alarm over, all staff headed back into the building. As they filed back to their desks, it gave me and my colleague an opportunity to observe what type of people work for the company. Two things stood out. They were young, but more importantly, we didn’t see a black person enter the building. Only one black face revealed itself and that was the security guard letting everyone back into the building.

Stepping outside into the real world and seeing the diversity of the people walking the streets, it was in very sharp contrast to what I had just seen.

Sadly, this retailer’s lack of diversity is not rare, but typical. Corporate Britain has an appalling record when it comes to a diverse workforce, especially at senior levels. Unfortunately, most of the people who work in these white- only enclaves either don’t recognise this oddity, choose to do nothing about it, or, if there are discussions about diversity, the subject is usually hijacked by the gender debate. Watching the staff file back into the building didn’t point to there being any issue with gender representation, if anything there were more women working in that establishment than men.

I meet lots of people of colour who find the doors closed to them for a career in many companies, so they have no choice but to go it alone and set up their own business. I always caution them. I say that ‘if you think it is tough getting an executive role in an established company, setting up your own food business is equally difficult,’ because new business start-ups are also a bit of a white enclave. “I have to confess when I found out about The Black Farmer brand I automatically thought it was owned by a white guy and it had something to do with The Black Country in the West Midlands,” I was once told by a very senior executive trying to pay me a compliment. He didn’t realise it at the time, but what he was illustrating is why a lot of people of colour find it difficult to get support from banks, investors, business angels etc. for their businesses.

He, like many decision makers, have a stereotypical view of what sort of career a black person should follow and the sort of business they should start. NHSworker, athlete, rapper and security guard are just a few that spring to mind.

When I set up The Black Farmer brand I was determined not to be pigeonholed as an ethnic brand, which is where the retailers felt the brand belonged. For them black doesn’t equal mainstream. For me, that is where the problem lies. Colour is still not seen as being part of the mainstream. The term ‘ethnic minority’ causes us more harm than good because it emphasises separateness rather being part of the whole.

For those few black people who have managed to get a foothold in these white enclaves, the lack of diversity sticks out like a sore thumb but they keep their heads down for fear of being branded chippy.

Any discussion on diversity, especially colour, is cause for nervousness in many white people because they don’t want to be labelled racist or as having a bias towards white people. Those companies who know that there is an issue with lack of diversity within their organisations, but choose not to do anything about it, are perpetuating the problem.

If you are in a senior position and you scan the sea of faces in your organisation and see that it is not reflective of the society we are living in, you are personally responsible for choosing not to do anything about it. You can no longer hide behind a diversity policy or brush the issue off to the Human Resources department. Ask yourself are you setting a good example?

Change only happens when individuals in the position of influence and power take a stand.

You can take a look at a full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.