Supporting disabled and ethnic minority entrepreneurs: An engaged scholarship approach to inclusivity


While entrepreneurship is high on policy agenda throughout the world, there is rarely a focus on diversity. This is an EU-wide issue.

In this Regional Studies Association event organised for EU Regions Week University, Professor Monder Ram, CREME, Aston University chaired a panel exploring diversity in entrepreneurship.

What support is currently available for ethnically diverse and disabled entrepreneurs?

The context was set by Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who reported on her Regional Studies Association funded research on ‘Addressing regional inequalities in innovation opportunities for BAME and disabled groups’ (2020-21). Key findings are that there are some 63 specialised networks in the UK offering excellent direct support to either disabled or ethnically diverse entrepreneurs (or both). Great stories are there to be told. While support is patchy and fragmented for both groups, there is less support available for disabled entrepreneurs.

Helen argued that there is a lack of connectivity between organisations of all kinds, with a silo mentality beginning to be broken down. The political agenda is changing but there is a need to build a better system of building communities through institutional change. As this happens, evaluation is essential.

Engaged scholarship in action: building a supportive network for entrepreneurship

Introducing the panel session, Professor Monder Ram highlighted the ad hoc nature of business support and the variety of networks. He argued that we need to understand the rationale for why there is this pattern and the need for concrete evaluation so that successive generations of policymakers do not keep reinventing the wheel.

Monder Ram explained how in engaged scholarship, a continuous dialogue with various stakeholder groups, universities have a major role in building and sustaining relationships. This panel event was engaged scholarship in process.

The first speaker, David Halabisky, OECD made four points:

  1. Institutional challenges – both formal and informal, have effects on social systems and social attitudes. How people see themselves and what they are capable of doing are influenced by how they see themselves positioned in society.
  2. Resources and how people get them – networks are of critical importance and are under-recognised in policy communities.
  3. Disconnected ecosystems – are common all over the world in all different kinds of contexts. Will and investment are needed to overcome fragmentation.
  4. This session highlights two groups – both have great potential in entrepreneurship but data is needed on participation rates. Identification of which challenges are priorities is hindered where there are information and knowledge gaps.

Jane Hatton, Evenbreak, is a disabled entrepreneur. Her firm only employs disabled people. From Jane’s experience, disabled people are likely to be entrepreneurial because it is difficult to find mainstream employment. As they have to navigate solving problems throughout the day, disabled people develop as problem solvers – qualities needed to be able to survive in business. However, Jane cautioned that assumptions are made and “discrimination can be accidental” when people and organisations that “don’t have lived experience” design policies that do not work for people like her.

Drew Currie, an entrepreneur, shared his philosophy “to leave the door open to other entrepreneurs”. He has raised €3M for people by helping them to identify and write grant applications. Drew’s experience is that “the ecosystem is already failing”, therefore innovation needs to be cooperative. Evidence is that 60% of firms fail in the first 5 years – but those who cooperate are still going after 5 years.

What does Europe need to do to support diversity in entrepreneurship?

Monder Ram asked the panel what Europe’s role is in creating the right environment for entrepreneurship.

For David Halabisky, unless there is “greater recognition” that government policy will have different effects on different people, entrepreneurship policy will fail.

Monder Ram in support argued that “most policy does not mention diversity” and reiterated the need to differentiate between different types of self-employed people.

Jane Hatton’s view was that government departments rely on unpaid ambassadors from different communities to understand the realities of entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. If government departments were more diverse, they would have this intelligence.

In Jane’s experience, programmes which support social enterprises are more inclusive than ones that just support small businesses. Those tend to be very male, not diverse or inclusive, so the equality, diversity and inclusion theme is not threaded through their dialogues.

Drew Currie rather differently argued that problems cannot be solved by policymakers. Instead, collaboration between different groups is needed, including investment from the private sector. Government strategy needs to restart after the pandemic, rather than being reactive.

Jane Hatton finds that diverse entrepreneurs are more successful because they are stronger, more collaborative and don’t wait for policy support. A silver lining of covid is that there is more acceptance of working from home, which has made collaboration easier for disabled people.

A question from the audience asked how an organisation such as the East Sussex Chamber could diversify its membership. The panel suggested reaching out to local groups such as Black business owner groups and other networks in the county.

From theory to practice: What needs to change?

Monder Ram concluded the discussion by asking “What needs to change?”

David Halabisky called for data collection to measure what policies are doing and identify whether they are having an effect. To improve support systems, it is necessary to track where the funding is going and who is using the programme.

Jane Hatton made two points:

1. Change the narrative – making the economy better for everyone will happen if there is a more diverse ecosystem.

2. Lived experience – decisions made need to include diversity.

For Drew Currie, research needs to be translated into action by finding people who are truthful, credible and have the resource and the determination to convert theory into deliverable impactful outcomes..

Helen Lawton Smith November 8th 2021