The ability to create an enterprise is one of life’s great opportunities. Yet entrepreneurship remains one of the last bastions of privilege, resistant to diversity and inclusion despite a myriad of international efforts, initiatives and guidelines. How can we sweep away the remaining barriers and create a level playing field for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds?
The road less travelled
Global efforts to promote diversity tend to focus on employees, underestimating the real and sustainable opportunities that inclusive entrepreneurship provides, both to those who face barriers to participating in other forms of economic activity and as a means of unlocking new ideas and drive to the global economy.
“Inclusive Entrepreneurship” as a concept has to a degree emerged by stealth. It has been driven by the creation of bespoke, bottom-up networks drawing on anecdotal evidence of the positive role of entrepreneurship in reducing employment, pay gaps and welfare dependence, improving health and well-being, and boosting economic growth. Yet thanks to the efforts of academics, researchers and practitioners across the world, a clearer picture is emerging of the huge impacts inclusive entrepreneurship can have.
New research (Lawton Smith, Winstanley et al. 2023) funded by the Innovation Caucus in conjunction with Innovate UK, the UK government’s innovation agency, highlights the many challenges faced by disabled people in succeeding as entrepreneurs. First, securing access to finance: many participants reported difficulties when seeking to access finance – often falling off the first rung of the ladder due to digital exclusion and/or not meeting the lending criteria.
Second, a lack of inclusive business support and networks, which often leads to the creation of bespoke networks linked to the particular protected characteristic. Third, participants reported challenges in engaging with public procurement channels, as the process was not inclusive, and they could not meet the requirements or get past the first stage of registration. Finally, there was a general lack of awareness of how to access government support. Wider research suggests similar barriers are also faced by ethnic minority businesses.
Smoothing the way
Encouragingly, the OECD has identified a growing number of successful policy initiatives, providing to governments looking to scale up this sector. One policy that is making an impact in the UK is the Department of Work and Pension’s Access to Work award. This discretionary award (which is not means tested) can be used to engage support workers, acquire aids, adaptations and assistive technology, bespoke coaching and training and access mental health support.
The funds benefit the entrepreneurs and their businesses but creates downstream benefits by helping expand employment for support workers and suppliers of aids and adaptations. Forthcoming research (Lawton Smith, Winstanley et al. 2023) also found a clear link between innovation and the Access to Work award.
Number of people who had worker-support elements approved in 2021-22
While there remain issues to resolve in improving access to the award, when applicants are successful it is a game changer. Recipients reported that the award enabled them to escape a life on welfare, and also cited a positive impact on their health and well-being including a reduction in their reliance on health care services including anti-depressants and opioids.
Alongside this initiative, the UK’s Inclusive Entrepreneur Network is creating new connections, challenging perceptions, and giving disadvantaged groups a powerful voice at the centre of government. Its recommendations led to the creation of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Inclusive Entrepreneurship (APPGIE), placing inclusive entrepreneurship at the heart of government policy – where it belongs. They also prompted the UK’s Lending Standards Board to issue new guidance for banks and lenders to improve services to disabled customers. A short hop away, Ireland’s Joint Committee on Disability Matters is giving a similar prominence to these issues.
“We are shining a spotlight on different barriers faced by customers from underserved communities, such as disabled and deaf customers, and ethnic minority business owners. By collaborating with experts, we were able to bring the voices of these communities to the open doors of banks and lenders who want to create positive change. Firms have already taken on board our recommendations and are working to make improvements, in a bid to create a more inclusive world for all.”Anna Roughley, Head of Insight, Lending Standards Board (LSB)
Creating new pathways
These debates are helping ramp up pressure to embed inclusive pathways within procurement and routes and international trade agreements. They are also highlighting the importance of developing support in collaboration with those who face barriers – people who can then take a leading role in their implementation to smooth out conflicts and complications that can arise.
These champions can also help improve the alignment of programmes from a user perspective – to ensure entrepreneurs benefit from holistic, inclusive and bespoke business support packages which incorporate a health and well-being strand alongside accelerator programmes which support access to finance and practical aids and adaptations.
There is no doubt that government policy can help create a more inclusive pathway to entrepreneurship – bringing a double dividend of reduced inequalities and economic growth. It’s time to invest in achieving that, in the UK and across the world.
Jacqueline Winstanley, FRSA, Founder and CEO of Universal Inclusion and the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network, and a consultant on inclusion and accessibility challenges, whose portfolio includes a number of cross-sector non-Executive roles, recognised author, public speaker, Visiting Fellow for CIMR Birkbeck University and Secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Inclusive Entrepreneurship
is best described as a recognised expert, global humanitarian & innovator. Having a deeply held and proven conviction to increasing equality of access to life’s opportunities through the creation of collaborative inclusive pathways incorporating policy, academia, and practice to bring about real and sustainable societal change.