26 November 2017
Walking through Green Park this morning with two future tech entrepreneurs, I asked them: “So, what is a business?”
I got many answers back but eventually, after walking through the leaves and talking, we distilled the answers down to: “A business is something that solves people’s problems; something that creates a better environment for the people who work in it, its customers and the surrounding community.”
I know this is not the dictionary definition, however I believe if we’d stuck to the simple strategy of purely making money, we would not be in this privileged position now.
From a £5,000 start up born in the spare bedroom of a flat in the old Shell head quarters on Oxford Road, UKFast was born. More than 18 years on, the business is very different with hundreds of teammates, but it still has the same principals firmly embedded at the core.
However successful you are, there will always be times when you are tested and challenged. This week was one of those times where people questioned our core principals following this year’s Digital Entrepreneur Awards (DEAs).
The week had started like no other, with me proudly introducing Tony Robbins’ top trainers to the whole company at our Monday morning meeting. Two of whom have worked for Tony for 55 years collectively.
We spent three days immersed with the whole company, finishing with my leadership team who are now around 80 strong. It was a life-changing experience and without doubt helped me and the team tackle the problems that we were about to face as the week unfolded.
I have learned that when you are in a storm, it is better to wait until it settles down before making major decisions. This week’s DEAs was one such storm, involving hundreds of people with passionate opinions who were rightly upset with a mistake in the choice of entertainment.
It’s safe to say that wherever you are in a storm, being on the outside or directly in the middle, it’s hard to see the full picture clearly. Emotions are high and social media is not a platform that lends itself to listening. It’s a brilliant platform for amplification, but unlike human, face-to-face interaction, which enables you to read body language and see when someone understands your point and where you would then moderate your stance, social media dehumanises a situation and encourages people to continue increasing the volume.
So, now that the storm has settled, I am in a much better place to find the best outcome for everyone involved.
What are my options? I could do nothing, after all it’s died down so why would I want to risk throwing fuel on to the embers?
I could remove our support for the awards that we have backed for 13 years consecutively but I know the all female team who run the awards – all young, enthusiastic and passionate about helping others – would be even more devastated than they are right now. And I am sure it’s not the intention of people to crush them for making a genuine mistake, especially after they have apologised. Women don’t deliberately damage other women and themselves in the process.
It’s also not in my nature to walk away from a person or a problem. After all, a business is something that solves problems and Gail and I are business people. We are built for this.
So, how can we help turn this negative situation into the most positive outcome?
Firstly, albeit by accident, good is already coming out of this; we are debating the very serious subject of gender inequality.
It’s a subject that Gail and I take very seriously. With four daughters we do not want an imbalance in society for when they come of age and start their businesses and families.
So, walking a round the park in the beautiful crisp autumn air, I turned to the bright young entrepreneurs in the making, my two daughters Tegan, 14, and Poppy, 11, and asked, what would they do? How do we help ensure that all people are treated equally?
Kids see things very differently from adults and Tegan immediately questioned why there is a problem. “Don’t you have lots of women in UKFast?” she asked.
“Yes, we have an exact 50:50 spilt of women and men both in our board of directors and also in the senior management team below.” I explained. “But sadly not all businesses are like ours.”
There are businesses out there who don’t have that balance, but it doesn’t mean that they treat people differently, however I do believe there is a subliminal message being sent from business leaders to their entire team when they have male dominated boards and management structures.
All-male boards and all-female boards do not create a good balance. I’d also recommend always recruiting a variety of personalities and backgrounds amongst teams too.
There are also those businesses amongst us, sadly that simply value women as less important and pay them less too. I was horrified when I heard that Google refused to do the Gender Pay Gap analysis for the government. This is where “community” plays it’s part in a business. Where would Google be without the loyal community who have helped make it what it is? As the business leader of Google why would you not want to give back? At the very least pay people equally. Doing the research and finding out there is a imbalance, is the best way to remedy it. Refusing to do the research demonstrates that they not just have a serious problem that they wish to hide, it also infers they don’t believe that it’s a big enough issue to fix either.
We did our Gender Pay Gap analysis for the government and I was nervous not knowing the outcome. You can set a goal or an objective to treat everyone equally, but until you do the numbers, maybe we were out? It is a healthy exercise and I recommend all business owners do it. I was very proud when when I learned ours is a zero % gap.
So what is the outcome, how do we create a positive situation?
Well, Tegan and Poppy who have both experienced our Code Clubs as we work directly with their school as well a great many other girl schools amongst the 60 or so we work with now. In spite of already working with over 57,000 kids, they both agreed that this is an area where we should expand.
Other ideas involved creating a fund of money and invite people to help how best to spread the message and make lasting change.
I like this idea because it’s coming straight from the minds of a generation we are trying to help. Kids are smarter than we realise at times and it’s amazing to see how they debated the issue and together we came up with a solution.
Mike, one of the Tony Robbin’s trainers, asked one of our apprentices last week: “Tell me how you arrived at this point here at UKFast now?”
She said “I have fought all my life, I have fought for everything I have, for everything I have achieved and I am going to continue to fight.”
Mike answered calmly, “Fighting is tiring though, right?”
He continued: “Seeing this environment, the way it’s been designed and the people around you now, I somehow don’t think you need to keep fighting. You are clearly in fertile ground here now, and when you are in fertile ground you just have to water it to grow.”
It’s a lovely analogy and sometimes in our little bubble at UKFast it’s easy to forget how others may be treated in other industries and businesses.
So, as part of our commitment to our community, walking through Green Park this morning excited with an outcome to go and tell Gail, my girls made me so proud. This is our plan:
Firstly any future sponsorships with any event or award ceremony must involve the right balance of people, creating a platform to highlight and inspire more entrepreneurs from every walk of life.
Secondly, Gail and I are to put a fund together of £50,000 to help carry on and widen the conversation of gender equality and diversity.
We propose Trish from TechManchester take the £50,000 and put together a passionate and diverse team of women and men who can work out how best to spend the fund to promote gender equality and diversity across the country.
You could just give back your awards, however, you have worked hard for them and the awards now have the potential now to signify something much more special, change. This ensures you are part of a progressive society that builds, not destroys; that learns and forgives.
It maybe that we use some of the money for a scholarship or bursary like we already do with Manchester Metropolitan University where this year we financed a young lady to go through the business school who ordinarily could not have afforded to go. But this is down to you. Ultimately if we can create UKFast from £5,000, what is possible with £50,000 if invested wisely?
All I ask from you is to nominate people you think are perfect to help with this quest. It maybe yourself, it maybe a colleague or a friend. Whoever it is we’d love to hear from you as we can’t change the world, and we can’t sit back and do nothing. We need people who understand the problem at the deepest level if we are going to make a lasting positive difference.