Non-White Quotas in the Boardroom

Written by Ajaz Ahmed, entrepreneur, business speaker and founder of Internet company Freeserve.


Should the Government think about how to increase BAME minorities, (BAME – Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, used to refer to members of non-white communities in the UK) in Britain’s boardrooms?

They could, for instance, set a target for one in five directors of FTSE 100 companies to be from a BAME background. Lord Davies’ review about women in the boardrooms, has had great success in increasing the numbers of women in senior business roles.

But is this a good thing, do we need quotas?

My father’s generation came to this country to work in textile mills in my part of England. Most were uneducated, but times have changed. We now don’t think twice when we see a BAME doctor, surgeon, nurse, dentist, optician, pharmacist, lawyer or accountant. We read success stories about BAME business people and are sometimes surprised when we find that BAME business people own some of the well-known brands we love.

Someone recently came to see me at our office in Leeds, and he turned out to be Scottish. The first thing he said to me was “Did you know that your lift has a Scottish accent?” He was so pleased that he even tweeted about our lift having a Scottish accent. I would feel the same way if I met a BAME business person sitting on the board of a company, I would want to tweet about it to the world. That’s the problem; we simply don’t have many BAME business people selected to sit on boards of companies.

If we are to have more diversity on boards and to get our numbers up, quotas must be a good thing, right? No, I don’t agree. Companies should not be forced to take people on to reach a target, another box that’s ticked. I would not want to be selected just because a company needed to reach a target number.

Have we got a problem? Yes, we have. Boardrooms are just not representative of the world we now live in; they don’t represent the people that spend money with them.

Something needs to change, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it – it’s a subject that will undoubtedly generate a lot of debates.

I looked at an online article about the Government’s intention to change the rules, and it attracted 294 comments. Some broke the house rules, and others were racist in the way they talked about the subject.

Many people have strong views but only express them when they can hide behind fictitious names on the comment bit on a website. I’ve also noticed that on some sites the most common name is ‘Anonymous,’ I didn’t realise it was such a popular name.

So, if quotas are not the solution, what should we do? The CEOs of companies have to understand the world their companies trade in, and they need to recognise the mix of people that work for them. They can learn a lot from the public sector, which is very good at employing people from all ethnic backgrounds.

Is change possible by itself and can people change? Probably not.

One of the observations I’ve made in my time in business is that people are very good at making well-crafted arguments for why there shouldn’t be any change. They are well-versed at explaining why you don’t understand and why the status quo can’t be changed. Most of the time, I listen and don’t say anything; it’s not worth the argument.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I met a non-white person who sits on a board. That means there has to be a problem. We can’t carry on with lots of Ethnic professionals in business, but very few sitting on the board.

Change must come from the businesses themselves because otherwise the Government will impose quotas, and that’s wrong. It has the potential to breed resentment and bring only short-term tokenism rather than a long-term solution to this problem.

And if you’re wondering, I’m the founder of a billion-pound company, do I ever get asked to sit on the board of a private or listed company, the answer is ‘no.’


Follow Ajaz Ahmed on Twitter