Sir Ken Olisa: Diverse companies have 'competitive advantage' over rivals

Naomi Ackerman
·2-min read
Sir Ken Olisa
Sir Ken Olisa

Tech entrepreneur Sir Ken Olisa, the first British-born black director of a FTSE 100 company, has said new pledges from top companies to make their boards more diverse will lead to a “competitive advantage” over rivals.

PwC, ITV, KPMG and Diageo were among 20 top firms to pledge last week to have at least one ethnic-minority director on their boards by 2024.

The move came after a report published in February found 37 FTSE 100 firms had no black or ethnic-minority directors.

Olisa, 70, now lord-lieutenant of Greater London, told the Standard that these efforts to boost diversity in corporate Britain should not just be seen as “virtue signalling” or as a social justice issue, but as a way to make a business stronger and more profitable – because a diverse company automatically has an advantage in the market.

Top accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers is among signatories to the new pledge (PA Archive/PA Images)
Top accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers is among signatories to the new pledge (PA Archive/PA Images)

“You can either virtue signal, or you can do it properly,” he said. “What I have been saying and campaigning for over the past couple of years is that in business there is something more important at stake here, and that is competitive advantage... You need people from the top to the bottom who share those [diverse] lived experiences.”

Board membership changes may be crucial, but slow to have an impact. The former Huawei director said that corporations could improve their diversity access “next week” by forging “tighter links” with local youth clubs and inspiring talented but disadvantaged young people.

“That’s how we [the business community] will make a difference,” he said. “This whole issue has two sides to it – competitive advantage and social justice. Businesses need to see the competitive point, and young people need to raise their aspirations. Working with youth clubs is one way of doing this.”

He also urged companies to continue to hire apprentices. He said businesses need to “scout” talent from all backgrounds, as sports teams do, to ensure the best people get through.

His comments came after figures published by the Department for Education earlier this month showed new apprentice starters fell by 18 per cent to 319,000 in the academic year 2019-20, compared with the year before.

Olisa spoke during Black History Month, and highlighted the urgent need to teach black British history in schools – particularly about the Windrush Generation and their contributions.

“People need to understand the Windrush Generation came here to contribute something,” he said.

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