I started Fearless Futures in the summer of 2014
I felt compelled to set it up because I think we need to question how organisations go about social change, and their leaders need better tools to make diversity and inclusion real. For me, it’s about holding organisations’ work on this issue to the same high standards that we would expect of any other part of their business.
I had been working as an investment banker, but I was also very involved with the bank’s diversity and inclusion agenda. I just got really fed up to be honest: there was a lot of talk but it felt like we were going round in circles. I became convinced there was a big piece missing from the diversity and inclusion conversation, part of which is the implicit assumption that if an organisation employs more women then they would be white, middle class, heterosexual and able-bodied.
The business model is essentially based on understanding my own experiences as someone of Algerian-British heritage. At the heart of our work is exploring how inequalities are interconnected. My Algerian aunt has experienced discrimination because she’s a woman, a migrant and a Muslim Arab who wears a hijab. If an inclusion initiative is just based on someone like me, then my aunt gets missed out.
Many women I know don’t feel workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives reflect or are aimed at them. We need to embrace complexity – which is a very unfashionable concept right now, I know.
The idea just struck me when I was on holiday in New York
At first, I thought there must be an organisation that already does this, but I quickly discovered there wasn’t. I was really disappointed when that realisation sank in, because I would have much rather have joined an existing organisation than set up my own. I thought: “Oh my God, that means I now have to do it myself.”
I soon became convinced that this was something to which I wanted to dedicate my life, so I handed my notice in after that. I was very lucky in having savings and a very supportive partner, which enabled me to quit my job quite quickly – and potentially recklessly.
I’m a firm believer in trying and failing quickly
For me, it’s about getting on with it, getting feedback and learning from that rather than sitting alone in a room for ages perfecting an abstract idea without testing it. While the vision was always to work with corporates, in the first instance, Fearless Futures started out working with schools.
So, while I was working my notice period I approached two schools, one of which was my old school, and explained my ideas to them and the programme I’d devised. They really agreed with me, and told me they were seeing exactly the problems I’d outlined among their pupils. They asked me to deliver my programme to their students to try to help them to become change-makers.
I chose to bootstrap the venture rather than look for investment
We were incubated by a social change agency for a short while, but even there a lot of people told us our work was too fluffy. Although looking for funding was an option that was open to us early on, it quickly became painfully obvious that nobody understood what we were doing. So it was clear to us that we needed to concentrate on developing credibility with potential customers, not with investors.
I don’t think funding the business myself has hindered its growth at all. Having that personal investment has allowed us to stick to our values and not compromise our integrity. We haven’t had to make short-term decisions based on somebody else’s view of how we should grow. That’s really starting to pay off, because organisations are now coming to us to ask us to work with them.
Female entrepreneurs and people of colour struggle to get funding
The issues are well documented: a small number of people – mostly white, middle-class men – run the venture capital business, which has meant they tend to invest in ventures set up by people who look and sound like them.
I don’t feel I’ve faced any more challenges, because I have a lot going for me: I have a posh accent, which helps a lot, and being a former investment banker has given us a lot of credibility. But the biggest challenge I’ve had is with investors, who haven’t seen the need for what we do, because they’ve never experienced discrimination.
We want to become redundant within a decade
We’ve taken on board our own lesson about how power and privilege persist in the world and are seeking to work with business leaders in this country who have expressed a desire to see diversity and inclusion. We want them to demonstrate their good intentions by investing the time to really dig deep into this issue so their solutions are as powerful as they can be, because working with those with organisational power will lead us to our ultimate goal, which is to not exist.
We’re also starting to work with venture capital funds, as a matter of fact. They have people who recognise the problem and who want to make change. Fearless Futures could have an enormous impact by helping to educate them about how to make business decisions that are both equitable and very sensible financially. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
I think that by helping VCs to affect their business decisions we could have the most impact on creating more entrepreneurs who are women and people of colour.
These issues can provoke a lot of sensitivities
We’ve found that if people’s approach to handling diversity and inclusion is critiqued then they can feel as if they’re being told that they’re not a good person. They can become defensive and resistant to considering other approaches. We’ve all had those defensiveness feelings, including me.
So we’ve found we need them to try our workshop approach, which is centred on learning through experience, helping people understand how they can make a difference. We don’t give people a PowerPoint presentation about what they should say or do, we’re asking them to step into the unknown. So, our biggest challenge has been to learn how we best communicate what we do in a way that brings people along on that journey. We’ve found the best way of doing that is to invite them to experience our approach, rather than us just telling them. That’s been very successful for us in the past year.
You need to be in love with the problem, because it’s so hard to set up a business
It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also the most rewarding thing too. Being an entrepreneur is often glamorised, but my experience has been that it’s very unglamorous. I think it’s important for us to be honest about that, because it is very hard to get a business off the ground.
If you can, it’s worth having a good support system around you who really believe in you, because it can get very lonely. Trying to bring about social change is very hard because people will tell you it simply won’t succeed. So, you need to love the problem, because that will build your resilience and help you to stay focused on why you’re doing it, and have a long-term vision of helping to create a world where equity and belonging exists for all people. Any entrepreneur needs resilience, but I would say that is even more important for social entrepreneurs.
Every female entrepreneur I’ve met is absolutely brilliant
The businesses they run tend to last longer and make higher returns on investment, the statistics show. So I would say to women and people of colour to just crack on with what they’re doing. What we need to do is to change the ecosystem so that it’s more supportive of their businesses.
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