Backed by the Commission for Racial Equality and the Women & Equality Unit, the group was addressed by trade secretary Patricia Hewitt, who was speaking in her role as minister for women.
Among the other speakers sharing the platform with the secretary of state was Mei Sim Lai, a senior partner at City-based accountancy firm Pridie Brewster.
Mei Sim Lai was talking at the conference about her work with the Ethnic Minority Business Forum, a Department of Trade & Industry initiative aimed at providing a voice for, and acting as adviser to, ethnic minority groups in business.
Her work with the forum is one of many roles she has undertaken over the years to promote both ethnic minority issues and those that affect women in the workplace.
Born in Malaysia, of Chinese origin and educated in Kuala Lumpur, Lai came to the UK in 1970 to train as an accountant. Her first position was as an article clerk with Top 50 firm Pridie Brewster, with whom she has stayed. Qualifying with the ICAEW, she became a partner with the firm in 1979, and now works on a wide range of clients, from individuals and entrepreneurs through to companies with a turnover of up to £10m.
In particular, she has worked on clients in the not-for-profit sector, and now runs Pridie Brewster’s free financial helpline for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations.
But it is her work with the ethnic minority business forum which took her to Leicester last week. ‘It does a lot of important work, particularly in the inner cities where there has been a growing population increase in ethnic minorities, and a lot of successful ethnic minority entrepreneurs already, particularly Asians,’ she explains.
The group looks at best practices among those businesses, and covers areas such as business support, access to finance, IT, procurement and regeneration issues. It is also an active lobbying force for ethnic minorities, where the forum seeks to make recommendations to the government. So has the government been listening to this voice?
‘Yes,’ says Mei Sim Lai, ‘but it takes time for the recommendations to be implemented. But Hewitt is supportive and has continued to maintain an interest in the group.’
In its last annual report, the forum made a number of recommendations to the government, including the creation of a minister for ethnic minorities, similar to the post of minister for women. Such a move would create an effective voice for ethnic minorities.
Lai has seen progress in the public sector, helped by the provisions of the Race Relations Act, and is now witness to similar progress in the private sector, now that companies are taking their corporate social responsibilities seriously. ‘I think for a long time companies were just paying lip service, but nowadays it is very key to the measurement of performance of companies – it is one of the factors investors and analysts now take into account,’ Lai explains.
She is keen to stress diversity is an important area for all businesses, and that organisations can benefit from a diverse workforce.
The forum links into the Small Business Service and Business Links, emphasising it is not just the large companies that should be aware of ethnic minority issues, but also that small and medium-sized enterprises can benefit but do not have the resources to implement effective diversity programmes.
‘There are a lot of good initiatives in equal opportunities. The bigger companies have the HR departments and the resources, but SMEs – the majority of companies are SMEs – do not have the same resources. Any help that can be given would allow them to achieve a lot in this area,’ Lai says.
Of the success of Business Links and the Small Business Service, she is diplomatic. ‘Business Links is there to help SMEs. There are ones that are very successful and others are still looking at ways in which they can improve their services and their communication with local business. They have to adopt a proactive approach,’ she says, adding: ‘It’s a shame as they were set up to help businesses and businesses are not using the support.’
In light of this, Lai calls on accountants from ethnic minority backgrounds to play their part in helping businesses to grow.
One issue that needs attention is access to finance for ethnic minorities. But a report by the British Bankers’ Association last month revealed that ethnic minority businesses were as successful as ‘white’ owned businesses in accessing start-up finance.
Ethnic minority businesses make a significant contribution to the UK economy. They account for 9% of business start-ups, although ethnic minorities represent only 7.1% of the total population. In London, around 20% of businesses are owned by a member of an ethnic minority. But the report also revealed how difficult it was to place ethnic groups under one umbrella – 51% of Chinese businesses were successful in obtaining external finance, while only 31% of Afro-Caribbean businesses were.
There is clearly a need to recognise the needs of each community, and Mei Sim Lai senses banks are waking up to this, as evidenced by HSBC’s Asian unit.There is also the need to understand the cultural acceptance, or otherwise, of loan financing.
Muslims present a particular challenge and the Ethnic Minority Business Forum has called for an investigation into the provision of non-interest based finance to the Muslim community.
Lai also urging other bodies, such as the Institute of Directors and the ICAEW to negotiate finance deals on behalf of their members.
Of course, last week’s conference in Leicester not only centred on ethnic minorities in public life, but also on the role women play in public life. Lai was the first female partner at her firm, as well as the first Chinese partner. ‘There has been good progress, but there is still room for improvement in terms of the number of women reaching the top in business and the profession.’
Through her role as a previous chairman of the City Women’s Network and a former trustee and treasurer of the Womankind Worldwide charity, Lai is well placed to comment on these issues. ‘There is the issue of work/life balance. A number of excellent female trainees and qualified accountants have not reached the top because of family issues,’ she says.
Lai points to the number of highly qualified professional women who have set up business on their own, in part as a reaction to work/life balance issues, but also in part recognising that there are still barriers to reaching the higher echelons of organisations. There are still not enough women in the boardroom, she complains.
‘There is still the need to be outstanding, to be better than your male colleagues,’ she comments.
But Lai finishes with a plea – more women, and ethnic minority women in particular, should put themselves forward and get involved in business and public life.
This was the theme of last week’s conference in Leicester and it’s a theme business and organisations should take very seriously, if they are not already doing so.
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