“Middle aged white guy, thinning on top”
Stories has recently become a proud patron of BAME in Property – an organization for people that are passionate about increasing ethnic diversity in the property and planning sectors.
BAME in Property was founded by Priya Shah in 2017 after she found out that although 14% of the UK’s population classifies as BAME only 1.2% of the built environment sector does so. BAME in Property’s aim is “to support talented people of all backgrounds, encourage upcoming generations to venture into fulfilling careers, and inspire businesses to create a wave of positive change”. It's an agenda that Stories fully supports.
It has been pointed out to us (politely and less so) that we don’t exactly “look” diverse ourselves, certainty not through a gender or BAME lens. We have been aware of this from day one. On the one hand, its true – we don’t look diverse. But on the other hand, we have come together for the diversity of experience we all bring – and I will come back to that. But we have long been committed to improving our gender and ethnic diversity, and in doing so we have met some wonderful people, but we’ve also been accused of virtue signaling. You could argue that a publicly declared interest in diversity is a signal of sorts and so yes we’re perhaps guilty of it to an extent but we’re backing it up with action and if it helps to raise awareness then we’re ok with that.
Since inception, Stories has been seeking to identify and work with individuals that might be considered underrepresented in our industry. When we go looking for project-specific consultants we discuss how these individuals will combine to create an effective and diverse team. And the reason for this is that we genuinely believe that diverse teams make for successful teams. This is both from our own experience and from the work of the likes of Matthew Syed. In his book “Rebel Ideas” Syed notes that research reveals that “demographic diversity…in certain circumstances, increases group wisdom”. Among many other references, Syed cites the work of Prof. Chad Sparber who found that an increase in racial diversity of one standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25% in legal services, health services and finance. The book is well worth a read and full of interesting research.
But for us, it's more than chasing numbers. We are in the business of creating places for people (to coin a phrase). Personal experience can get you so far, but we genuinely value the input of our colleagues and broader stakeholders and we’re anxious to help our industry improve its understanding about what successful places look like from different perspectives.
Empathy always wins
Before Stories, the best team I ever worked with was the most diverse one. We could combine ourselves to bring a unique set of perspectives to every situation. In bids and pitches we would generally win more than we lost. In part this is because we were good at what we did but I think it was also because we were able to demonstrate empathy for and understanding of the people we were sat in front of.
Which brings me back to BAME in Property. We’re generally finding that the industry’s attention on gender over the last few years has seemingly begun to bear fruit (although with a way to go). It's not uncommon for half or more of our core consultants to be female. But the same cannot be said for ethnicity.
Will the real Paul Clark please stand up?
So what, you might say.
So back to Stories’ own diversity.
When setting up Stories we realized early on that we don’t even represent the only Richard Meier, James Scott or Paul Clark in the property industry! Although I really like both James Scott and James Scott (and my new acquaintance Scott James), I don’t know the architect Richard Meier. I have been on a MIPIM panel discussion with another Paul Clark (he of Crown Estate fame, but there are plenty more of us). Indeed, there is even another James Scott at the Crown Estate.
But, in the four middle class white men you see on our website is an expanse and diversity of professional experience that is hard to find. In our small team we have got the development process covered. From business planning and procurement through to on-site delivery and long-term management. Across the public and private sectors, start-ups to PLCs. So why the interest in ethnic diversity?
For a start, we think we have a handle on what it means to have a non-traditional start. None of my colleagues would have made it on to a present day graduate surveying scheme; Richard came in to the industry via an introduction to Argent from Arup (who were sponsoring his engineering degree); having studied Sociology Oli managed to tag along with his girlfriend to an interview day; and (also having studied engineering) James responded to an advert to get some marketing work experience with what was to go on to become The Collective. I had a more ‘traditional’ entry, having studied Urban Planning and getting a job as a Planning Consultant (working for three impressive woman at JLL) – but even then, when I chose the course I did so with the expectation that I would be joining the Army afterwards (having won a scholarship at 16, my progression ended after an injury to my knee). The Planning course was just something that interested me (I saw a poster for it in my sixth form common room), I had no idea about the property world – that came later and led me back to university. But, significantly, I am sure none of us walked into a room and wondered if this was a place for us. I am sure that each of us looked around and saw an industry of people we could identify with, giving us hope and allowing ambition to flourish. CEO, why not? Start-up, why not? But what if that wasn’t the case for us? Would it have worked out? The evidence suggests we might not have taken a second look and we want to do something about that.
Secondly, I think I have a good understanding about the importance of role models. My mum arrived in England on a boat from Cyprus in 1961 not speaking a word of English. She’s still not sure why I’m not a doctor, lawyer or a pilot – the three careers that were presented to me as the pinnacle of respectability and the key to a ‘successful’ life. I think a lot of the children of immigrants will share this kind of expectation. Thankfully, my lawyer wife has somewhat covered for my inadequacies. But being able to see people you identify with doing well is important in the creation of supportive conditions for people starting out.
I’ve done a lot of graduate recruitment over the years and all too often the young person sat in front of you is doing so because they are following a family member or friend into the industry. We need to get this kind of exposure in to underrepresented groups. According to GLA data the majority (c.60%) of London’s secondary school children are now from mixed backgrounds and BAME groups. This falls to c.25% nationwide but should give pause for thought for those of us trying to create places for future generations to enjoy.
“Rugby-playing, pheasant shooting, Land type”
On the penultimate page in “Rebel Ideas” there is a nice quote from Yaya Fanusie, an African-American Muslim former CIA agent
You should never hire people just because of their cultural or ethnic background. That would be a dangerous mistake. But when you widen the net of recruitment, you also broaden the pool of talent. It gives you the chance to hire outstanding people who are also diverse. And this has knock-on consequence. With more high class people from minority backgrounds, it encourages new people to apply, broadening the pool still further”.
At Stories, and by supporting BAME in Property, we want to get the best people around us and believe that we aren’t seeing even the tip of the iceberg yet. And with this in mind, I leave you with the wholly tragic post from a recruiter that I spotted recently on LinkedIn