‘Doing good in silence’
Real-estate investor Ric Lewis on boosting diversity in the workplace Michael O’Dwyer
‘My parents taught me a long time ago the real pleasure of doing things exceptionally well, even when no one’s watching and applauding you’
‘When I got here 20 years ago it felt like the United States in the Seventies. There was a lot of social interaction between different ethnicities and races but there wasn’t much power mixing. In the halls of opportunity and access the lights were pretty dim.”
Ric Lewis, the American-born founder of Tristan Capital, believed to be Britain’s biggest black-owned business, says equality has improved in the UK since he arrived from the US – but it still has a long way to go.
The real estate investor, whose firm manages assets worth more than €10bn (£8.9bn) in the UK and Europe, has had a busy pandemic.
The destruction of the retail and hospitality sector, the acceleration of online shopping and the explosion of working from home have upended the commercial property sector. Coupled with a deep recession, the change in working and shopping habits could decimate demand for offices and retail units. “In the short term, we’re going to need less office space,” says Lewis from his Hampstead home. “In the long term, I’m betting on human nature.”
The 57-year-old admits his economic interest in the continued use of offices, but says people will return once it is safe. “If you’re working from home and there are some people working in the office, human nature is going to make you worried that you’re not in the room where it happens.”
An online workplace would also hurt those starting out, Lewis argues. “If you are from an under-resourced or under-represented community and you don’t have those networks, how do you get them established?”
Racism and the underrepresentation of black communities have risen to the top of the political and business agenda following global protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May. Lewis has said previously that he does not want to be “the champion of diversity”, preferring to promote equality quietly. One of his favourite hoodies carries the slogan “do good in silence”.
“My parents taught me a long time ago the real pleasure of doing things exceptionally well, even when no one’s watching and applauding you,” he says.
But he says the momentum behind calls to boost equality since Floyd’s death was a chance to “supercharge” the work of the Black Heart Foundation, a charity that Lewis founded and where he is chairman.
The foundation, which has supported 100 people from underrepresented communities through higher education since 2013, launched an appeal last month to raise £1m so that another 100 can have the same opportunity.
Lewis and the charity’s board have promised to match the first £500,000 of donations and he says the funding target is close to being met.
The foundation is seeking donations from the public but also relies on Lewis’s own network. The 6ft 10in former college basketballer counts former Australian cricket captain Shane Warne among his best friends. Rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson and former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan are trustees of the charity.
Lewis, who joined the board of investment and savings firm Legal & General as a non-executive director in June, understands the importance of human relationships in creating opportunities and increasing the “pitiful” number of people from ethnic minorities in boardrooms.
He argues that “good, well-meaning” directors are often slow to hire minority candidates because they don’t know where to find qualified people who are not white and fear diluting the quality of their boards.
“What I’m trying to do with the Black Heart Foundation is grow the ranks so that you can’t help but run into people [from minorities],” he says. “We’re trying to grow an army of people so you feel like ‘they’re at my front door, they’re in my back garden, they’re on my street, they’re everywhere you look’ and you can’t argue they do not have the quality, the education, the experience.”
Access to capital is another barrier Lewis wants to tackle. “There’s a problem – you can’t get money till you’ve had money and invested money. Which either is really good because people are looking for a track record, or it’s an amazing way to keep newcomers out of being in the game.”
Studies show that minority-led businesses receive capital less often. Lewis is chairman of the investment committee of Impact X, which funds start-ups led by BAME entrepreneurs.
He invokes the adage that the man who owns the gold makes the rules. Helping people from underrepresented communities to build businesses can give them the “economic power to make change and make rules – not to exclude anyone else, but just to be in the conversation [and] get a vote in the room where it happens”, he says.
“If you want to get it done, you can get it done. I don’t mean it’s overnight, but it is possible. You just have to want to do it and think it’s valuable for the community that you’re in.”
Ric Lewis, founder of Tristan Capital, says an online-only workplace would create even more barriers for under-represented communities