‘Do­ing good in si­lence’

Real-es­tate in­vestor Ric Lewis on boost­ing di­ver­sity in the work­place Michael O’Dwyer

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

‘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

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