Researchers from the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) have won the prestigious Outstanding Business and Enterprise Impact Award 2021 from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) - find out why below.
Why this research is needed
Micro and ethnic minority businesses contribute an estimated £55 billion and £25 billion respectively to the UK economy. Yet despite this contribution, these vibrant enterprises rarely feature in debates on productivity, attract policy attention or have access to mainstream business support programmes and initiatives. This results in knowledge gaps on the meaning of productivity, the role of business support providers, and a lack of support that makes a difference to these firms.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Productivity from Below (PfB) project sought to address this issue by working with firms to understand what support they needed to improve their productivity, shared this knowledge with business support organisations, and developed customised business support programmes based on project insights.
The research team
The PfB project is led by researchers from Aston University, including Professor Monder Ram, Principal Investigator and Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) and Dr Imelda McCarthy (lead researcher). CREME's work aims to address the societal challenges of diversity and inclusion in misrepresented and hard-to-reach communities of entrepreneurs. Monder is a leading authority on small business and BAME entrepreneurship and advises the government through his role on the APPG for BAME business owners. Dr Imelda McCarthy is a Research Fellow at Aston University and chartered occupational psychologist. Imelda's research interests focus on organisational leadership and management.
Monder and Imelda are joined on the project by colleagues from Aston University, the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick, and four practitioner partners - ACH (an award-winning social enterprise with a keen interest in promoting employability of migrants), the Bangladeshi Network (comprising four groups with local and national reach into the sector), Citizens UK (a national civil society alliance), and Punch Records (a business with a strong social mission to promote artists from diverse backgrounds).
The research process
The project follows the principles of 'engaged scholarship', which is a "participative form of research for obtaining the different perspective of key stakeholders to understand a complex social problem" (van de Ven, 2007). Such an approach ensures those closest to a problem are involved in the solution.
The practitioner partners worked as co-investigators on the project. They shared an understanding of what productivity means for ethnic minority-owned microbusinesses and their specific support needs leading to the development of customised business support programmes.
PfB has produced immediate and long-term benefits for ethnic minority businesses, including enhanced business support during the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, the researchers worked with Citizens UK to help local retailers access emergency funds and aided the establishment of a peer support group. Digital training was provided to Bangladeshi caterers to develop their takeaway offer to customers.
As Shahab Uddin, restaurateur and owner of Streetly Balti said: "The intervention that Aston [University] facilitated was really important in helping us tackle the challenging situation caused by the pandemic...once you start utilising social media, you realise that you can actually access thousands of people, and it really broadened my horizons and gave me a new way of marketing the restaurant."
The researchers also worked alongside Punch Records to develop The P Word, a leadership development programme for creatives, which was successful in securing funding for several programme participants.
As Namywa Jazz, a musician, artist and programme participant, said, "The incubator space [provided by The P Word] gave me a platform to bury down into my ideas, think about things practically and turn my ideas into a business."
PfB has also directly influenced three separate £1 million projects:
- Pathways to Enterprising Futures (PEF), an initiative to support 600 women into employment or self-employment in Birmingham
- The Migrant Business Support project that will provide business support to 500 migrant-owned businesses in Bristol and the West Midlands
- A programme of support, funded by the European Commission, that will support migrant businesses across Belgium, Greece, Latvia and Spain
These projects share PfB's concept of inclusivity, involve the same partners, and will provide tangible business support to over a thousand businesses.
The project has also contributed to academic and policy debates concerning micro and ethnic minority businesses.
Why is this research relevant today?
PfB demonstrates how learning and insights from grassroots initiatives can be scaled-up, and the value universities can get from developing long-term relationships with local businesses and communities - integral to the idea of 'civic' universities.
It shows that businesses are keen to engage with academics if the relationship is based on mutual respect and that the partnerships are resilient. These partnerships will be key ingredients of recovery initiatives in the post-pandemic era and will make a real difference to local businesses and communities.