Executive Board

Leicester Business Voice speech

5 May 2022

Hello everyone! I am delighted to be here at the home of Leicestershire County Cricket Club and meeting with a diverse range of business colleagues. It exemplifies the ethos of this great club and many other successful organisations – namely, to reach out and be a part of the community. To bring leaders from business and community to the club but also to play a part in society and to give to others. In a post pandemic world, that is vital for success.

Of course another reason I am delighted to be here today is that, being of South Asian origin, cricket runs in the blood. I certainly played a bit in my youth and I just find there is a special vibe about being in a place that celebrates sporting success, fair play, and the triumph of the human spirit in overcoming odds to achieve your best. 

So I am especially proud that the University has links with this great club. Our business school has collaborated with the club and our students have linked with experience, events, and knowledge exchange activities. I am confident that we can grow this relationship even more.

I also want to thank Leicester Business Voice for organising this special members’ dinner and for inviting me to speak. I must have done something right when I last spoke at one of your events that you have invited me back! I know also that our former Head of Business Development Anjuu Trevedi MBE was a board member representing the University. This has now continued with her new role with Twycross Zoo and we wish her every success with that.

Perhaps I should say a little more about myself apart from the fact I love cricket! Well as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, I am in charge of a business with education and research at its core. 

Our impact is diverse and encompasses cultural, medical, heritage and other benefits, but to give you an impression of how a University adds value to the region in economic terms.

  • We are a £300 million pound annual turnover business with more than 3,000 staff and 19,500 students.
  • The University is worth £600 million to the UK economy each year and add to this £100 million contributions from our student economy.
  • Each year we contribute £360 million to the economy of Leicester and Leicestershire
  • We spend more than £10 million annually with local businesses in the city.
  • And we support one in every 23 jobs in Leicester, a further 7,000 across the county, and 10,000 in total across the UK.

I too have a background that has constantly led to an interface between academic and industry. I am an engineer by profession and have been a technical consultant to a number of businesses and organisations. I was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise for many years and this provided me with a wealth of opportunities to forge ties between university and business.

So I feel I am in familiar company today. With people who represent the best of business in Leicester, who are committed to working together for the betterment of business and for the community. 

I believe coming together and working together is key to our future. It is a view born out of experience. The pandemic has tested us all in different ways and one truth has become apparent – we depend upon one another. ‘ We are in this together’ became a familiar mantra during the pandemic – and what we witnessed over the two years were people, organisations and business from different sectors working as one for the betterment of society. We need to hold onto that spirit. The way we all pulled together defined Leicester as a city which was longer in lockdown than any other city in the UK. It made me enormously proud to be a citizen of Leicester and gave me hope for the future.

I was struck by a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers in the East Midlands that stated: 

“We’re emerging from the pandemic with a new set of priorities, largely focused around fairness, the environment and work-life balance.”

Clearly the pandemic has changed the rules of engagement and reset our priorities. Crucially, the PwC report goes on to say:

“In concert with the vision set out in the Levelling Up White Paper, local government, employers and leaders all have a part to play in providing opportunities for people to grow their businesses, careers, and skills in cities, towns, and communities right across the East Midlands.”

This underpins the need for all of us to work together. And to be fair – we are already in a good position.

In March this year, Leicester was placed as the highest ranked East Midlands city in the Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities Index. This ranks 50 of the UK’s largest towns and cities based on people’s assessment of 12 key economic wellbeing factors. Leicester in fact ranked above average for work-life balance, income distribution and safety.

According to the report, the East Midlands economy had an estimated GVA growth rate of 6.9% in 2021, the same as the West Midlands compared with 7.4% for London.

But the picture isn’t entirely rosy – and you know better than most the reality on the ground.

The East Midlands Chamber’s Quarterly Economic Survey identified how ‘sky-high inflation, energy price hikes and the war in Ukraine are creating “new unknowns” for businesses.’ It points out there was also a drop in business confidence due to the Omicron surge.

The Survey states that: 

‘The biggest concerns for businesses right now are declining access to cash and margins being squeezed by galloping inflation.’

So it is a mixed picture and in light of this, it is more important than ever that we stand together and support one another. We have a real opportunity to progress with partnerships that are truly dynamic and mutually beneficial.

At the University we are already achieving this. We have teamed up with Santander to give businesses a much-needed boost as we strive to recover from the pandemic. A scheme funded by Santander will reward up to 200 students and staff from the University who volunteered to work with the NHS during the pandemic and who are helping businesses recover following the economic impact of lockdown.

Another example of the University working in partnership with others is in the Together in Hope campaign to strengthen community cohesion. We worked alongside Leicester City Football Club and the Bishop of Leicester along with a host of others to make an impact.

Our partnership approach is focused around encouraging skills growth, creating jobs, and helping to retain expertise and knowledge in the area. Most of all, we want to bring the benefits of a world-class university to make a palpable difference in the community.

To illustrate this, our partnership with Leicester’s Hospitals is key especially during the pandemic:

  • The University’s COVID-19 research contribution has been among the best in the UK. We were ranked in the top three universities in the UK for COVID-19 research – behind only Oxford and Cambridge.
  • We were the first in the world to discover the link between people from minority ethnic backgrounds being more susceptible to severe cases of coronavirus. 
  • A number of University staff were members of the independent SAGE group guiding Government policy on tackling the pandemic.
  • We ran major clinical trials that resulted in the first known treatment.
  • And we are now leading an £8.4 million national study into the long-term health impacts of COVID-19.

I think this illustrates how partnerships can benefit not only the organisations involved, but society as a whole.

You don’t just have to take my word for this. The Government’s Levelling up White Paper says the following:  

“a mix of factors is needed to transform places and boost local growth: strong innovation and a climate conducive to private sector investment, better skills, improved transport systems, greater access to culture, stronger pride in place, deeper trust, greater safety and more resilient institutions.”

The paper goes on to say: “History illustrates what is possible by following this path. The Renaissance flourished in Italian city states that combined innovation in finance with technological breakthroughs, the cultivation of learning, ground-breaking artistic endeavour, a beautiful built environment, and strong civic leadership. And the first Industrial Revolution in Britain came about through the interplay of innovative financial instruments, sharper rewards for enterprise, new institutions of learning, improvements in transportation and rivalrous emulation between local leaders and entrepreneurs. Those same concerted forces are needed to drive productivity, innovation, and growth across the UK today.”

If ever there was an argument for ‘all for one and one for all,’ this is it. We can seek and we can achieve betterment for all of us by working together. In fact, I believe we can become exemplars. I know this because the way different sectors and organisations pulled together during the pandemic was truly exceptional and inspiring. We have it in us to lead the way for a new renaissance. A Leicester renaissance.

And to be honest, we cannot afford to be complacent as we face many challenges:

  • Leicester is the 32nd most deprived local authority in England, out of 317 local authorities and over a third of residents live in the most deprived 20% of areas nationally.
  • According to the Office of National Statistics, the East Midlands has the 8th lowest productivity of the 9 English regions and is 7th lowest for Foreign Direct Investment. 

Given this reality, what needs to be done? 

Well, in terms of the skills needs in the area:

  • It's about generating new opportunities and jobs for young people 
  • It is about making our region an attractive place to live, work and do business – the challenge now lies in attracting high-skilled businesses, which will in turn benefit the whole local economy
  • It is an opportunity to revitalise post pandemic by investing in technology, infrastructure, skills, and education 

This region is home to some of the most dynamic and exciting business anywhere in the UK and now is the time to use this opportunity for collaboration, to work together and realise our ambitions. 

Take for example the inspiring example of MicroFresh and its founder Byron Dixon OBE. From what was then a tough school in Leicester, he has now created the global product of choice for ensuring freshness, health, and hygiene.

Through long-term collaborative partnerships with the University of Leicester, what began in Byron’s words as “a pretty dull anti-mould treatment for leather” is now validated for a variety of purposes, expanded its applications substantially and is now exported to over 60 countries worldwide from their base in Leicester. 

As well as running a highly successful business, Byron is also on the Advisory Board of the Help to Grow Management and Leadership programme which provides guidance and training to business leaders to improve their commercial performance.

I believe it is time for developing scale and growing start-ups and making Leicester the place to want to do this with a strong ecosystem in place providing support. This work has already started through the LLEP, BizGateway, Leicester Startups, and NBV. Also, working with Leicester City Council – that’s the LCB Depot & Dock – as well as DMU and CASE, we are making a difference. By stakeholders working together and special programmes like the European Space Agency – Business Incubation Centre for space enabled start-ups, we can achieve a momentum shift for this area. 

Another example of the University working with businesses and making a transformative impact is Space Park Leicester, where the Incubation Centre is based. This is set to create 2,500 jobs and is growing existing business collaborators and bringing in global businesses – helping to position us as the Space City for the UK.

Space Park Leicester is attracting and becoming home to a wide range of innovative businesses – from EarthSense  our own University of Leicester Spinout in the Air Quality field now employing 25 people to global communications business AST SpaceMobile who are using the space and expertise to develop new satellite enabled internet technologies. Businesses at Space Park Leicester benefit from a range of innovation services including a Leicester Incubator. 

Another business at Space Park Leicester is Lenke Space and Water Solutions which this year won the LeicestershireLive Innovation Award for the Space Technology category. Established by two Leicester graduates, it provides tools for decision makers to combat water scarcity worldwide.

Many businesses have benefited from the University the Leicester Innovation Hub which celebrated its 5th birthday only last week. The hub is a front door providing businesses with easy access to University of Leicester R&D, Innovation expertise, facilities, technologies, students & graduates. The Innovation Hub Team deliver innovation projects, help businesses access R&D funding across a range of schemes, funded projects and sectors as well as providing students and graduates with start-up and enterprise development opportunities.

Speaking of innovation, another exemplary leader with whom we work is Nic Kotecha of Morningside Pharmaceuticals. We work alongside Morningside Pharmaceuticals and DMU in order to support the Innovation Awards and the LLEP, with all three universities, Bizgateway and Innovate UK, to support Leicester Innovation Festival.

Earlier this year we opened a new dedicated site for our School of Business. The site includes student and alumni start-up spaces and houses a global academy for leaders, innovators and change makers with over 90 years of delivering business and economics education. The School continues to deliver Government Funded programmes including the Small Business Leadership Programme and Help to Grow, supporting approximately 300 SMEs over 2 years. They offer development and leadership programmes for businesses, and indeed recently delivered for a subsidiary of a FTSE-100 company.

Our Law School provides a range of pro-bono services in the community and there is a raft of other services provided by the Students’ Union and other University departments. Through our collective efforts, we are reaching out to businesses and communities. In partnership with DMU and Loughborough, we are developing a Universities Civic Agreement so that we can harness the power of three universities in the city and county to make a lasting impact.

In the final part of my speech, I want to focus on something that is close to my heart and which I thinks provides one of the keys for unlocking the potential of businesses and organisations. 

I am passionate about diversity and inclusion, and ensuring representation of all protected characteristics in organisations. I am particularly keen on addressing the lack of diversity in leadership – something that I believe hinders progress and stunts growth. A diverse leadership brings diversity of opinion. New and fresh approaches to tackling issues and addressing problems. It helps to raise aspirations for others and creates role models. In a multi-cultural city like Leicester, it is about making a visible difference. 

Many of you will be aware of the Green Park Business Leaders Index which last year revealed that, while Britain’s top firms were improving boardroom diversity, there was corporate side-lining of women and ethnic minorities. The report stated that ‘ethnic minorities and females are still being shunted into functions which are far less likely routes into the top tier of leadership than those travelled by their white, male counterparts.’ Indeed it found that the number of Black Chairs, Chief Executives or Chief Financial Officers of FTSE 100 companies had statistically fallen to zero. To make matters worse, the report found that there had been a decline in ethnic minority representation in the leadership pipeline over the past eight years, so the prospects of improving representation in leadership were not improving.

Another study looking at the board composition in the FTSE 150 companies found that less than 10% of all board directors identified as minority ethnic.

Clearly we have a problem and, as one of the few ethnic minority leaders of a university in the UK, I am determined to deliver change. Last year we launched a Positive Action in Recruitment Initiative, specifically targeted at increasing the ethnic diversity of our staff. We are committed to understanding and removing systemic barriers and disadvantages experienced by BAME staff and applicants. 

I am proud of our reputation for student diversity, with 56.7% of our students identifying as minority ethnic in 2020/21 and 20.3% of our staff. Whilst this staff figure is considerably higher than the overall sector level of 14.5%, and is increasing each year, we have significant progress still to make, given our student demographic and location in such a diverse city.

And the fact remains that the proportion of most ethnic groups decreases with higher grades and indeed there is also very little or low representation of Black staff at the higher grades.

This lack of diversity is a problem we all need to tackle and I applaud initiatives like here at Leicestershire County Cricket Club that has teamed up with the Cricket Supporters’ Association to tackle the major diversity problem in sport. We can all learn from one another, share good practice and work together for the common good.

In this respect I was proud to launch an initiative to change the face of British sports leadership. I was joined by representatives from Leicester City Football Club at the King Power Stadium to sign a strategic partnership with Sporting Equals. This will promote ethnic diversity across sport and physical activity in the UK, and address the lack of diversity among sports leaders.

The University has collaborated with Sporting Equals for more than a decade to research and promote the role of individuals from ethnically-diverse backgrounds in sport and sports leadership. Leicester Riders and Leicester Tigers are also key sporting organisations working with the University in various ways to make a demonstrable impact upon communities. 

The football club is another example of an organisation that goes above and beyond in terms of community benefits and I pay tribute to its Chief Executive Susan Whelan on her exemplary leadership. The Football Club, Leicester’s Hospitals and the University have committed to working together in a child health partnership with a collective vision to support local children in becoming the healthiest generation to ever grow up in Leicestershire and Rutland.

Creating opportunities is one of the key ways of raising aspirations and providing pathways for the disadvantaged. Research has demonstrated that those who take part in work-related experience can negate the known socio-economic effects of employability prospects. So the challenge is to provide internship and placement opportunities not simply to those who are better networked and have greater ease in accessing opportunities. Rather, we must focus our attention on those who are socially disadvantaged and ensure that they have these opportunities, thereby contributing to upward social mobility.

Our Leicester Graduate City project in partnership with DMU and the city council places second-year university students with local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for a six-week internship. This aims to help with graduate retention and gives students a chance to experience the working environment.

So one of the challenges I put to you is how can we work together to help those from diverse and socially disadvantaged backgrounds in Leicester access the opportunities offered by local businesses. Once these students are at Leicester, how can we raise their aspirations to work for firms and in roles they may not have aspired to.

I believe we can create models of collaborative working that will be the envy of others. Together, we can be the difference.

The University of Leicester was founded in 1921 shortly after the end of two of the biggest crises in modern history; WW1 and the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Recovering from these events required a resilient, resourceful, and brave nation united in common purpose. As we celebrate our Centenary Year it is difficult not to notice the parallels between then and now. 

Coming out strongly from the Covid-19 Pandemic will require the same determination, community cohesion and pursuit of innovation we have shown before. The University of Leicester will continue to support individuals and businesses across our city, region, and country as active Citizens of Change. 

In 1936 the Bureau of Statistics of the League of Nations identified Leicester as the second-richest city in Europe. Now, as we begin our second century of the University, I call upon you to keep that spirit alive, to build upon the legacy of our forebears, and create a new tomorrow that is prosperous not just for us, but for all of our communities. Let us now look to ways to generate a new economic renaissance for the city. Through inspirational leadership and collective responsibility, anything is possible.

I would like to leave you with this quote from Henry Ford that crystallises my message today:

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself

Thank you all. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with you in the future. 


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