Business Technology

Why tech is the vehicle to promote diversity and inclusion

10 min read

25 October 2018

Features Editor, Real Business

Andrew Roughan, Managing Director of Plexal, an innovative co-working hub, talks diversity in tech, and how Plexal's collaboration with a new government initiative will push the agenda further.

Nestled in the heart of East London’s Olympic Park, Plexal is an entrepreneurial micro-community that SMEs and co-working space companies alike should be watching with interest.

Opened in July 2017 by mayor Sadiq Khan, it has revolutionised the way many startups and scale-ups do business.

Home to 641 founders of 136 businesses, Plexal is nearly at full capacity, but what are the reasons for its success?

Well, for one, the idea of the isolated and self-contained office unit is becoming a thing of the past.

Whatever industry a business operates in, all of them need to network and reach out to potential clients in order to grow and accelerate.

By operating out of a shared-office style space, it’s physically, – and financially easier for professionals to network and collaborate.

– And all without the time-consuming and expensive uber rides across town to meet with PRs and the like, – so what’s not to love?

But Plexal isn’t a one-dimensional cookie-cutter workspace, they have other objectives too, namely spearheading diversity and inclusion in the tech sector, and offering consultancy services to help companies do it both in-house, and when selling to consumers.

So fighting diversity, buddying up with the mayor – and boasting a whopping £13.5 million government grant to fund an in-house cyber-security innovation centre, Real Business talks to the brains behind all the action, namely, Plexal’s Managing Director Andrew Roughan, to find out more…

What does Plexal look like in terms of the types of businesses that live there?

Well, we are pretty much at full capacity at Plexal these days. I hope this shows that we have fostered a welcoming and creative eco-system for innovative businesses and their employees.

“In terms of demographics, 8.8% of the 136 businesses that call Plexal home are female-founded and twenty out of the 136 businesses were founded by someone from an ethnic minority background. So overall, 23% of the businesses in residence at Plexal are headed by underrepresented people.”

We want Plexal to be a business community where we have frequent debates about mobility solutions, whether that’s questions about social and economic mobility or tech-supported green transport solutions.

We particularly welcome innovators from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds,  the priority here is that we have an active, inquisitive and collaborative community.

We also proactively support these founders too, for example, we have a programme called Plexiglass that gives mentoring and advice to female entrepreneurs specifically.

Why did you choose your location?

The Olympic Park campus was a great choice for our location because there was already a vibe of innovation there.

You have academics, researchers, universities and other big businesses within striking distance of each other.

“You’ve got companies like Ford Motors and Matches Fashion all in the same area too, so it’s already a centre for business innovation, but by bringing Plexal into the fold, we were starting to make the promise of innovation a reality for exciting smaller companies too.”

The idea is that Plexal could build on and accelerate the existing business environment by giving exciting startups the opportunity to grow and collaborate through our co-working space.

Tell us more about the Plexal brand and the services you provide?

Well, one of our services is providing the co-working space environment, and that’s something we’re looking to expand upon in the future.

Because our Olympic Park site has been so popular, we are looking at additional sites in and beyond London.

“We believe that co-working spaces will become a mainstay in the office space sector going forward, in less than ten years you’ll find that this particular landscape will have moved towards shared spaces significantly.”

Our second function is that of a cyber-security consultancy business, and after receiving the generous grant money, we can accelerate this aspect of our brand’s business too.

Why the focus on welcoming tech companies into Plexal?

We don’t solely focus on tech companies, but we have found that it’s within tech-based processes where innovation occurs most easily.

The point is that innovation can cause greater forms of societal impact, top of the list being diversity and inclusion.

“Also the tech sector is based upon the talent and ability of its workers, the ability to innovate, invent and accelerate has no gender, colour or socio-economic background.”

– That’s why tech is such an exciting place to start when it comes to fostering diversity and inclusion.

You’ve partnered with the Social Inclusion Unit, what’s the main objective?

Our partnership with the SIU and political engagement charity, ‘My Life, My Say’  was launched last week.

The purpose of the unit is to champion true diversity in the world of work, and that’s something we wanted to get behind at Plexal.

This means supporting and giving a platform to underrepresented groups.

But for us, this isn’t just about the headline groups such as women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Of course, these issues are incredibly important to solve and support, but part of the SIU’s work is to understand the particular localities and complexities that surround the idea of identity.

– So we also like to give consideration to social and economic background too when startups come through our doors to work with us.

“Despite all the great diversity discussions taking place, more granularity is required, and the Social Inclusion Unit, that’s underpinned by academic research, is helping to achieve this more micro-focused approach.”

– We’re not interested in simply knee-jerking from one issue to another when it comes to discrimination issues.

What’s Plexal’s role in this initiative?

The idea is that we go into tech companies and conduct specific measurement based tests on its customer and employee base.

We do this to discover whether a company is doing enough to appeal to a diverse audience in terms of the goods or services they offer and if their staff understands this.

For example, we want businesses to think about whether customers would be more likely to buy their products if they were more inclusive.

This includes the idea that businesses could be more aware of the diversity of the customer base, and to ensure their employees understand diverse customer needs more.

“In short, we want to help businesses great and small quantify and understand the benefits of inclusion and inclusive policies. Don’t do it just because it’s the right thing to do, also see it as a form of positive financial engagement, that’s the viewpoint we want more businesses to take.”

We want to help businesses measure these facts on a regular basis as it can drive greater engagement for their customer base.

Does what you’re doing with the SIU tie into your brand philosophy generally?

Yes absolutely. What we’re doing with the SIU fits in with what we are trying to do with ideas surrounding mobility in general at Plexal.

There’s a lot of discussion around mobility at the moment, particularly in regard to more environmentally conscious transport systems.

But how about the mobility issues of the individual?

– This is an aspect that is increasingly being left out of business and tech-related mobility discussions.

“At Plexal we’re trying to relate these discussions back to this individual aspect.”

We think that the role of the individual is getting lost in tech, so we want to amplify discussions not just about things like autonomous vehicles, but about individual needs too, including for differently abled people.

– And tied into this, of course, is social mobility too.