My dear departed dad once gave me a handy piece of advice; if he said, you’re the brightest in the room, it’s time to find a new room. I’m not sure if he agreed with it (he often quite enjoyed being the brightest in the room as he invariably was) but I get his point. If you’re standing in a room and everyone looks like you where are all the new ideas going to come from?
IFB 2014 (International Festival of Business) just spent six weeks camped out like a corporate carnival in Liverpool. Festivals, in my lexicon, are driven by cider, music and a bit of alternative entertainment. They do things a little different in the business world. From the discussions I was part of, the events I glimpsed, there are interesting discussions to be had; how do business and cities work together, how do we get more women involved, how do we help encourage young people to experiment with different career paths. Like I said, interesting.
But not life-changing.
This is not going to be a diatribe on IFB. By and large I think it’s important for Liverpool. For the last decade the focus has been on the city’s culture. Liverpool’s visitor economy is vital and has played an incredibly important role in changing both perceptions of the city and shoring up its economy. But it is really city-centre-centric with little impact felt on the surrounding suburbs like Kirkdale, Croxteth and Garston. Business, the wide gamut of business that spreads across the city from manufacturing to logistics, does envelop much of Liverpool’s districts. Plus it employs people from the grassroots right up to CEOs. Culture is unlikely to give every person in the city a job. Business could well.
IFB was a great opportunity for Liverpool to show it meant business. And it truly did. But it also highlighted where the gaps are in the city’s business community.
Look around the business community and two things jump out. One; it’s really white and two; it’s really male. The fact that Liverpool is a diverse, multicultural, matriarchal city means that is a double whammy of shitness.
It stems from the fact that much of the business community focuses on one element of business; a tiny avenue of commerce that focuses on the services of legal, political, partly cultural, largely financial and shedloads of marketing. Really, you’d think with the amount of marketers in Liverpool the city wouldn’t have an issue with branding at all.
There’s nothing for the shopkeepers, the technologists, VFX artists, nursery owners, restaurateurs anywhere outside of the city centre. That list isn’t exhaustive but just a starting point. There were attempts to focus on different elements of the economy throughout the course of the festival; some which worked better than others. There were also some truly nauseating and fist chewingly awful women only events (how you can be ‘Woman of the Year’ when no-one put my mum on a shortlist, or yours for that matter, is beyond me).
The problem is that they all have this sense that we have to all do business in the same way. We have to wear the same suits, style our hair in the same blousy blow-dry, wear the same dresses and use the same phones. We are all on the same networking lists, go to the same restaurants and bars, drink the same drinks, know the same people, live in smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter circles. Cos then when we all get in a room together and talk about how well we’re all doing no one will ever dare to say anything different because they won’t have any other perspective.
Liverpool’s business needs way more colour. One of the reasons the culture was so appealing is that it does, some of the time, manage to engage and inspire different parts of the city rather than just those in the business community. Its commercial sector needs to do the same thing. The corner of the city I live in is largely Muslim and Polish. Plenty run their own businesses. I’ll give you all the money in my purse if you can find one who went to an IFB event.
Last week someone was talking to me about why the big problem Liverpool has had isn’t outside but inside; is is the city’s response to capitalism that has been lacking, not capitalism itself. That statement alone made me bristle like a brand new brush but I haven’t forgotten it and it calls for a greater sense of action, rather than passivity, to solve Liverpool’s issues of jobs, wealth, prospects and employment. Thinking about how the next IFB in two years’ time can engage on more of the city’s business community that might not have glass-fronted offices on Old Hall Street would be a good start.