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23 July 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 4:41pm

Natalie Campbell: Business “doesn’t get it” on race and diversity

The social entrepreneur on diversity in business and what Covid-19 means for the hospitality industry.

By Emma Haslett and Phil Clarke Hill

Over a year after the murder of George Floyd forced the discussion about diversity and discrimination into the boardroom, Natalie Campbell, the co-chief executive of British bottled water maker Belu, says, “I don’t think [businesses] get it when it comes to race.”

In this video interview, Campbell, who has worked on improving sustainability with brands including Marks & Spencer and Virgin Media and was an adviser to the Royal Foundation, says businesses are guilty of making promises they don’t keep. Since Floyd, “everyone wants to talk about race”, she says – but diversity in boardrooms has not improved.

“Everyone has a statement alluding to what they’re doing to make their workplaces more equitable or more diverse or more inclusive,” she says. “It’s not making a difference, because it’s just words at the moment, it’s not action.

“People now know that space occupied by people that all look the same, sound the same, have the same education, have the same work life experience… that environment probably isn’t conducive to super-high performance. And I don’t want to say just all men, because actually, all women – it’s the same thing.

“There are lots of spaces in places where actually it’s very advantageous to be a woman.”

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Businesses are making improvements in limited areas, but understanding of diversity needs to extend beyond gender and to other sections of society. “People are delivering when it comes to gender, specifically to binary gender – so more women around the table,” she says.

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“I don’t think they get it when it comes to race. They do not get it when it comes to disability. And they do not get it when it comes to looking beyond binary genders. I don’t think they even get it when it comes to looking at youth.”

Meanwhile, in the week the hospitality sector had its long-awaited “freedom day” on 19 July, Campbell says the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to Belu, which relies entirely on restaurants, pubs and hotels, and donates 100 per cent of its profits to WaterAid.

Campbell, who started at Belu at the beginning of March 2020, says the company’s sales dropped from £6m to nothing during her first three weeks in the job. “It was one of those moments where you can run in terror,” she says. Instead, the company took the time to reconsider its long-term strategy.

She says it’s vital the hospitality industry “stays open and stays safe”. She says the government must ensure “venues aren’t opening and closing and there isn’t that yo-yo effect, and they can get to a capacity that means they are viable businesses”.

[see also: Why supermarkets are struggling to prevent empty shelves]