The duty to inspire

Black people need to establish themselves in boardrooms, parliament and court rooms if they want to

In three and a half years working for a corporate law firm in the City, I often worked ungodly hours, bleary-eyed, on big-money transactions for many of the private equity houses that have become persona non grata of late. Not once did I hear the name of Damon Buffini.

But early this year, the GMB trade union waged an extremely effective campaign against the private equity sector and made Buffini, as managing partner of the equity giant Permira, its focus. It even parked a camel outside the church Buffini attends, to "highlight the quote from the Bible about a camel going through the eye of a needle". So successful was it that the likes of the Daily Mail came out in support - unusual bedfellows indeed.

While I share the reservations about private equity's penchant for playing hard and fast with people's jobs, I was genuinely delighted to discover Buffini - a man who looks like me and has a mixed-race background to similar to mine - sitting atop the private equity pile.

Here is a man who came from a council estate in Leicester, and became not only the Thierry Henry of his industry sector, but also arguably the richest man of black parentage in this country. What a shame that he has come to prominence in the context of a public row about corporate greed.

After the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, there has been a plethora of interviews with former gang members who grew up in circumstances similar to Buffini's. Predictably, many have sought a career in music as a route out of the gangs and the council estates.

Yet real power does not lie in the recording studios or the changing rooms Henry frequents; real power in Britain is exercised in the conference, board and dealing rooms of the City, in parliament, the Inns of Court and beyond. This is where black people need to be if they are to have real clout and to achieve political and economic parity.

Finally, it seems, this is beginning to happen, as the editor of New Nation, Michael Eboda, rightly says. His paper's Power List of Britain's 50 most influential black men and 50 most influential black women, published on 27 August (which includes just three musicians and two active sportsmen), contradicts any claims that we do not have role models to inspire our young people to take their places in the professions.

In the list, Buffini brushes shoulders with the likes of Stanley Musesengwa, chief operating officer of Tate & Lyle, and Carol Lake, managing director and co-head of marketing at J P Morgan. There are, of course, better-known individuals there, such as the skills minister David Lammy and author Zadie Smith. But it's the unknowns that are such a joyous revelation.

So where have all these people been? First, the media have only just started to find out about these hidden stars and are now giving them serious space and airtime. Yet though the media are culpable, it is too easy to blame them for our ignorance.

Some on the list actively shun the media limelight. It is precisely because she is low-key and quietly competent (in addition to having a shrewd legal brain) that Baroness Scotland, the most powerful female, was appointed Attorney General after the debacle that was Lord Goldsmith. Likewise Buffini, the most powerful man on the list, is notoriously difficult to get to. It is telling that New Nation, having worked on the project for more than six months, does not appear to have been able to secure interviews with either its leading man or woman to accompany its impressive list.

So our problem is perhaps not a lack of role models. It is that we don't know we have them. If we are to provide alternative positive examples for young people - not just black kids, but all those who struggle to succeed in unequal, modern Britain - we need people like Buffini and Scotland to step up to the plate and inspire.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?