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REACH: We need more diversity in MICE

by Emily Wallin

Determined to level up, recruitment expert Robert Kenward got to work with Manchester Met University, Diversity Ally, Event First Steps and Mash Media to launch the scholarship programme REACH to encourage people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds into the events industry.

What is REACH?
REACH stands for race, ethnicity and cultural heritage. The best way to describe it is a pledging initiative to assist black and brown and minority ethnic talent through their three year event management degree course at university with their cost of living. That works out as about £5,000 a year. It’s a vehicle that promotes that university and promotes underrepresented groups. It’s a medium-term pipeline into the industry to increase representation.
It isn’t about equality, it’s about equity.

How did REACH come about?
I have been a recruiter for more than 20 years, I can count on two hands the number of black, Asian, and minority ethnic event people I have worked with, and on one hand those at a senior level.
About 18 months ago, I was thinking, ‘I know I’m a middle aged, middle class white man but why is no one doing anything about this?’
The events industry lost thousands of people during the pandemic, some of those have come back and some never will.
Companies looking to fix their diversity try to recruit a black or brown face from another events company. But that is doing nothing for the level of diversity in the industry as a whole.
Then Gabby [Austen-Browne, co-founder of Diversity Ally], contacted me. That was a big part of my education, diversity and inclusion (EDI) journey.
Together with Diversity Ally and Event First Steps we launched by an industry taskforce to lead the scholarship initiative.

Why is it important?
Why is it not important? When I’m asked, I think it is one of those no- brainers. Less than 10% of our industry is black or brown. That’s wrong.
It shouldn’t be like that. Our country isn’t like that. We have an underrepresented demographic and that has to change. It is not acceptable.

What difference will REACH’s scholarship money make to the lives of students?
It’s the difference between some kids going and some kids not.
These are kids that have already qualified, they are ready to come. The industry is an industry they want to get in to and the barrier that is turning them away is £5,000 a year. That’s a lot a money to a student and might be the difference between someone going to university or not.
I know a lot of companies have had a difficult couple of years but this is a legacy thing that can make a bit impact further down the line.

How does it work?
REACH is its own enterprise. No money goes through us. Events companies pledge funding to the scholarship programme. The universities have processes in place for how they award those grants and to which students, so its not a case of companies picking a specific person.
We have five students at Manchester Metropolitan. They have their places and will start next September. The first five places have been funded and the idea now is to get the funding for next year.
Our timeline is that by April we want to know who we are going to work with. We are speaking to universities at the moment about who we are going to work with next year and then we have until March to get the funding for the following year.
We want to choose one university to take each group of students through their three year course. So we want more businesses and universities with great event management courses to get involved.
So far we already have The Hub, DRPG, TRO, Identity, and Mash Media involved.

What should businesses do if they want to get involved?
It’s not just events companies who can pledge, it’s anyone associated with all of the MICE, events and experiential sectors.
Get in touch with me, get in touch with Gabby.
We can have sessions with them and answer questions in a completely safe space with no judgement.
By doing that they want to help, which is the biggest step. If they want to help they’ve got to do something about it. From there if they’re committed we put them in touch with the universities so they can go through the logistics and financials.
All universities are classed as charity organisations, so it’s actually tax relief.

How can REACH help the exhibitions industry cope with recruitment problems?
There’s two separate issues. The bigger issue is we are all quite blinkered with regards to ensuring people have actual experience in the industry. That’s not going to help equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at all because less than 10% is a very small talent pool. That’s just moving people around. That’s not growth.
There’s a whole demographic that nobody is tapping into. That demographic will bring a whole wealth of experience, because they are people who have never been in the industry before. That’s a whole influx of new people with different ideas and different approaches.
On a more human level it is just wrong that our industry is stuck at this level.
We talk about mentoring women,
but 70% of the industry is already female. There are certainly conversations to be had about encouraging women into more senior positions, but there are women there waiting to be mobilised and talk about it. This demographic, the reality is
90% of our industry is white.

Any final thoughts?
We have to talk about it. We have to ask ourselves ‘ how can we help; what can we do?’

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