By Damian Holmes

Around 11% of the population of Yorkshire is Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). That figure rises to 20% in West Yorkshire, and in Bradford, it is more than one third.

The figure is one that is mirrored in the business sector across the district, but perhaps not so much in organisations representing businesses.

That’s one of the reasons why the West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce launched a new dedicated Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Business Committee towards the end of last year.

Damian Holmes spoke to Nasreen Karim, a member of the Bradford Chamber Leadership Group who was closely involved in setting up the new committee, for Bradford Means Business.

Nasreen Karim, the founder of Bradford’s Platinum Partnership Solicitors, strongly believes in the importance of organisations like the Bradford Chamber in providing a voice for businesses.

Since founding the firm in 2004, she has seen it grow and it now employs ten people, mainly specialising in commercial matters, but also doing private client work including family, wills and probate, and general litigation.

Having overcome a number of barriers herself to succeed as a businesswoman, she recognises the importance of organisations that give voice and offer support to members of the sector.

“As a businesswoman in Bradford, it’s really important to network, to know what the business community looks like and who is making key business decisions,” she said.

Asked if the fact that the BAME community makes up more than a third of the general population of the Bradford district was reflected in the business sector and in Chamber membership, she said: “It’s definitely reflected in the district. People from a BAME background are very entrepreneurial, innovative and hard working. They had to be, they came from nothing.

“Unfortunately, this wasn’t reflected in the Chamber membership.”

This lack or representation led to her looking into ways to encourage more BAME membership, and the committee is something she hopes will do that.

“Over the last nine years I have been involved in business matters affecting the district, but I noticed that there was a very clear disconnect,” Nasreen said.

“There were rarely conversations regarding the infrastructure, transport, business concerns or issues in predominantly BAME areas of Bradford.

“One of the reasons for this was the fact that there was very little representation on boards that discussed these issues. There are often occasions when there are matters that affect the BAME business community that may not affect other businesses.”

She says there are some barriers BAME business people have perceived, and there is also a lack of knowledge in some cases of what is out there, but she is confident these issues can be overcome.

“Traditionally BAME business people have got their heads down and grafted with very little interaction with organisations around them. Initially, some 30 to 40 years ago, there was a language barrier problem, lack of knowledge of business support services and as businesses have grown, they have succeeded with little interaction.

“There are BAME businesses out there who do not know what the Chamber does or what the LEP does. Now is the time to introduce these important organisations to BAME businesses so they can take advantage of what is being offered. There is some way to go but in time the barriers won’t remain.”

Nasreen says she faced many difficulties herself as an Asian woman establishing her own firm and came close to shutting her business down at one point.

“It’s been quite an adventure! It started in 1994 when, as a single parent on benefits, I decided I needed to better myself and made an application to read law to a few universities (not thinking I would be accepted). I had three O levels to my name,” she recalls.

“I was accepted by Manchester Metropolitan University and left home with my two- year-old son to live in Manchester. I graduated in 1997 and went on to start my own law firm in 2004.

“It was a challenge as there were, at that time, with barely any Asian women in business or running their own law firms, so it was difficult to reach out to anyone for help.

“My support came from my old training supervisor Paul Stock who had given me a training contract in 2006. It was difficult to be accepted as a competent lawyer when you are a) a woman, b) fairly newly-qualified c) Asian and d) a young mum.

“I was lucky that I had made some good relationships so from day one I had work coming in but it was very difficult to be accepted by local solicitors especially some from the Asian background who were extremely hostile to the extent I wanted to close my business.

“One day I had to make a choice to either pack up or to stop crying and toughen up. I toughened up, took no nonsense and my business flourished.”

She believes the new committee will have a pivotal role in the WNY Chamber in introducing BAME businesses to what it does and what it can offer them.

It will bring together representatives from BAME business leaders and work closely with the Chamber’s Leadership Groups in Bradford, Leeds and York, and North Yorkshire. It will also link up with special interest committees across West and North Yorkshire.

“The group will provide a stronger, more powerful voice to BAME business leaders who to date, have not had a recognised platform on which to speak on behalf of their community,” Nasreen said. “The group will also encourage more cohesion between all business communities.

“If the local economy is to recover and prosper it is crucial that all businesses, irrespective of background come together and work towards a common goal.

“We are fortunate to have a diverse range of businesses in this region. If we help and support each other, then it will be more beneficial for the region’s economy and aid financial recovery in a very uncertain marketplace.”

Chamber Chief Executive Sandy Needham said that she is keen to bring about change, to demonstrate the help being given to all the businesses communities in Bradford, Leeds and York and North Yorkshire.

She said: “Businesses benefit from our range of services and having a voice with decision-makers is important too. We can only influence if there is true engagement with local companies.”

The committee has four strategic objectives:  to increase awareness of the WNY Chamber’s structure, role, activities, impact and value-added among the BAME business communities; to increase BAME membership and involvement in all aspects of the WNY Chamber’s structures and services; to support and strengthen the capacity of the BAME business communities through wider service delivery, advocacy and representation and improving access to good practice working towards successful BAME business development; and to support the shaping of regional and national business policy and provide an effective voice and representation on behalf of the regional BAME business communities

Nasreen Karim

Nasreen says she will be actively encouraging BAME businesses to join not only as members, but to bring a more diverse representation across the various boards and committees.

“The end goal is to see integration in all departments, boards and positions of power where all voices are heard when key decisions regarding the district are made.”

She said there are many advantages to be gained by joining the Chamber. “Being a member comes with many benefits that can boost your business such as marketing, costs savings, advocacy, and networking benefits..

“Your business is eligible for discounts. You can get discounts on insurances, office supplies, shipping, marketing, accounting software, and payroll services. Chamber members will often offer discounts to one another.

“The Chamber also assist with marketing as it promotes your business, especially when you first become a member.

“One of the most important factors for me is advocacy. As the Chamber of Commerce supports member businesses, it acts as a voice for the common interests of members and has the chance to influence local government on issues that impact small businesses.

“When you join a chamber, you can network with other member businesses. By networking, you get to know others in your community, develop partnerships, and support other businesses.

“If your business is ever in need, you’ll have a community of business owners to turn to for help. Finally, professional development. The Chamber of Commerce host professional development events.”

And she believes the Chamber has a key role in helping the business sector in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Chamber has an important role. It has access to an enormous bank of resources, provides support and has a voice that is heard. It speaks for its own community.”

Nasreen said there are huge challenges ahead for all businesses as the country slowly emerges from the grip of the pandemic.

“We have seen massive job losses in the hospitality sector, iconic brands have disappeared. Businesses have not been able to sustain themselves even with the help of government loans and grants. Cash flow is key.

“Where will funding support come from once the grants dry up when accounts will show losses? When businesses are forced to lay off further staff in an attempt to make ends meet? When business owners can no longer afford the rent?”

Help with the recovery process was another reason why it was important BAME businesses become involved with the Chamber.

“A very large portion of BAME businesses are in the hospitality sector. It’s been extremely tough,” she said.

“It’s imperative at this stage that all businesses know they can turn to the Chamber for support and guidance and in turn lean on all the organisations the Chamber works with.”