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How Roots Inspire are working with today’s and tomorrow’s diverse leaders

Roots Inspire co-founders : Co-Founders, Melvin Spalburg and Sergio Panday

Roots Inspire, a UK-based Diversity, Equality, and Inclusivity startup, have announced seed funding to further expand their mission to increase diversity in leadership positions. With growing recognition that diversity is essential to successful business, Roots Inspire offers practical action to help businesses identify and develop talent that reflects their workforce and the society they serve.

Co-founder Sergio Panday joined TFN to talk about Roots Inspire and how it’s fulfilling its mission to increase diversity in leadership.

Founded in diversity

Roots Inspire’s own history is founded on diversity. The co-founders, Panday and Melvin Spalburg are both Dutch, but have Indian-Surinamese and Surinamese backgrounds respectively.

Despite working in different fields — Panday has a banking background while Spalburg worked in supply chain — they met in Singapore. They were both in Asia when the Black Lives Matter movement started, recalls Panday. But unable to travel because of the pandemic, they could only watch how the debate was developing in the US, UK, and their home of the Netherlands from a distance. “It was very frustrating,” Panday recalled, “we felt all these emotions, there were all these ideas and thoughts, but we were not able to participate in the discussion.”

The situation led them to think about what they could do. “We saw diversity and inclusion initiatives happening, unconscious bias training, inclusive leadership training, but the results show that the impact is minimal,” Panday told us. “We felt that the solution should come from our community as well. There are so many inspirational leaders with ethnic backgrounds. But they’re not visible or seen as exceptions.”

The birth of Roots Inspire came with the realisation that together, diverse leaders could have a bigger impact. The idea inspired them to, “develop a programme to inspire talent, and show that it is possible to be authentic, be proud, and lean on our ethnic background as a strength.”

Working through an online model, Roots Inspire allows corporate leaders from the global majority to connect with up-and-coming leadership talent.

Already in operation with several household names including ABN AMRO, Boots, CBRE GWS, Freshfields, Oliver Wyman, Rabobank, and Unilever, the seed funding will be used to consolidate and grow Roots Inspire’s position in Europe. The round was led by Narwhal Investments B.V., and is worth more than £500 thousand over several tranches.

Panday did note, however, how important it was to receive the funding from a Dutch-based fund. “It’s a big blind spot in the Netherlands, the Dutch culture is very proud of that we’re very tolerant,” says Panday. However, he continues to explain that sadly — like so many diversity initiatives — that culture does not always translate to action, “actually, in corporate life, we do not do better than a lot of other countries.”

A problem for every sector

As well as being a problem for every country, Roots Inspire has been set up to support every sector. “I come from banking, and very often was the only minority in the room,” recalls Panday. “I thought it was a banking thing, but when I compared notes with Melvin, we saw that although they were completely different industries, the higher you climb, the more you face the same issues.”

Although they have had success at taking a cross-sector approach, they are also developing more industry-focused programmes. “Our move to an industry approach is to create peer pressure,” says Panday. “If we do a banking programme, we want banks that are not on that programme to ask themselves, ‘what are we doing?’” Although, of course, Panday’s ideal is that they use Roots Inspire, he really wants that peer pressure to generate action. “It’s fine if they are doing something else, but it’s important that after asking themselves the question, they are actually doing something.”

Roots Inspire’s platform has proven attractive to multinationals, offering a virtual solution to a global problem that they can deploy regardless of location. “We can offer solutions across jurisdictions and at scale,” says Panday. However, their current focus is very much on the Northern European market, where they plan to deepen their involvement, focusing on companies with over 1,000 employees.

But the most important factor for any Roots Inspire client should be that they want to lead change. “Our clients realise there is a lack of role models. That’s what we provide, we make them visible, and we make them accessible,” Panday said. And most of all, Roots Inspire’s clients need to be prepared to follow-through on their programmes. “We should be talking about diversity, but just talking about it is not the solution, they need to be ready for action.”

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