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With too little diversity in boardrooms, Kalpna Woolf has change in her sights.
Last updated: 21 Aug 2020 6 min read
After more than 20 years at the BBC, culminating in her role as head of production for BBC Bristol, Kalpna Woolf found a new calling. Having taken her seat in the boardroom with an impressive portfolio of non-executive directorships, the founder and CEO of BeOnBoard is now guiding others to a place at the table, with the aim of making Britain’s boards more diverse.
Woolf took up her first non-executive role while working at BBC Bristol, where she oversaw food series including Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers and Nigellisima, as well as natural history and factual programmes such as Frozen Planet and Countryfile. “I was on the Business in the Community South West board. I’d never sat on a board, didn’t know what the board was. I met senior leaders from across the South West. It was really insightful learning from their experience. It was a moment of change for me. It increased my leadership skills dramatically, gave me a wider horizon and opened up new networks. It was also an opportunity to drive change for an organisation whose mission I felt aligned with.”
Woolf looked around for further opportunities, and found that, as an Asian woman, she was an anomaly in most boardrooms. “They were full of white, middle-aged, middle-class men. There was nobody that looked like me, no people of colour, or people from different backgrounds. It felt odd because Bristol is very diverse. It has professionals from all backgrounds – women and BAME – who have great skills that could contribute to boardrooms and to the decision-making that happens at this level. So I launched BeOnBoard. Our mission is to dramatically increase diversity on business boards and governance structures.”
Exploring why there was so little diversity in the UK’s boardrooms, Woolf encountered the perception that there was a dearth of people from ethnic minority backgrounds with the necessary skills. “They’d say: ‘We can’t find women who are lawyers or black people who are accountants.’ I knew that wasn’t right because I’d worked alongside women and BAME people across different professions.”
At BeOnBoard, Woolf creates a talent pool of board-ready executives from a range of backgrounds and connects them with businesses looking to diversify. “At BeOnBoard, we have a cohort of people from professional backgrounds who we help prepare for board roles. People can subscribe with us at Beonboard.co.uk – subscription and training is free. We also work with businesses to deliver on their diversity and equality policies.”
Part of its work is helping companies to understand the benefits of more inclusive leadership. “Diversity will help you gain a competitive edge, increase profitability, advance innovation, and give you greater diversity of thought. If you want to grow, diversity isn’t a ‘nice to have’ – it’s got to be a critical aspect of your strategy because it brings wider knowledge, a wider thought process, wider talent, and wider network potential to open up a wider customer base. We help them recruit with diversity as an intent.”
“I experienced the glass ceiling throughout my career. Sometimes it was very overt and sometimes much more subtle. I want to find ways of helping people break through” Kalpna Woolf, founder and CEO, BeOnBoard
Despite the well-documented business benefits of diversity and inclusion – a report by McKinsey and Co stated that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have better financial returns than their non-inclusive competitors – Woolf says many companies need convincing they need a more varied demographic in the boardroom. And, she adds, this is particularly apparent further up the corporate scale. “SMEs are ahead of the curve because a lot of start-ups and smaller businesses are run by young people, and they get it,” she says. “They understand that SMEs can benefit, because diversity brings them closer to a wider customer base, it gives them broader advice and strategic thinking. But with corporates, it’s rather disappointing. You’ve got a lot of talk but not that much action.”
Although based in Bristol, BeOnBoard has a national network, and it is creating an international pipeline of boardroom candidates. “The ambition is to cover the whole of the UK. We’re connected to networks in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities. We want every single business board to be more representative to see the value of diversity.”
With that task ahead, Woolf could be forgiven for making BeOnBoard her sole focus; instead she diversifies herself. Her non-executive roles have included governor of the University of the West of England (UWE); independent director of Bath and Bristol Regional Capital; board chair at Frank Water, and chair of the Skills Group in the West of England LEP. She is also founder of 91 Ways To Build A Global City, uniting Bristol’s many cultures; an award-winning healthy eating author; visiting professor at UWE; creative services director of media company KBM; and head of production at Hungry Gap Productions, overseeing programmes including Nadiya’s Family Favourites with Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain.
How does she manage to bring the necessary energy to each board role? “Being on a board is a lot of work. I say, sit on a board you feel you connect with, where you want to help make a difference, with a mission that you want to help deliver. I sit on the university board because I want to see the student attainment gap disappear. I’m chair of trustees for Frank Water for personal reasons because they work in India to support clean water commissions in challenged communities.”
And Woolf is, of course, fuelled by her passion to promote diversity. “I experienced the glass ceiling throughout my career. Sometimes it was very overt and sometimes much more subtle. I want to find ways of helping people break through. BeOnBoard is a game changer. It will allow people with leadership skills from a specific background to break through that glass ceiling, and add the indisputable value of diversity of thought to our economy.”
Woolf’s drive has resulted in many outstanding professional achievements. Which makes her proudest? “I can’t say it’s just one thing. I was so proud of my work at the BBC, being head of production of an amazing global organisation. One of the things that gave me a lot of confidence was winning an Asian Women of Achievement Media Award. I’ve learned a lot from that network, and been greatly influenced by Pinky Lilani, who runs the organisation.
“And I’m so proud of BeOnBoard. Its success will have a lasting impact, and not just on business but in creating role models of diverse leaders in positions that young people can aspire to. It’s about creating the sort of society we want.
“Our ultimate aim is to deliver the inclusive economy, an economy that benefits not just a few people, but benefits the whole of our country, and all of our people.”
Visit BeOnBoard for more information on the programme.
Leadership and Management