Dame Julia Cleverdon DCVO CBE is a passionate and practical campaigner who has gained an international reputation for ‘connecting the unconnected’. Cleverdon sat down with The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff to chat about the future of business sustainability and social responsibility.

Dame Julia Cleverdon remembers working in the business world in the UK in the early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher had been in power for a few years and had made clear her position to not intervene to save shipyards or coal mines. To Cleverdon, it felt like “the whole country was in flames”. In 1981, there was a series of flash riots across Britain largely triggered by high levels of youth unemployment, particularly in some of the poorest areas in Britain: Nottingham, Liverpool and parts of London.

At the time, Dame Julia was working for a leadership organisation called the Industrial Society, and was tasked with answering the question: what can businesses do to make a difference in communities? “We discovered that you were five times more likely to be unemployed if you were a black teenager than if you were a white,” she says.

“Although the riots weren’t race riots, they were young people in mass affected by what was going on in society. And the business world with whom I had been working quite closely at the Industrial Society were absolutely amazed and said ‘where’s this come from? The Molotov cocktails bouncing our boardroom tables is very bad for business. Where’s this come from? And what should we do about it?’”

Answering these questions became Dame Julia’s defining agenda for the 1980s.

“Being responsible was going to be a better long-term business than being irresponsible.”

Dame Julia Cleverdon has been in business for over four decades and says a lot has changed. “Some businesses that I’ve known for 40 years have not wavered from believing that there is only a commercial case,” she says, “while other businesses have had something in their DNA which means that they are more likely to care about the impact they have on society.”

She jokes that she read The Times death column every morning in order to see, “which maddening old culture has popped their clogs and was no longer running their business,” so she could try to persuade their successor to do business differently.

When asked whether business leaders have learnt from the mistakes of 1981, Dame Julia isn’t sure. “I think the UK is very interesting and specific. It has a great challenge because in a way so much of our success in the last 20 years has been built on the financial services and the enormous growth and power of London.

“London’s a global centre for private equity, for technology, but not enough people have come out of that overblown size to understand what was actually going on in the North. And if you look at some surprising decisions that Britain has taken in the last 10 years or so you say ‘what caused you to believe that coming away from Europe and the European relationships that you had since the Second World War, why did you think that was a good idea?’

“And you look at where the voting patterns were – the voting patterns were almost entirely the part of the North. Where Boris Johnson and this government are at the moment is that they won this enormous landslide last year, the 80 seats that had previously been owned by the Labor Party, because their approach on Brexit was what accorded with those in the poorer places of the North.

“They don’t know what life is like up here where fishing boats aren’t working, businesses have shut, our schools are very poor. Nobody seems to care about the quality of education.”

“In the lead up to 1980 business failed to notice this bubbling discontent, which then erupted into riots and cities burning. In the 2000s, they failed to notice the discontent in the North, which then gave rise to Brexit, which was clearly something that the business community did not welcome for the most part. And so on two occasions within the memory of people alive today, there’s been a failure.”

Julia Cleverdon on her ‘teach first’ initiative.

“One of the things that causes me to reflect is that between 2001 and now, 20 years later, I’ve seen the most enormous growth of graduates in Britain who want to come into the front line of public service as teachers, police officers, social workers. I was there at the start of something called Teach First, which was persuading the cleverest university graduates in Britain that they should come and teach in the poorest schools. The mating call of the posh ‘come and work in this unbelievably swanky very well-paid private sector, commercial job’, and I would say to them, ‘no, no, you can go on and do that later but first come and understand what the issues are of educational inequity in Britain’.”

What are the major challenges for the role of business in society?

“The issue is about whether businesses listen to what’s going on in society. When you listen to the people of Blackpool gathered together for two hours on a Zoom call during a global pandemic you think this is absolutely indescribable.

“Take the inequity of access to broadband, digital and tech kit. What COVID lockdown in the UK has shown us is that actually probably 70% of kids in the poorest communities have no access to digital kit at home. You may have one phone between the family and you’re not going to get everybody’s lessons downloaded on that one phone. The cost of being on Pay As You Go to get the lesson downloaded means that you can be spending £160 a week on data getting a family of six kids their lessons.”

AUDIO: Julia Cleverdon on her work within the Blackpool community.

Is Dame Julia Cleverdon optimistic?

“The thing that keeps me optimistic is, I’ve always worked with young people, but I never worked so extensively with young people as I have in the last seven years on a great campaign called the #iwill Campaign. And what has really fired me up is the passion, energy, belief and purpose of under 25-year-olds. I do believe that the business world par excellence has to innovate all the time to be ahead of the game. And the cleverest businesses understand that innovation is best done through diversity and diverse experiences. Therefore how you recruit, how you manage, has got to ensure that you’ve got a diversity of views.”

“The other thing is the passion of the young for the causes that I’ve cared about all my life. So I don’t worry anymore about climate change. You watch Greta [Thunberg], you watch the primary school strikes that we had in Britain and you see corporates realising they’re not gonna be able to survive and thrive if they don’t take that into account. So no, I remain an optimist even though I’m 70.”

AUDIO: What keeps Julia Cleverdon optimistic.

Julia’s advice for emerging business leaders:

  • Spend time embedded in different communities to enhance your perspective
  • Don’t just learn from books – get out into community

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast with Dame Julia Cleverdon.

Listed by The Times as one of the 50 most influential women in Britain, Dame Julia Cleverdon DCVO CBE is a passionate and practical campaigner who has gained an international reputation for ‘connecting the unconnected’. She co-founded Step Up To Serve. The #iwill campaign, of which Julia is now a trustee, aims to get 60 percent of young people involved in practical action in the service of others by 2020.

This series has been made possible with the support of the Australian Graduate School of Management, in the School of Business, at the University of New South Wales. Find out more about other conversations in the Leading with Purpose podcast.

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