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Chuka Umunna: If I weren’t an MP I’d probably have a tech startup

As Shadow Business Secretary and one of the fastest-rising members of the Labour frontbench Chuka Umunna is well-placed to push tech innovation as a driving force of the economy.

But competing with the Coalition government’s strong backing of Tech City and its national rollout takes some effort, and this week the MP for Streatham took the stage in East London in an attempt to do just that.

Chairing a panel on diversity in entrepreneurship, Mr Umunna heard about the challenges and opportunities faced by black and ethnic minority (BME) businesses leaders.

Speaking to Tech City News afterwards he may have revealed an inner entrepreneurial passion, interrupting to confirm his desire to start a business before I’d even finished asking the question.

Q: You’ve just held a debate on diversity in entrepreneurship and opening up the market. What have you learned?

Although all of the panelists said they’d faced different obstacles that arose in terms of how they were treated or stereotyped, they also explained how that presents a real opportunity, and it’s a question of how you use your difference to your advantage.

The second thing that was common to all of them is they all came upon an idea and used that to start a business. They did not go into business to just make money and become rich – they came across ideas that were useful to people.

And the other thing is actually that technology is a very strong component, whether as a product or as a platform to sell out to the world.

Q: That all sounds very positive, but there are a lot of BME entrepreneurs who are still struggling. How do you see your role helping those people, especially if we have a Labour government next year?

We’ve got to ensure that everyone’s got a platform to succeed and reach their aspirations to start a business regardless of their background.

That means we have to get the business support right, for those who want to start in business but don’t know how to do so or have no history in their family. We’ve got to get the finance right, so if banks aren’t supporting you there are other avenues available.

And we’ve also got  to make sure we get the right export environment. I think there’s a lot of hunger to go and sell into the world but it’s another obstacle – half of our small businesses don’t even know UKTI exists and it’s supposed to be there to help them.

I’m committed to setting up a UK equivalent of the US small business administration, which exists to act as a voice at the heart of federal government in the US for small businesses. I intend for our small business agency to carry out the same function for our small businesses here.

We’re also committed to setting up a business investment bank and a network of regional banks, similar to Germany’s KFW and their local Sparkassen savings banks, with a particular focus on providing finance to small and medium sized businesses.

Q: In the last year Labour’s become tougher on immigration, and you’ve been tougher than most – how does this square with your attitude to diversity?

I don’t accept the characterisation of me being tougher than most on immigration. I’ve actually been tougher than most and probably most outspoken against Ukip and the seeds of division that I think they sow.

What I’ve said is that in terms of how the European Union operates and the way free movement operates, as a pro-immigration and pro-Europe person I don’t think we can ignore the challenges that free movement poses for different communities around the country.

I’ve made a distinction between people who are seeking benefits and people who could work and are seeking to do so. My father came here to, yes, make his fortune but also to make a contribution and he didn’t come to benefit from the system and not to contribute, so that was the point I was making.

Chuka Umunna

Q: International students make up a large proportion of soon-to-be entrepreneurs, and the current visa system makes it very difficult for them to stay in the country. Would you support actually taking student immigration out of the immigration statistics?

What we’ve said is that this government has done immense damage to our higher education sector as our 7th largest exporter, and I know we’ve seen the number of legitimate students from India, for example, dive.

That’s bad for our HE sector, so what we’ve been clear on is that the government should take legitimate international students out of this cap of theirs because what they are doing is putting off people from coming to our country.

Q: You’ve talked before about the possibility of boardroom targets. Would you like to see that rolled out?

There needs to be more progress on diversity in our boardrooms. We’ve seen some important progress in respect of non-executives on our boards, but there are hardly any female or ethnic minority members of our boards in executive positions.

I’m sending a message to the business community that I want it to get its own house in order on this.

I don’t accept there aren’t people of talent coming through because there are, and what I’ve said is that unless we see requisite progress we can’t possibly take any other actions off the table to try and achieve that progress.

Q: If you were sacked tomorrow, would you consider starting a business?

Yes! I think all businesses in the future will have a tech element to them, whether as the product or as the platform from which you start the business, but it’s certainly something I’d consider.

As to what – you’ve got to have the idea haven’t you. I’ve got different ideas but I don’t have one that I’ve settled on.

Q: You’ve mentioned tech twice already – do you see it as a big part of the economy?

It definitely is – it’s changing the world and it’s changing the way we do business.

The challenge for us as policymakers is to work out how we ensure that Britain is the one making new technologies and harnessing them to create new jobs, because technology can be exciting can also be terrifying when it’s destroying old jobs that people have had for generations. It’s a big conundrum that policymakers haven’t quite cracked yet and that’s our job.

I’m very supportive of Tech City. I don’t think we should be obsessed with it, because I think we need to be ensuring the equivalent in all our major cities, but it’s an important model that lessons can be drawn from and is one of the reasons we have perhaps one of the most thriving tech cities.

But we can’t rest on our laurels – you’ve got the likes of Berlin and Stockholm who are seeking to challenge London’s position as the tech capital of Europe, and so we’ve always got to be at the forefront of ensuring that we’re staying ahead of the game.