With businesses around the world under pressure to increase diversity in their boardrooms, the housing sector in the North-East has been trialling a way forward. PETER BARRON reports

DURING her busy career, while juggling the demands of motherhood, Manisha Sharma often looked around the places where she worked and saw the glaring need for change.

“It was very clear that too many businesses had a very old-fashioned view of what boardrooms should look like, and not enough was being done to improve diversity,” she says.

Determined to help drive change, Manisha became part of a pioneering pilot scheme, launched two years ago in the North-East housing sector, to tackle the need for greater diversity in the boardroom.

Four of the region’s housing associations – North Star, Gentoo, Beyond and Thirteen Group – have been working in partnership with the Housing Diversity Network on a two-year programme to develop the board members of the future.

The programme encouraged applications from people from minority groups not usually represented at board level, such as younger people, women, and those from an ethnic minority background.

Despite the programme starting in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, 12 apprentices were chosen to receive comprehensive training, shadow local boards, and be supported by a mentor from senior management.

And Manisha is one of four trainee board members – alongside Marilyn Amadi, Juliana Bell, and Charlotte Leighton – who have been funded by North Star and have now graduated at the end of the programme.

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“It’s been hard work, but the value of the programme is very powerful, and I now feel ready to become part of a boardroom somewhere,” smiles the mother of two boys.

Manisha, whose parents came to this country from India, is originally from Birmingham but moved to the North-East when she married in 1993.

She was initially employed in the finance sector, working in sales and customer service roles for companies that included Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Abbey National, before switching to the housing sector in 2008.

She now works for Thirteen Group as a Housing Services Co-ordinator, managing properties in Darlington. As well as general-needs housing, her responsibilities include managing a National Health Service contract that supports the accommodation needs of international doctors and nurses.

“My family has always been the priority, but I reached a time in my life when my boys were going off to university, and I found I had more independence,” she says. “After years of juggling being a mum and working, I just thought ‘This is my time” and I set out to enhance my career.”

As a British Indian woman, Manisha wants to become a role model for ethnic minorities and under-represented communities, and she started an ethnically diverse group at Thirteen Group. The company responded by reviewing its recruitment processes.

She has also been a mentor for the Girls Network, which offers girls support from inspirational and motivated women across a range of professions and backgrounds.

As one of the board apprentices with North Star, she has been mentored, attended board meetings, and been able to access training that’s available to other board members.

She also attends monthly Housing Diversity Network workshops, covering topical subjects such as the implications for the housing sector of the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as finance and mergers.

“I’m grateful to Thirteen Group for its support and flexibility during the programme, and honoured to have been sponsored by an organisation like North Star, where everyone supports each other,” says Manisha, whose husband, Neeraj, is chief executive of the Daisy Chain autism charity.

“I’ve met some tremendous people and learned so much. This kind of programme needs to be in every organisation so that we get more diversity in boardrooms.”

Kath McGough, Head of People Services for North Star, has no doubt about the positive impact of the programme.

“A lot of our customers are young and from under represented groups, and the programme has given us diversity of thought at board level,” says Kath.

“It’s about opening up opportunities for people, and taking them to our sites, so they can give us feedback and help us to have a better understanding of how to be a good landlord. We’ve encouraged them to go with their passions and we’re delighted at how well they’ve done.”

North Star chief executive, Angela Lockwood, who has been a driving force behind the programme, describes it as “an investment in the future, rather than a quick fix”.

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“We operate in a challenging and complex environment, with increasing dilemmas, so we need to embrace difference more than ever,” she says.

“Organisations need to reflect their social environment, and this programme has delivered precisely what we wanted – trainees from diverse backgrounds who are ready to join boards.

"It has been an excellent foundation on which to build, but it has to be the start of the journey towards greater diversity at board level.”

Matt Forrest, CEO of Thirteen Group, agrees, saying: “It’s been a brilliant initiative. We have to have differences in decision-making and thought processes, and that’s what the programme has given us.”

Mushtaq Khan, CEO of the Housing Diversity Network, told those attending a graduation ceremony, held at North Star’s head office in Stockton, that he hopes to see the programme expand.

“I’ve been at boards where members aren’t interested in 30-year business plans, but young people are interested because they have a stake in the future. It’s about investing in a long-term approach,” he says.

After combining her career with being a mother to her two boys, Manisha Sharma hopes the next step is to find a place on a board as a non-executive director.

“I now feel I have the confidence and the knowledge to take that next step, and to play my part in giving boardrooms the more diverse voice that's been missing for too long,” she says.