Looking around his smart London office, Darren Monioro was keenly aware that he stood out.
As a twenty-something black man born and brought up by a single mother in South London, he realised he was very much in the minority. In fact, out of around one hundred employees, only around 15 were people of colour.
After graduating with a first-class degree in computer science from Kingston University, Darren had landed a good job with one of the major banks in the City. Responsible for technical support, the young graduate loved working in financial services and slowly worked his way up the career ladder.
"The thing that struck me wasn’t just that most of my colleagues were white but the fact that none of the other black people were doing anything particularly senior," says Darren.
"Most were working in the kitchens, security or they were cleaners.
"Over my career, I wouldn’t say anyone was overtly racist towards me - although I once overheard someone on a conference call say he couldn’t understand a word I said because of my ‘accent’.
"But covert racism is much harder to pinpoint. I found I was excluded from certain social circles which meant I had to keep myself to myself and therefore didn’t find out about as many opportunities.
"Certain rules were flexible for some people and not for others – for instance, I wasn’t accepted onto the graduate scheme for the bank even though white colleagues with 2:1s and 2:2s were accepted."
"It’s disheartening, but you become more resilient as you get older and don't allow it to get to you as much."
It was only when he left full-time work in 2017 to become an entrepreneur, setting up a tech consultancy as well an an events company, that Darren faced other challenges. As he talked to others in his community, he realised they were not unique to him.
"When I started looking into some of the figures about black businesses, I was really shocked," he says. "Only one per cent of businesses in the UK are owned by black people and 86 per cent of those are self-funded or funded with help from family, most of which are low-income families, which goes some way to explaining that one per cent figure.
"Three quarters of black businesses are never equity-funded and 81 per cent of business owners who did consider equity finance had no knowledge about how to access it," he explains.
"This is the sort of thing that can be taught in schools but even then, white children are given more signposts about where to find funding because they often mix with the kind of people who know about those opportunities.
"At the moment, the ‘ecosystem’ for this kind of funding is outside of our race, neither managed nor run by black people or people of colour. And as 13 per cent of the UK is ethnic minorities, that clearly shows the disparity over founders of black origin becoming major business owners and leaders."
It’s something that Darren – and his business partner Charlotte Greene, also from London – are determined to change. They are launching The B.O.X – Black Owned eXcellence’- a community of investors and business experts who will support and invest in the next generation of black origin businesses.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is being able to start a business in the first place," he says.
"We have a lot of desire but very little knowledge or expertise about how to access funding. It means that self-funded businesses often grow very slowly and if you’re tackling a market niche, you might not be able to scale up enough in time to make it succeed.
"One study by Warwick Business School also found that black owned businesses are more likely to be rejected for bank finance or get charged higher interest rates than their counterparts."
The reaction to The B.O.X has been overwhelmingly positive. Black founders of companies which provide everything from Artificial Intelligence to Afro Hair products have shown an interest in accessing funding.
"Everyone loves the nature of it and everyone says it is needed," he says.
"With the Black Lives Matter movement last year, there was a definite pivot point in people’s attitudes but we have yet to see whether that will translate into action.
"I’m optimistic for the future when it comes to black businesses but I also look forward to the day when something like The B.O.X will not be needed because the balance will have been redressed."