Anyone who knows me will realise that I have a tendency to make bad choices sometimes in terms of what I say on public fora. In my defense, it’s never malicious or calculated, simply the failings of someone who presses “send” a little too quickly, and who has a strong sense of justice that sometimes clouds his judgement. So a mea culpa for any historical, current or future missteps on my part.
But despite a lack of tact on occasion, I’m not at all blind to the fact that we have a society that has changed markedly in the last decade or two. We now live in a time where there are things that one cannot and should not say, despite them being OK a few short years ago.
There is, however, a common ailment that afflicts a certain segment of the business elite. These individuals, collectively self-proclaimed masters of the universe, feel that their business success removes any necessity for them to follow social norms. For these individuals, the fact that they are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and have lackeys at their beck and call, creates a false sense of reality, and gives them a feeling of social license where none exists.
And so we have the example du jour, Simon Henry. Readers will likely be aware, but for those who are not, Henry is the CEO of a successful chemicals company that listed on the stock exchange last year. Henry, while taking the opportunity to ensure that the National Business Review was under no illusions as to the size of his… fortune, decided to also pass comment on another listed company. My Food Bag listed around the same time as Henry’s company and so he was passing some high-level, and deeply thought out analysis on the company’s listing strategy, performance to date and other business metrics.
For those not in the know, this deeply robust analysis, gleaned by a careful examination of My Food Bag’s earning reports, consisted of the following comment:
I can tell you, and you can quote me, when you’ve got Nadia Lim, when you’ve got a little bit of Eurasian fluff in the middle of your prospectus with a blouse unbuttoned showing some cleavage, and that’s what it takes to sell your scrip, then you know you’re in trouble.”
Mr Henry really missed his calling, he should have been a Wall Street equities analyst with deeply reasoned musings such as those.
But to the comments – it’s hard to know where to start. On the one hand I’m kind of loathe to write this article. I am, after all, a man. I don’t want to be seen to be passing comment on misogynistic and racist comments when I am neither a woman nor in the ethnic group that Henry bizarrely referred to as Eurasian.
Then again, I am on the board of a number of organisations that have women in the C-suite. I have been an investor, adviser and board member in a number of companies founded by woman and, yes, I have done my little bit to counsel women founders who have been at the receiving end of comments alluding to their gender and how they could flaunt that to increase their chances of business success. My observed experience, and that aformentioned strong sense of justice, forces me to write a few words.
So yes, it is absolutely the right of Nadia Lim, My Food Bag’s founder and the subject of the “Eurasian fluff” comments, to respond to these comments. But I thought I might provide some additional guidance to other male titans of industry about what one should, and should not, say in these situations.
Firstly, the fact that Nadia Lim happens to have an ethnic background dissimilar to Mr Henry’s Caucasian one is utterly irrelevant to the success of otherwise of her business. It is only a generation ago that my parents where persecuted for their own ethnicity. If the Holocaust taught us anything, it is that we should measure people on their outputs, not their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation or whatever.
Secondly, even the most puritanical of observers would find it hard to suggest that Ms Lim was wearing anything inappropriate in the photograph in question. Mr Henry’s response seems like a modern take on those who, in the last century, would have been aghast at a woman having the audacity to show her ankles. Sacre bleu!
Mr Henry is also wildly inaccurate, there is no need to forensically reply to his individual accusations but Ms Lim was not wearing an unbuttoned blouse, my apparel industry experience leads me to suggest that she was wearing what I would class as a v-neck tee shirt. His comments are ridiculous.
What I’d love to see from Mr Henry is a detailed critique of My Food Bag’s business. Not one of the ethnic background and sartorial choices of its founder.
Mr Henry is obviously a very successful businessman, but he’s no anthropologist, sociologist or fashion industry expert. Perhaps he, and others of his ilk, should stick to their proverbial swim lane and avoid the temptation to make themselves look less like titans of industry and more like outdated dinosaurs with little or no social awareness. There endeth the lesson.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He reckons Nadia Lim is a pretty bad ass business person. But that’s just his opinion.