The fabric of change

Former CEO of River Island Ben Lewis CFE1999 reveals why he wanted to fund research into improving social inclusion in business

1140x346_Ben Lewis

Consider how many entrepreneurs, inventors and creative thinkers come from a background of diversity,” says Ben Lewis, director of Blue Coast Capital and non-executive director of River Island, the retail business founded by his father and uncle after the Second World War. As he says, the people who profoundly shape society are often those who don’t fit into conventional norms. But all too often, the people who think divergently are excluded from the workplace – and that is something he is determined to challenge. Diversity and inclusivity are dear to him. The David and Ruth Lewis Family Charitable Trust, named after his parents, recently made a £300,000 donation to London Business School to fund research into social inclusion as part of the School’s Forever Forward campaign. Ben is confident the money will make a real difference. “Improving social inclusion improves businesses, which improves society, which makes for a better world,” he says with conviction. He is keen that the donation will fund research that deepens our understanding of diversity: “For me, it’s about opportunities to give dignity to those who’d otherwise be excluded. Deep diversity – diversity of thought and experience – is what I find particularly interesting.”

Deep diversity, he believes, goes beyond gender and race or ethnicity: “It includes looking at wider circumstances in which people might have been excluded. That might include migrants to this country, who may have difficulty fitting in through language, culture and economic means. It might include people coming out of care. It might include people who come from backgrounds that don’t support pathways through life. Or people who just think differently, with elements of neurodiversity, who don’t conform in a conventional sense.”

As he points out, one in seven people have a form of neurodiversity. “To what extent is social exclusion being propagated because neurodiversity is not being accounted for in school, university, career development, recruitment, development in the world of work, and defining roles in high levels of management?” he asks. When these people are excluded, the result is “tunnel vision rather than funnel vision.” He believes the Forever Forward research will “make people sit up and think about social inclusion in new ways, shining a spotlight on areas that haven’t received the attention they should have – until now.”

Relative values

The drive to make a difference is woven into the fabric of Ben’s background. His father, David, and uncle, Bernard, founded River Island in 1948. Today it has 300 stores across the UK, with a turnover of £740 million in 2021. “My father was a very humble yet accomplished individual,” Ben says, revealing that his formative years were a time of economic turmoil: “When my father’s parents’ fruit shop failed, they were destitute.”

As a result, the brothers never forgot that things can go wrong; that anyone can fall on hard times. “The moment you start believing your own story or that competition doesn’t exist, that the world won’t change or you can’t fail – it’s the beginning of the end,” he warns. In business, he says, you have to “maintain a sense of constructive paranoia. My father used to say there are things you can influence and things you can’t – let’s work on the things we can influence.” Being shaped by the rise of fascism in Europe clearly had a profound effect on Lewis senior’s thinking. “My father developed a strong set of values, which came from his family, but also from seeing how the world can change and be hypnotised by Nazism,” Ben explains. “As a result, he developed strong morals, which have shaped his sense of philanthropy over the years.”

The youngest of five, Ben had a sense that one day he might have a role to play in the family business. He insists, however, that it wasn’t a dynasty; nor was it a given that he’d get a position if he’d not been up to scratch. His siblings all had independent streaks and, “There was never any overt or subtle messaging going on that I should join River Island.” When it came to choosing a career, he looked at his options and was fascinated by the world of retail because, he says, it’s an industry that requires diverse skills. “You could be art directing a photoshoot one day, designing a computer system another, on the shop floor the next day or sourcing fabrics in India later that week.” Pertinently, he describes himself as “a business person in a fashion world, rather than a fashion person in a business world”.

Bucking the trend

Ben had been in the business for 20 years when he took over as CEO of River Island in 2010. He studied law at Cambridge University and stepped into the stockroom of the company’s store on Oxford Street in 1990, where he found himself unloading boxes off the back of a van. He worked in various branches in different roles before eventually becoming a manager. “Many years later, I am still drawing on that experience,” he reveals. “I can walk into our shops and know what it felt like to stand behind a till, what can go wrong. Then it becomes an instinct. Retail is a fast-moving industry. You don’t intellectualise it too much, which is important.” The biggest challenge in his career was stepping into the CEO’s shoes. “There’s a huge difference, which I didn’t fully appreciate, between being a senior executive and carrying the can, and being the top person responsible for performance.”

The biggest challenge during his tenure was adapting to the world of online shopping: “The changes we, as a business, had to navigate in the 1950s and 1960s, with the explosive growth of teenage fashion, were difficult but not anything like as dramatic as the shift to online shopping.”

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS

‘A business needs to be sustainable in lots of ways, including by being a good citizen’

Before becoming CEO he did a one-year Masters in Finance at LBS, in 1999. “Up until that point, I’d done little in finance, so I wanted to build my knowledge and expertise. It was great to get back to studying, away from the cut-and thrust of business. It was fantastic to form a network. I found the course stimulating. Since then, I’ve dipped in and out of LBS. Recently, I did a course in private equity. Even at my age, you never stop learning.”

One learning he stresses is that he sees individual wellbeing and the business incentive to maximise profit as synonymous. “I strongly believe that what’s good for the individual is good for business. A good business is a sustainable one and needs to be sustainable in lots of ways, including by being a good citizen – a definition which has changed over the years. Right now, that means diversity and inclusion.”

Gifting back

This is not only about attracting the right applicant for a role, which itself involves innovative outreach to encourage atypical candidates to apply for positions in business in the first place; it’s also about how practitioners go about recruiting and designing systems, job roles, appraisals and leadership roles that are right for the individual and for the organisation. “It’s not about making room for unsuitable candidates,” Ben argues, “it’s about finding ways to empower diverse talent.”

It’s also important, he believes, to make decisions with people who don’t have the same experiences: “People tend to have a bias towards surrounding themselves with people who think in a similar way, who come from similar backgrounds – it may feel safer. But is it actually safer or riskier? It may actually end up being riskier but they don’t know it yet.”

What of the future? Does he expect it to be different because of his philanthropic investments? “Gifting money is like shooting an arrow into the future,” he explains. “From there, we can move on to innovative solutions and the delivery of frontline services. If you can hit a target, you can affect so many more lives. Everything changes.”

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, personal and professional, he believes it’s about trying to stabilise what has been an unstable set of circumstances over the last few years, which will “throw up challenges and opportunities”. Just like his father and uncle in the 1950s, it comes down to transformation. “Doing things the way they’ve always been done is not a recipe for success. My father always said, the wrong thing is to rest on your laurels, stop moving, stop changing.” And without diversity, he continues, “we won’t get the best ideas coming in, we won’t change the status quo”. He recalls the “tremendously stimulating” conversations with peers and faculty LBS, describing the School as “beautifully positioned” to further the world of business and society. “Anyone thinking about giving money to LBS will find a wealth of knowledge, experience, drive and enthusiasm to make a difference.” 

Ultimately, he hopes that the work being done at the school will create a “paradigm shift” in how we think about the world of work, “finding new approaches in how to value the contribution that a more diverse range of individuals can make”.


Think at London Business School

A melting pot of ideas

Drawing on her passions and experiences, alumna Giselle Weybrecht is working with business schools around the world to be more sustainable

By Sophie Haydock

Find out more


Think at London Business School

The time is now

In this extract from her new book Redesigning Work, Lynda Gratton explains how to make lasting change to equip your business for the future

By Lynda Gratton

Find out more