Last week, during a visit to a school in Essex, Keir Starmer promised to “unleash a generation of creativity” that would increase opportunities for working-class people to enter the creative industries – highlighting how they’ve been dominated by the middle classes and the privately educated for too long.

He could easily have been talking about the current make-up of founders in the grocery sector. In an exclusive exploration of the issue, numerous food and drink entrepreneurs from working-class backgrounds told The Grocer how they’ve perceived the sector.

“I’ve felt like a sore thumb sticking out because of the way I speak, the way I hold myself, my inability to be able to relate to certain stories, certain schools or certain ski resorts,” said one. “There’s all sorts of stuff like that that crops up.”

Risky to discuss class in fmcg

It is a perfect storm holding back entrepreneurs from less privileged backgrounds: lacking capital due to the absence of family help or savings from lucrative careers; lacking the network to get into meetings to raise said capital; even once in those meetings, struggling to secure funding due to lack of confidence and difficulty building rapport with financial types (who often hail from more privileged backgrounds).

It certainly can’t be a coincidence that a high proportion of the challenger brand success stories we read about seem to feature founders from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. And arguably those in luckier positions don’t always recognise their privilege. For example, some recent advertising ‘branter’ (brand banter) between Surreal cereal and Days alcohol-free beer, which pitched them as plucky underdogs, felt rather tone deaf once it was revealed that the founders in question are the sons of oil baron Sir Bill Gammell, who went to school with Tony Blair and has an estimated worth of just under £40m.

Read more: Where are the working-class startups?

Yet, despite many in fmcg voicing their support for founders from less privileged backgrounds, it still feels risky to delve into the details of the disparity. After all, class has become a dirty word in recent decades.

But until that changes and people feel more comfortable discussing the disadvantages and advantages bestowed by socioeconomic background (a polite way of saying class), we will continue to live in a country where professionals from working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,000 less than their more privileged peers in the same jobs. Yes, there’s a class pay gap as well as a gender pay gap.

The class pay gap

Much of the problem stems from successive governments from the 1980s onwards brushing the issue of class under the carpet and actively seeking to make it what Lee Elliot Major, the UK’s first professor of social mobility, calls “a taboo topic”. This arguably culminated in John Prescott’s 1997 proclamation that “we’re all middle class now”.

That clearly wasn’t true. And even now, more than 25 years later, it seems patently obvious that class privilege is alive and well in the grocery sector (and many others). Another of the food and drink entrepreneurs told us how she frequently hears that many founders “didn’t take a salary for the first year or two. I simply couldn’t do that – and nor could most of the UK population.” Of course they couldn’t.

It cannot be emphasised enough that this is not about denigrating the difficult journey faced by most food and drink founders, regardless of background. Getting a challenger brand off the ground is incredibly challenging for anyone. The point is that, even in 2023, where you come from, how you speak, and what your parents do for a living can make that journey even harder. Surely we can all agree that needs to change. Let’s start by talking about it more.