Suki Sandhu has been a force of nature on the diversity and inclusion (D&I) scene for several years now. He is the founder of OUTstanding, which campaigns for more LGBT inclusion in business and also publishes an annual list of the most prominent and active LGBT senior business people and allies, in conjunction with the Financial Times. This push for equality in business has grown as Suki also recently launched EMpower, a similar organisation for black, Asian and minority ethnic business people, and HERoes, for women in business. He has also been a great supporter of the work of Emerald Life.
We spoke to him at his new offices in Chancery Lane, where he has managed to squeeze in all three organisations alongside his C-suite recruitment business.
Why did you start OUTstanding?
I had been working in recruitment and executive search for almost a decade, and was repeatedly struck by the lack of diversity at the highest levels in business – and particularly, the lack of out LGBT+ executives. My clients would be interested in hiring women for the boardroom which was great, but I wanted to expand their perspective of what diversity is. I also wanted to challenge stereotypes of ‘LGBT+ professions’. Yes, we’re well represented in the arts, fashion and media but we’re also CEOs in banking, partners in law firms and successful business leaders. So, I started OUTstanding as a role model list initiative, celebrating 50 LGBT+ Executives through a media partnership with the Financial Times. This quickly grew into something more as our role models recognised the social and economic benefits of having a workplace culture where everyone can bring their whole selves to work. Within a matter of months, we were established as a membership organisation, working with our four founding member firms on their LGBT+ inclusion activities. And in the four years since, we’ve not stopped growing – we’re up to 70 member firms, and we now have FOUR role model lists celebrating LGBT+ and Ally Executives, as well as LGBT+ Public Sector Executives and LGBT+ Future Leaders. That’s 220 role models in total!
What is the importance of lists and rankings?
I don’t think it’s so much the list or ranking element – the numbers and positions don’t matter. What matters is the fact that our lists provide a public platform for positive role models. They allow us to celebrate and congratulate those who are doing great things, but more importantly, they provide hope and motivation for others. For those who are living in secrecy, or aren’t comfortable with their LGBT+ status, the success stories from senior role models can provide inspiration and courage they need to start living as their authentic selves. It shows them they’re not alone and that your sexuality is not a barrier to your success professionally.
How did EMpower and HERoes then develop?
You only have to read the newspapers to see that LGBT+ is not the only under-represented diversity strand. Unfortunately boardrooms up and down the country are full of old, white, straight men – often called John (it’s true!) – and these are the decision makers for some of the biggest players in our national economy. Diversity of thought translates to diversity of action, and ultimately greater business success. Moving into different diversity spheres was the next logical step for us. By celebrating champions of women in business and ethnic minority leaders, we are helping to increase this diversity, whilst creating and nurturing sustainable, diverse talent pipelines for the future.
How do they support each other?
Diverse groups can learn a lot from one another. A lot of the experiences faced by minority groups are the same, regardless of what that minority is. And we mustn’t forget the element of intersectionality – where people fall into multiple minority groups. As an Asian, gay man, this is something I can 100% relate to. There are aspects of discrimination that can relate to either or both elements, with neither being right or pleasant. Within OUTstanding and EMpower member firms, we are seeing more and more cases of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) working together. They are recognising the benefits and learnings that they can gain from one another, and I’m confident we’ll continue to see more cases of cross-network support.
What else is next?
The sky’s the limit. On the OUTstanding side, we’re launching a base in Dublin so as to better serve our members across the Irish Sea. We’re also increasing the number of international events we offer, and developing some exciting research pieces to cement our thought leadership offering. On the EMpower side we’re continuing to grow our member base and launching a Future Leaders’ Programme soon. And for HERoes we have our first ever role model list publication this week, and hope to pilot a membership offering within the next 12 months too. You definitely can’t accuse us of being complacent.
What is the ultimate goal?
That’s simple – a world where our workplaces are so diverse and inclusive that we no longer need to exist. But we’re a long way from this, so I think I’m safe in my role for now!
The 2017 Financial Times OUT-standing ranking tables can be found at https://www.out-standing.org/nominations/