Article: Identify allies in the system, become vocal & visible: Ketty Avashia, Wells Fargo

Leadership

Identify allies in the system, become vocal & visible: Ketty Avashia, Wells Fargo

Ketty Avashia, a technologist and an LGBTQ+ activist and leader, talks to People Matters about the roadblocks and enablers of LGBTQ+ representation at the leadership level and reflects on his personal journey in coming out at the workplace and becoming an advocate for change.
Identify allies in the system, become vocal & visible: Ketty Avashia, Wells Fargo

What do companies need to do differently to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace? We speak to Ketty Avashia (he/him), a technologist with 18+ years of global experience, across the US, the UK, and India, primarily in financial services companies. 

Ketty is a transgender man who speaks from his experience both as a technology leader managing teams in two cities and an activist member of the LGBTQ+ community. Ketty has personally seen the climate of inclusion in India shift from marginalization and exclusion in the early part of his career, to fully grown acceptance of diversity, equity and inclusion as not just a way of life in corporate India, but a big enabler of innovation.       

Ketty is presently serving as Vice President, Enterprise Functions Technology, Platform Services – Platform Integration (India Lead), Wells Fargo India & Philippines. In addition to his key role at Wells Fargo, he is also a part of the Pride network in the Technology organization and is working with the core team and leadership to attract LGBTQ+ talent and create an inclusive workplace. 

In this exclusive interview with People Matters, Ketty, emphasizes the need to shift the focus to retention and growth opportunities for LGBTQ+ professionals, the roadblocks and enablers of LGBTQ+ representation at the leadership level, and reflects on his personal journey in coming out at the workplace and becoming an advocate for change

What have been some of the most rewarding milestones as you reflect on your work to accelerate LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace? 

A personal milestone was when I came out in the workplace in the mid-2000s. The very mention of LGBTQ+ was taboo in India too when I started working in the late 1990s. I survived as a “woman” in those early days at work. My career growth was derailed a few times because my expression of my identity as a man or a woman was a bit of a gray area. ‘Being different’ was either discouraged or ignored, so being sidelined or marginalized was not uncommon for people like me.  

In the mid-2000s, I shifted to the US and suddenly everything changed for me. People were a lot more aware of the spectrum in which I could exist. It was around then that I came out.

It was a cathartic experience and so very liberating, as till then I had often felt disappointed and demotivated as I could not be my full self.  

My other milestone was becoming an advocate for change. This allowed me to mentor LGBTQ+, women and some men at work. In turn, it helped me because I became part of a strong ally network within the industry. 

In a career spanning 18+ years, what factors enabled you to be the leader you are today?

I believe in a strong focus on skills, regardless of identity. Nurturing diverse teams is an important leadership trait, along with respect and empathy for differences, whether it is diversity of thought, culture, environment or expression. 

I also believe that my team is an extension of me during work hours. Since I want my team to be able to bring their whole selves to work, I encourage them to express their concerns and problems, in exchange for flexibility and understanding. I believe in throwing my loyalty behind the team, and going the extra mile. I have learned that trust and openness win most of the time. 

At heart I am passionate about technology and my work excites me. I love solving problems and I believe leaders are people who are passionate about their work.  

Where do organizations stand today with respect to LGBTQ+ representation at the leadership and board level? How do you view the progress made in recent years?

Organizations globally have made decent progress, but Asia, and especially India, lag a bit. You can attribute this to multiple factors. The focus on LGBTQ+ talent only started a few years ago.

Inclusion is still in its nascent stage and there are not many known LGBTQ+ leaders in corporate India who can be groomed and encouraged, or even be role models.

With the commitment to inclusion demonstrated by multinational companies in India in the last couple of years, I am expecting to see some representation at senior management and board levels. 

Wells Fargo, for example, has a zero tolerance policy against any form of discrimination, has implemented gender agnostic policies, set up LGBTQ+ employee support networks, and promotes advocacy initiatives across the company. In India, LGBTQ+ employees have insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgery and can add their same-sex partners as dependents to avail of medical and other benefits.

We have seen a few major reforms in India recently. We are beginning to adopt the global culture of emphasis on diversity. Our constitution is becoming inclusive, and even the smaller local companies and government sectors are becoming sensitive to inclusion. So there is hope, but there is a lot of work to do as well. We cannot let up on the activism and awareness.     

What roadblocks and enablers do you see in giving LGBTQ+ professionals a seat at the table?

Enablers are the strong, mature and well-intentioned allies currently at the table. Sometimes one does not have to be a conscious ally. One of my managers in the UK was not very aware of the LGBTQ+ community, but he was just a very open-minded person. He brought such a level of comfort to our one-on-one meetings that I felt secure enough to come out to him. He simply said, “Whatever floats your boat; all I care about is performance.” Back in those days, when LGBTQ+ awareness and acceptance was very low, this was truly encouraging and motivational.

I’d say roadblocks are cultural awareness, unconscious biases, personal insecurity, and fear of competition for limited places at the table.

What dampens your spirit at the workplace when it comes to acceptance and opportunities for LGBTQ+ professionals? And what gives you hope for an inclusive future? 

It is sometimes dispiriting when employees are unable to comprehend why there is a need to support inclusion of any minority or disadvantaged groups, or when they demonstrate lack of awareness, even after multiple organizational efforts to promote a culture of inclusivity and equity. The LGBTQ+ community is also a little resigned to the work culture in India that is hetero and cis normative. That contributes to the lack of visibility.

But I have hope, when I see millennial members of the community. They are vocal and visible and they are rising through the ranks at a healthy pace. It also helps that senior leadership is becoming vocal and supportive in significant numbers. And more importantly, organizations have started making structural changes, thinking and working towards hiring and retaining diverse talent via policies, upskilling and awareness.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 elements crucial to enable sustainable inclusion at the workplace?

One, companies have to clearly define and demonstrate workplace equity. Two, they must encourage 360-degree feedback for all managers to address unconscious bias. Three, they must encourage a cultural change top-down that includes an appreciation of all aspects of diversity and inclusion. 

What would your advice be for LGBTQ+ professionals evaluating their career prospects? And what would your advice be for organizations seeking to foster a safe and thriving workplace for all?

To LGBTQ+ professionals, I’d say the times are changing, there’s a better tomorrow in the offing. Identify allies in the system, find your strength and become vocal and visible. And always remember – self-help before asking for help. 

To organizations I’d say, cultural change takes time. Empathy and persistence is the key.

Gather information and feedback through multiple channels and surveys. Hiring diverse talent has become relatively smooth and streamlined in the past few years. Now the focus needs to move to retention of this talent and growth opportunities.

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Topics: Leadership, Diversity, Culture

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