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Rewriting the Narrative: Deon Pillay talks with Penna and Stafford-Long

Written by Marcus Bateson

As I sit down with the LGBTQ+ advocate and campaigner Deon Pillay for Penna and Stafford-Long's Pride Talk on Zoom, I wonder what he will say about Pride. Will he pat us all on the back and reward our rainbow lanyards with some feel good platitudes about inclusion and feeling proud? Walking around the City of London adorned with rainbows and mottos proclaiming love for all, it would admittedly be easy to feel a sense of complacency. In the midst of a June heatwave, all signs point to a corporate world that has fully embraced the values of diversity and inclusion for good. The old guard has hung its hat. Hate has been retired to a museum display in Kings Cross. Every morning, I pass the glimmering glass façade of an office painted with the words “Banking with Pride”, and for a moment the battle seems won.

As the talk begins and Deon recounts his inaugural experiences of prejudice and exclusion, it becomes clear that he is here to tell us something altogether different. I am grateful. It takes incredible courage to speak from the heart; To candidly and unapologetically denounce institutional homophobia and bigotry no matter where it is found. 

In simple terms, Deon reminds us that the battle is far from won.

It was an absolute privilege to host Deon Pillay. Not only a leader in the investment management sector with over 20 years' experience, but Deon has also used his platform to advocate fiercely for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and diversity in the legal and financial industries. It is immediately apparent how passionate he is about championing historically marginalized and othered voices.

Growing up in an Indian family in South Africa, Deon admits he started life in a relatively sheltered environment. Raised as a “child of the community” - as he grew older, he increasingly felt the pressure to conform to the cultural expectations of training to be a doctor or lawyer and thus find a wife and settle down with children. Deon rejected this life. As is the experience for many LGBTQ+ young people, the cost of living as his authentic self was ultimately leaving his friends and family from home behind. After deciding to move to London, his father told him “You will come back to nothing. Now you are on your own.”

Starting out in the UK with dreams of a modelling career, Deon has transformed into an inspirational trailblazer. "I get to write my narrative every day” Deon affirms. Without question, the story he has crafted of his difficult journey is one that has the power to truly inspire meaningful change.

Co-chair of InterInvest (a network of investment professionals that drives LGBT+ equality and inclusion), Deon is prolific in his accolades including being named Diversity Hero at the British LGBT Awards 2021 as well as being mentioned among the Top 50 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders every year from 2019 to 2022.

Heavy is the head that wears such a crown, however. As Deon recalls in the talk, after being publicly outed following a colleague’s leaving do, he was met with words of blind and violent hate. After reporting the incident to his manager, he was told not to make an issue of this. There it was, the sharp threat thinly veiled as friendly advice, a familiar tactic that has been wielded for centuries by the powerful to disempower marginalised groups. However, it is too soon to condemn such practices to history – as Deon shockingly reveals, this only occurred in 2016 – perhaps tellingly in the same year as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

The importance and power of Deon’s story lies in his ability to overcome this adversity. He admits that this was not an easy thing to do, as he opens up about his battle with depression and suicidal ideation. This is the awful and deadly consequence of discrimination. As Deon urges everybody in the community and allies alike to stand up as disruptors to the status quo, it becomes clear that for many of us, this is a very real fight for survival.

Deon’s struggle became his personal catalyst for change. Sharing the traumatic details of his experiences with the CEO of his company, he was supported in relaunching the company LGBT+ Network. From there, he has strived to bring about tangible structural and cultural shift within his industry.

How exactly can a company or organization practically go about achieving such a thing?

This is the million-dollar question I put to Deon. He doesn’t hesitate in his reply. Cultural change. This is what is fundamental to making a meaningful difference to the work lives of LGBT+ colleagues, he tells us. Ask your people what they need to feel more supported. Set up groups within the company – but then ensure they are working in an intersectional way to avoid preaching to the converted. To make DEI initiatives stick, Deon stresses that people from marginalized backgrounds must be empowered and set up for success. This goes beyond equal opportunity – companies must provide mentoring and support at every stage. As for redressing the “boys club” culture which Deon pinpoints, there must be diversity standards from the very top. There will be no true systemic change until there is a broad and representative range of backgrounds sitting in that boardroom.

Deon calls on us all to be disruptors. We all have the capability to do more than we currently are. Regardless of how you relate to the community and who you work for, what is beyond doubt is that it will take a constant, active and unapologetic commitment to systemic and cultural change for stories like Deon’s to be the sole remit of yesteryear. If there is a single takeaway from Deon’s talk, it is this – be disruptive in your pursuit of rebuilding a work environment which is structurally founded on the needs, ideas and identities of a diverse coalition of communities.

It is not enough to simply be more ‘inclusive’ when the very framework you are asking people to climb was created by design to oppress certain groups in society. Change must begin with the reckoning that there can be no justice when profit is placed above the rights of others. DEI must be placed firmly alongside financial margins in every company as a key metric of performance success.

Deon’s session has reinforced our resolve here at Penna and Stafford Long to continue to disrupt and self-evaluate as we commit to prioritising and celebrating diversity and inclusion in our own organisation and through our work with UK employers.

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