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Hear My Story: Gavin Lewis

Category: BAME, black history month

As part of our Black History Month celebrations we are talking to role models from the UK BAME community in order to offer an insight into their lives as well as help advise candidates and employers on how best to represent and encourage equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Gavin Lewis

Managing Director, Head of UK LGPS BlackRock

SteerCo Member 

Diversity Project

“We need more diversity at the top level, to constantly challenge and create the will for positive change.” Gavin

Gavin has just started a new role at BlackRock as a Managing Director leading the UK Local Government Pension Scheme Distribution team. Before this he held several leadership roles at Vanguard Asset Management, the second largest fund manager globally, (behind BlackRock). He held three roles as head of consultant relations, head of retirement and head of UK institutional distribution. Before that he was an executive director at UBS, and an associate director at Russell Investments. Gavin is also co-creator of #talkaboutblack a movement dedicated to increasing the representation of black professionals in the Asset Management industry.  He has written an impassioned account of his journey as a black person growing up and working in the UK, which you can read here. Gavin writes from an Asset Management perspective, but his work encompasses wider issues that touch people in all industries.

You refer to the kinks in a hosepipe in your article, being the analog to the journey as a person being ‘born black’. Can you explain a little more about what this means and how this relates to your life? 

The analogy was first termed by Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, Chair of Redington an Investment Consultancy, who also wrote an article on the subject of black representation in the corporate world. In terms of the hosepipe, it stems from the view that talent and potential exist, but there are obstacles that people face in their lives that stop them reaching their full potential. These obstacles are the kinks and it’s only when we unblock these that the water starts to flow. We have pinpointed four of these, which I will go into shortly, but you have to unkink all four, because just fixing one means you’re going to get stuck somewhere else.

Is this unique to asset management within the UK?

Within finance you do find successful black figures, but in my experience these people tend to be from the US or from West Africa, rather than from the UK. I have rarely found anyone born in the UK who is black and at a senior level in the organisations that I have worked for. I think this is particularly impactful for black people in the UK, because as a demographic we are more likely to be unemployed, to be arrested or imprisoned or face mental health issues. There are many reasons for this. For example, my mother arrived in the UK in 1968 as part of the Windrush generation. Migrants from the West Indies generally took up lower paid, more manual jobs in construction and public transport or as low paid keyworkers with little prospect of social mobility.

A less discussed topic is the thorny issue of colonialism and slavery. It’s quite interesting that for many years you weren’t allowed to say that slavery has an impact on where we are now because people often roll their eyes as if to say ‘not this again, aren’t we past this?’. I feel like this might be the case in the US, but in the UK I don’t think we’ve really acknowledged our past. There is room for an honest conversation about that part of our history. It certainly wasn’t something I learned about or discussed when I was at school. It has an impact on people around the world - just look at the US where there’s a legacy of colonialism, look at Africa, the UK and the West Indies and can see still after effect.

So we should look at history our history to explain our current situation, but today as a demographic we don’t have the same aspirations as others. Much of this stems from a lack of aspiration to achieve more and climb that social ladder, because so few examples exist. When you grow up in an environment with all those factors in play, I think it’s difficult to break through to find a future for yourself. This for me is the reason it can be so hard to unkink this specific part of the hose.

How did you find aspiration on your journey?

Firstly my mother was, and still is, a huge influence on me. My father left early on so was never part of our lives, so my mother performed both roles. She raised two kids by herself, which is remarkable as having two daughters and a wife I know the challenges this brings! She managed to do a great job without any help and set a positive example. 

We grew up in a council estate in Tottenham and my mother always wanted to live in a bigger house. At that time the conservative government were running what was called a home swap scheme, and she scoured London for suitable housing  She also had an aspirations to find work other rather than working on shop till. She put herself through university and I can remember her working really late into the night, with high piles of books and folders around her. When you’re a kid that vision has a huge impact on you. She instilled in me the belief that you can be more and make more, beyond the situation that you’re in. That still holds true for me today and I still believe I can achieve more if I simply work hard. 

I’d like to add that there are plenty of black mothers and fathers who work incredibly hard and do the best for their children, yet their children don’t reach their full potential. This is due to the complex factors as mentioned throughout the kinks in the hosepipe analogy. 

Some people have referred to me as an outlier or unique, I’m not sure that’s true, I just have a very high work ethic, much of which comes from a fear of failure and wanting to run away from where I grew up. This is not uncommon in people who have faced adversity, but it’s also something they need to watch. Is it a gift or a burden?

The other thing to mention is that at certain points in my childhood I faced quite a lot of violence. This forced me to decide what I wanted to be, what I wanted out of life. I had to think: do I want to continue to be a victim, or do I want to live in an area where I can raise a family who don’t have to face those same challenges? These are some of the most impactful reasons for why I have made the choices I have.

What do you do in your professional life to improve things for others?

For a long time I worked in this industry, climbed the ladder, and felt that by just being visible I was representing black people and being a role model. It got to a point where I reached a senior position and looked around and realised that there was no one else that looked like me or shared my background. At this point the gender equality movement really took off following #Metoo. However  I would see companies at diversity award ceremonies, patting themselves on the back for how diverse they were. The increase in gender equality was, and is, fantastic and we owe a lot to the movement, but unfortunately there were never any black people there - male or female. So I always thought that this doesn’t truly represent diversity, there’s no one there that looks like me. We live and work in London, or the South East, were 14% of the population is from a black, asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. I then had a conversation with my wife and she said to me “You do realise your one of the most senior people in your industry who is black, so if you don’t say something no one else will.” 

At a similar point in time, Dame Helena Morrissey had launched the Diversity Project. It had been going for about a year and I hadn’t really been involved. She contacted me and Dawid Konotey-Ahulu to lead a diversity workstream. The Diversity Project is an initiative to increase diversity in asset management, which was originally set up to focus on gender but then opened up to include ethnic diversity, disability, mental health and sexual orientation etc. We sat down with an initial brief focused on BAME, and the acronym didn’t sit comfortably with us as it was used to describe people that come from very different backgrounds. So we started by deconstructing the acronym into each demographic and looked at whose problems we could try to solve. The group then decided that given how successful many of our Asian and other minority ethnic groups were within the industry, we would focus on the black demographic. It was then that we devised this analogy of the hosepipe. Dawid and I both wrote the blog referred to earlier and they received a lot of attention, but at that point all we’d really talked about were the problems

After further discussion and dialogue with the industry, we felt we needed to focus on the solutions. This is now very important to me and I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can solve these challenges. These aren’t easy - the socioeconomic problems, the fact that even if black British born people achieve a good education they’re not necessarily choosing our industry. When they do get in (if they do get in) their career progression seems to be stunted, so you find very few senior black people in every firm. The fact that this whole discussion raises a taboo subject - the fact that black people are absent from the industry. We thought we’d call our movement #talkaboutblack, and this is how we’ve shared our findings, thoughts and suggestions. We’ve now gone into over 50 companies over the last couple of years and we’ve visited and spoken about these issues, sharing personal and professional stories. We’re trying to open the dialogue. Now that’s the easier bit - not that it doesn’t require a lot of work! 

So what have you been doing within the City to tackle this? 

We are bringing #talkaboutblack to the City and working with corporations to forge a way to tackle the issues I raised earlier. We are working on an after school programme in conjunction with the City of London Corporation  for disadvantaged kids, not only black kids but those who have free school dinners; kids from low income families. What we’d like to do is bring them into the city and put them through a financial education course and we’ve been speaking to the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute (CFA), which is incredibly well regarded, to help create learning materials and assessments with a qualification at the end of it. 

We also want these kids to learn the soft skills that you get taught if you have access to a different type of education and equip them with the aspiration to do something more. A lot of these kids, despite having great parents, still don’t think they can do it. We want to give them that belief and aspiration to be able to forge a career in the corporate world via education and experience in the workplace. So far we’ve had a number of fund managers agree to sign up and we’re working hard to launch this in January 2020. 

For those students who’ve managed to get a good education, but probably don’t think they can have a successful career in asset management, we’ve been working on a student insight day, and that’s backed by fund managers from the City and investment consultants. We are bringing black role models, white role models and allies to give the students an insight of what it’s like to work for a fund manager. This incorporates everyone from recent graduates who now work in fund management, to CEOs. This is going to be an inaugural event but will mark the annual event going forward. In an ideal world these students would win a prize to work with the fund managers who are sponsoring the event. This starts to unwind the second kink.

Can you tell us about the third kink?

For the third kink, which is career progression, we have launched a range of mentoring circles. Because of our visibility in talking about this, we have a lot of younger people who want to engage with us and ask us questions. This got to the point where it became unmanageable with so many requests coming in. We thought we’d put together Chatham House Rules mentoring circles where groups can come in and speak to us and ask us anything and we’d give advice. That’s been going for about a year now and has been very successful. 

And the fourth kink?

This is the tricky one. What we haven’t quite solved is that C-Suite problem. In the FTSE 100 there’s one or two black board members, very few CEOs, certainly none in the asset management world, (although I have been informed there is now one person), but in all very few across the C-Suite. This is the one area that we haven’t figured out how to impact change in the near future. I feel like I’m doing my part, but here’s where we need other people - more brains to come together to see how to affect this change. 

Do you think it’s a case of time in conjunction with the previous three initiatives that will be the only thing to solve the C-Suite issue?

Sadly I don’t think it’s just time will solve it. Just think, women have been on this planet for as long as men and it’s only last year that they’ve hit 30% in the industry. In many other industries, there's a lot of black talent, but fund management is behind in that regard, yet still the top positions are still predominantly under-represented. I think it’s a multitude of factors, starting with there needing to be the will. It’s the same as I mentioned earlier, with companies thinking they’re incredibly diverse even though they don’t have any black, openly gay or disabled people there and this is because there is no one at the top to challenge their view. That’s why we need more diversity at the top level, to constantly challenge and create the will for positive change. This also doesn’t have to just come from ethnic minorities, it can come from anyone who realises there is a bigger issue and wants to spread the will for change. 

The second thing is you need is to make it purposeful. There’s no point in saying we want to be more diverse because that doesn’t give anyone anything to aim for. I’m a fan of targets, so unless you put a number on it and a certain date, I don’t think people will have the impetus or incentive. To allow this to happen you need time because there isn’t a raft of black professionals just below C-Suite to suddenly promote. This reflects the hosepipe issue again and it might take decades for that talent to start coming through. Luckily, there are a few that, against the odds, have managed to prevail and I look at them and think; you’ve had to work twice as hard and be exceptional to get to this point. If you have people like this in your organisation you should be going out of your way to give them all the training and support possible because they have talent. They’re the ones who will break through and have the confidence to challenge and create the will. 

Where can people connect with what you’re doing?

#Talkaboutblack is already up and running and we’re present across the popular social media channels. For the individual initiatives we are in the process of launching a website, but in the interim you can email us direct (all links can be found at the bottom of this article). 

What does black history month mean to you?

I think that black history month is really important, but I think it should mean more than it does. If you take Pride as an example; the streets are painted with rainbows and there’s a fantastic energy and celebration to it. There’s a wonderful movement in the asset management industry called LGBT Great, and they’re inspirational in the way they have taken the issue by the scruff of the neck and have created their own narrative. They’re certainly role models for us, but I also think they benefit from the country having embraced Pride. Black History Month has always been a bit of a damp squib. Look at how much of a celebration Pride is, whereas Black History Month is a little backward looking and lacks the joyous celebration of black people and their contribution in the UK. I think it’s up to us to change the narrative, no one’s going to change it for us. Of course we still need to acknowledge our history and use it to reflect, as I mentioned at the start of this interview. As a people we’re a lot more than our history. I feel Black History Month UK has gained a little traction over the last couple of years, as before then it went pretty much under the radar. In the asset management industry there has been an annual celebration for the last few years, which is a great change as just a couple of years ago no one knew it was even taking place. 

What black figures, contemporary or historic, inspire or influence you?

To be honest, the most influential people to me, you might not have heard of. They’re the people I have worked, or work with. These are the people who inspire me and keep me going when things get tough. It’s great to see black actors and politicians on TV, but I don’t know them personally, so it’s all about the people who have a direct impact on my life. These are the following (to name a few):

Justin Onuekwusi from Legal & General is a close friend of mine. Darren Johnson at Impax Asset Management is a real mentor to me. Dawid Konotey-Ahulu at Redington is a visionary, Marissa Hall from Willis Towers Watson and Thinking Ahead Institute, is one of the brightest people I've ever met. Rachel Green from Aviva, who along with Justin pulled of this student insight day, and she’s a wonderful mentor to many women. Anji Kang-Stewart from Wellington Management, she’s been right there with us and supporting us throughout. Bola Adesina from Legal & General has been creating our website, Maria Kerr Maria Kerr from Impax who is secretary to #Talkaboutblack and Andrien Meyers who is our sponsor from the City of London Corporation… I feel like I’m accepting an award! But joking aside, we laud these celebrities but it’s the unsung heroes that are doing this day in, day out. These are the people that inspire me. 

What advice would you give to employers and recruiters?

We have a five step plan to help recruiters get to grips with what we are trying to do. 

1. Have the dialogue with the people in your organisation.

  • Understand how they feel.
  • Create Trust - you want an honest conversation so people can speak up if they feel issues are present and positive change isn’t taking place.

2. Have a line about why it’s important to have diversity within your organisation in your business goals.

  • Make it clear so there is an obvious buy-in.
  • Outline how it will help your business.

3. Have a strategy around recruitment, retention and progression.

4. Gather data to create clear objectives. 

  • Monitor progress and drive accountability.

5. Communicate your progress. 

  • Spread the word about the positive work you’re doing.

What advice would you give to a candidate?

I have a number of mentees and I say the same thing to them all. The first thing is to just be the best you can be, or if you’re still studying to get the best qualifications you can. That’s not enough by itself, but people will always support you if you’re the best that you can be. Don’t ever take your eye off the ball and take up opportunities as they come in. 

Secondly develop a network. I think people need two types of networks,  a personal network and the professional one. Clearly this is in the context of the workplace, so in your personal network, (like mine as I discussed earlier) be surrounded by people in the industry that you can have an incredibly honest conversation with. Then you need your professional network of people who are going to vouch for you, sponsor you, offer advice and they may be from a completely different background and demographic but you will bring value to each other. 

In terms of breaking into any industry, don’t just apply. You need to network and get to know the individuals in the business and sector. Network like crazy, use LinkedIn, reach out to people. It’s very rare that I don’t take a meeting and if ever I miss anything it’s because I’m swamped more than usual. I try my best to make time for everyone, and if it’s not me I will look to find someone else who can help. How can you deny a young person looking to progress? This then arms you with the ability to assess whether you want to work in the industry and also gives you insight that you’d never get any other way. You never know - someone might be hiring or know someone that is and an opportunity may present itself.

So what are you waiting for?








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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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