Q&A with Suresh Raj: Why it's important to be a visible LGBT champion

Today the Financial Times announced the annual 2016 OUTstanding Top 100, which celebrates the world's leading LGBT senior executives. I'm incredibly proud that my friend and colleague Suresh Raj, Global Chief Business Development Officer for Ogilvy PR, was named to the list. I recently sat down with Suresh to discuss his thoughts on being a role model and what diversity in the workplace means to him.

Stuart Smith, Global CEO of Ogilvy PR, says, "Diversity and Inclusion is important to Ogilvy PR because it is the right thing to do. Period. It's right for our people, it's right for our clients, and it's right for our business." Suresh lives these words through his personal actions and while developing relationships with new clients around the world.

JEN: It's an honor to be named to the 2016 OUTstanding Leading LGBT+ & Ally Executives, presented by the FT. An aspect that makes it truly special is that you were nominated by your peers and colleagues. Tell me what it means to be recognized by the people you work with?

SR: It's incredibly humbling. That for me was the thing that really stuck out. I initially turned it down because it didn't feel right, I didn't think I qualified. But that's when they said you've been nominated by people across industries. But when I was told that it was by peer nomination - there are heavy hitters on there! I didn't think what I was doing was groundbreaking, I do it because I love what I do, and don't do it for ambition, or recognition.

JEN: You are Global Chief Business Development Officer at a major PR agency. What part of your role led to your nomination to the OUTstanding list?

SR: It's a bit of what I do outside of my day to day work that led to it. When prepping for my pitches, I'm not just talking with our execs and office heads, I'm engaging with junior people as well, because ultimately my job is to sell people, so I need to know people at all levels.

I've had the privilege to meet with people of all levels and through that I get to know them. In the same way, when I speak to clients, it's not just, "oh tell me your brief," and "what's your communication problem," I'm trying to get to know them as people, find out what their personal trigger points are. And when you get to know them as people that's when they open up to you.

JEN: Our Global CEO Stuart Smith has made diversity a priority at Ogilvy PR. What does a diverse company culture mean to you?

SR: I lump all diversity - LGBT, gender, ethnic minority - together. Ultimately, all matters of diversity mean that oppression should never be a life for anyone. Diversity is more than a classification by a particular group. The accepted norm should be everything.

JEN: Tell me about your experience coming out at work? Did you find it challenging?

SR: I came out when I was in London, in my first job. The company organized a drinks one evening that happened to be at a gay bar. Only reason everyone found was because someone approached me and asked for my number, and I gave it. And that's when I realized, oh I just came out. I realized that I just embraced who I am, and I'm perfectly fine with this.

I chose to live the life that I was born into. The greatest lesson I think, is that it's very hard to fall into a relationship, until you've fallen in love with yourself. You fall in love with everything you can love and hate about yourself. That's when you feel completely at your core that you're solid. And I did, at that point I said, ok, if I lose everything its fine, I've got me, and I can deal with me.

JEN: How did your personal experience shape your point of view?

SR: I think I can connect with people because my background is unique. I grew up in Malaysia, a Muslim country, but I come from a mix of cultures. That was extremely frowned upon, and as a result I grew up seeing this oppression.

I was an excellent student in school, but I was prevented from attaining the best local opportunities, so I left Malaysia for England. There, my eyes opened to the fact that it didn't matter what color you were, what race you were, what cultural ethnic background, or religion you were. I saw for first time what a meritocracy meant - you worked for it, you earned it. I loved that. I think that's when my life changed. I realized that if I can inspire someone to feel and achieve on their own, whatever their background, that for me was the greatest achievement of all.

Traveling around the world for Ogilvy PR, I've met a number of our colleagues in the Middle East, people who are gay and are very oppressed. I don't say, "go party, go raving," because that's not me. It's about, how do you accept yourself and live in this society but don't feel like you're second best in any way, that your achievements will be rewarded if you are who you are, and not denying yourself. That for me is where I find my greatest skill.

JEN: What message would you give to someone who may be afraid that coming out would negatively impact their career?

SR: I think people are afraid to come out for themselves, and afraid of the repercussions, not just career-wise. I think that's related to country and their surrounding - context is not quite the same in North America versus someone in Saudi Arabia. Here, the question is more based around the family. In a place like Saudi Arabia, question is more around cultural and religious issue. It's more than just saying "come out!" because there are repercussions. I'd never advocate putting one's life in danger. So it's about making a concerted call to make a stand for your beliefs, but be conscious of your environment.

My greatest advice is to believe in yourself. I don't wear my sexuality on my sleeve, but if someone asked me I wouldn't deny it. And I think that [realization] was when I accepted myself, and that was my point of change. So it's hard to contextualize because it depends on where this person is. I think everyone needs a confidante. Make sure you have someone you can talk to and reach out.

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David Rosenthal contributed to this article.