“Living and working somewhere without the same rights for LGBTQ people that I enjoy in the U.S., I feel even more of an obligation to stand out as a senior LGBTQ Leader. It’s made me feel I need to be even more vocal and visible.” – Amin Kassam
Amin Kassam is the current Head of Bloomberg’s Legal Department in APAC, Chair of Bloomberg’s Hong Kong Office Committee, Co-Executive Sponsor for Bloomberg’s LGBT & Ally Community (BPROUD) in APAC, and a member of Bloomberg’s APAC Diversity & Inclusion Council. He talks to Out Leadership’s Lotte Jeffs about the rise of Gen-Z in the workplace and how LGBTQ Networks can support people through their hardest times
Who was the first person you came out to and what do you remember about how that felt at the time?
I had just graduated from college. I’d left Canada and gone to London for a year before I started my law degree. Consciously or subconsciously I felt like I needed to be in a safe environment where I could do some figuring out on my own and not be in a city where I knew people. I made a lesbian friend who worked for the UK Civil Service. I came out to her. She then took me to her industry’s LGBTQ networking group. I was so nervous, it was such a big moment for me – at the time, in 1997, there were not a lot of gay role models. So, to be around a group of professionals – lawyers and civil servants – it was a moment where I saw myself reflected and could see my own career path. These people were doing similar things to what I wanted to do with my life and being gay wasn’t holding them back.
It’s interesting that the most defining moment of your coming out was at a business networking event rather than, say, a nightclub! Do you think enjoying that sense of togetherness and professional mentorship and role models has inspired the LGBTQ advocacy work you do in the industry today?
Something we see a lot in Asia particularly, but also around the world, is that many people will come out at work before they come out to their families. It’s really important that there are LGBTQ networks, as these can become a safe space for people to be themselves. Ultimately, if you’re not worrying about what you say and how you act and can bring your full self to work, then you’re a happier, more productive employee.
One of the reasons I feel so passionate about the networks I’m a part of is that I didn’t have role models growing up. There were very few openly gay people who I could look up to. Moreover, when people did come out, they were not Muslim, they were not South Asian, so they did not look like me. For so long my struggle with confidence came from the fact that I did not see myself reflected. There was no South Asian, Muslim, gay general counsel or Head of Legal or senior lawyer.
Why is it important for you to be a role model?
I remember when I gave a talk at Bloomberg to our interns. In the audience was a Muslim who was really struggling with his identity and coming out. He spoke to me afterwards to say he was so surprised a gay Muslim could stand up and speak and be a leader. It meant so much to him. He wrote me a lovely card after his internship saying how it had helped him in his coming out journey.
Have you seen a difference in the way Gen Z are coming into the workplace to your generation, and what we can learn from each other?
I think Gen Z is much more open and authentic compared to when I was coming out and there’s a bigger focus on gender identity that wasn’t there back then. We have so much to learn from them about this, as they are at the forefront of a movement. I also think Gen Zer’s expectations about what companies should be doing is very interesting. Their expectation is that we should be more engaged in corporate advocacy, which is something that I strongly believe in. Bloomberg has been actively doing its part in the industry and I’m lucky to be a part of it. They believe a corporation isn’t just neutral. It has to stand for something. Values matter and Gen Zers are holding companies accountable.
Why do we perform better if we can be our most authentic selves?
We are not spending the psychological energy worrying about how we may be perceived. As a technology company, Bloomberg believes that diversity brings about better outcomes. Innovation flourishes when there’s diversity. If you are trying to be like everybody else, you are holding back the thing that makes you valuable. We need people to come forward and share their different perspectives, experiences, ideas and identities. There’s a genuine business case for it.
Now that you are so established in business, do you still encounter prejudice?
It still shows its face sometimes. I’ve seen it in some peoples’ unconscious bias. I’ll give you an example – before I became Head of Legal for Asia, I was chief of staff for our General Counsel and I remember a law firm came to pitch to us and I was joined by one tall white male who led one of our teams. The law firm partner – also a straight, white, male – only looked at the straight white male the entire time. He never made eye-contact with me. It was fascinating to watch. He was pitching to this one person who obviously had a say in the decision we were going to make, but I had a major role to play in whether we would hire that firm as well. I’ve had incidents like that in the past. I remember when I was a mid-level associate at a large law firm the client mistook me for the maître de in the restaurant. And after I’d worked on their brief all night long!
What do you do in those kinds of situations? Because we all respond differently.
When I was a law firm associate, I was lucky there was a partner there with me and they corrected the clients on my behalf. In the case of the law firm pitch – I did let another partner at the firm know what had happened. I think it’s really important to do that because you cannot expect things to change if people don’t know that they did anything wrong. I do this often. I remember when other law firms would come and pitch to us, and it would be a completely homogenous team of lawyers. I would call the partner afterwards and say, “Please, if you are expecting to get business from us, we are expecting to see diversity in the team that comes before us.” I made sure it was very clear these were our expectations. We could have just not given them business, but then, how are you changing things for the future if they don’t know the reason why?
What’s it like being gay in Hong Kong versus New York where you spent the past 15 years?
First and foremost, gay marriage is not legal here, so there is still a fight for such rights. I think there’s still quite a bit of opposition towards gay marriage. In this way, it is more conservative than New York City. Part of it is cultural, part legal – so a big thing is changing the hearts and minds of people.
How does that culture impact you personally?
I’m very happy to be here. And I feel even more of an obligation to stand out as a senior LGBTQ Leader. It’s made me feel I need to be even more vocal and visible.
This year has been a powerful one for activism and issues of prejudice becoming understood by the mainstream. Have you found this new energy uplifting?
I’m an optimist. After the U.S. election in 2016, I predicted that more communities would come together and build coalitions. This past year, one of the things I’ve found so amazing is that, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the “riots”, members of the LGBTQ community stood up and said “Pride Month commemorates and started with the Stonewall riots. We had riots for change.” Seeing how members of our community tried to support Black Lives Matter was a wonderful thing.
How has the pandemic changed you as a person and as a leader?
It’s front and center of what I do. At Bloomberg, we have offices in 17 countries throughout the APAC region. Part of my job is making sure we are opening and closing all of our offices in compliance with all of the different local, state and national regulations and restrictions. Paramount to this is the safety and health of all our employees and this is something we have been really focused on.
From an LGBTQ perspective, I’ve been particularly checking in with our LGBTQ colleagues, some of whom may be living at home in an environment that may not be supportive. In fact, we had a situation where someone was kicked out of their house in the middle of the pandemic for coming out. Our BPROUD Community helped this individual find a place to live. When you talk about what LGBTQ networks can do in the workplace, that’s an example of which I’m very proud.
You’re in two weeks quarantine in your apartment right now after travelling to visit your parents – what’s your secret to surviving and thriving?
I have a very strict routine. I make sure I get up, shower, and dress up for work. I exercise with a trainer over Zoom regularly. I have a balcony, so I make sure I get fresh air every day. I’ve been working crazy hours too, which definitely helps pass the time!