Alumni profile - Gavin Lewis
I am now privileged – I wasn’t born with it, I earned it – but it doesn’t matter how you get it, if you have it, it’s my belief that it’s your responsibility to use it to lift up others ... For every challenging period where you’re having to work evenings and weekends and giving up family time, out of the blue you might just get an email that says “you made a difference to me” and “thank you” which makes it worthwhile.
Why did you choose to study History and Politics at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this specific degree? A big part of it was that I was good at those subjects and I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do in my career. I think a lot of that was personal. My mum came over from the Caribbean in the 1960s and I was very interested in how it was that I was here as a Black person in the UK and how it was that I was someone who was disadvantaged and yet, going to university so I was interested in rooting the context of my experience in History. I think that’s certainly played out over the last year and understanding the context of things is critically important. In terms of Politics, it’s about looking at the History and how that manifests itself now; about why governments take the actions that they take and relating that to history. Other than that, it also requires some analytical skills as well – so you know, understanding and synthesising diverse sources of information – which is a skill that serves me well now.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? I think the way it was taught was very different; it was very self-directed as opposed to it necessarily being taught. So, the whole concept of lecturing and research and going away and trying to establish your own arguments was different – so that surprised me – the independence required to study. And maybe just the subjects themselves and the depths that you can go to. You study things at A-level and even then, you’re just skating on the surface. I didn’t really go into any depth until I studied for my degree.
You co-founded the #TALKABOUTBLACK movement which is dedicated to increasing the representation of Black individuals in the corporate world. What inroads have you made with this so far and what more do you hope to do? The movement has been going for around four years now and, although it’s become the centre of attention now for the last few months or so since May (following the global response to the murder of George Floyd), we’ve been advocating for increased representation for years now. It was wrapped up in the whole diversity and inclusion movement, which centers on the workplace but I think, from our perspective, if you don’t resolve the wider societal challenges facing Black people, it’s hard to resolve the workplace challenges, so we had to think more broadly about the issues.
We set out five different obstacles that need to be navigated: the first is the socio-economic challenges that many Black people face – particularly those born in the UK; the second is an underperformance in education; the third is an inability or unwillingness to enter the corporate world; and, once in, the challenge of attrition, retention and progression, and I guess that manifests itself in the lack of leadership at the top of these organisations; and then the fact that this whole discussion around race was, and, despite recent events, probably still is, a taboo subject. Four years ago, we mapped out these challenges and I think we’ve been working in earnest to try and resolve these. We are a small group of Black professionals who are trying to change some very deep and complex issues so I think the inroads that we make have to be judged on how many individuals we’ve impacted as well as what we can do in our own industry, but I do think we have made some progress so it’s important for us that we actually find solutions, not just talk about the issues.
The most accessible area is probably reducing the taboo and we’ve been very vocal about the challenges via blogs, panel discussions, events, having a social media presence and, this year, we launched a campaign called the ‘#IAm’ campaign, which went viral and it allowed people to connect with the issue in a very different way. So, I think people are gradually getting more comfortable with the topic.
The other challenges are more complex; some of them we’re still working on because they were never going to be resolved in a short space of time, particularly the issues surrounding economic status. But we’re about to launch an after school programme for disadvantaged kids which will hopefully give them a proximity qualification and a direct line to our industry. We hold graduate insight days where they can come and view the industry and it also works as a mini jobs fair. We have mentoring circles where we mentor young Black professionals on a monthly basis and we anticipate launching a sponsorship programme for more senior Black professionals, as well as producing more thought-leadership etc. So, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet; I don’t think the issues can be resolved via one small group such as ours, but maybe if we can be the catalyst for change, that will make a difference.
This year has seen a huge increase in awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. Has this directly impacted your work with #TALKABOUTBLACK? Yes it has, but I think when the events in May happened, we were reluctant to just give a standard response because everyone was doing the same thing, but we held this position of leadership and, whether we liked it or not, we were being asked to respond. And the responses we saw were either very defensive where people were, understandably so, very angry about what was going on, or they were offensive and accusational, which, again, you can understand, but we just felt the dialogue needs to change and we wanted to make our message more inclusive, which is what launched the #IAm campaign.
We’ve continued doing what we had always being doing which is trying to change the fortunes and opportunities for Black people in our sector, it’s just that companies now are perhaps taking it a bit more seriously and putting more effort behind it, which has made our lives busier than they were before. It’s good that people are taking it more seriously but I also think that it took the death of someone for this to happen, when in fact these things have been happening for years and inequality has been there for years so I guess, you know, we’re trying to do something about it, but we still have mixed emotions about the whole thing. But we are leaders so we’re playing our role.
How did you break into your career in the city? What were the challenges you faced and how did you overcome these? I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so, of course, I got into a good university, but both my mum and my sister were nurses – which is very admirable – but I had no one in my family who could provide guidance and I didn’t really understand what you need to do. The whole concept of applying for a graduate scheme, I didn’t even know – there was no one there to tell me.
I think students now are a lot better at networking and there’s a lot more access to these things, but certainly when I was at university, there were none of the opportunities there are now and there still aren’t enough opportunities now. I didn’t even know what “the City” was or what finance was but studying and speaking to people made me think it might be something I wanted to do. Had I made that plan earlier or had the guidance, I probably would have studied something different in addition to History – maybe economics – but again, I had no guidance.
Also, the whole concept of work experience was anomalous to me – I didn’t know it, I didn’t understand it and I also had a part-time job in a supermarket which was a life-line, so where I did hear of some people doing work experience and heard it wasn’t paid, it just wasn’t something that I could have done. So, I came out with a good degree, but I didn’t come out in the best position in terms of finding a job. When I did eventually begin to look, I came up against a bunch of obstacles. Even though I did interviews and sent out many, many applications, the feedback was always “you didn’t go traveling during your year off” and “ you didn’t go and build a school somewhere” and, obviously, working at a supermarket, I couldn’t afford to do that or didn’t even think about doing that. Actually, someone who’s put themselves through university and paid for it would probably have more or just as much grit as someone who’s done those things, but I don’t think that’s the way that people then or even now think about hiring – they just consider what they’re familiar with.
I had to take a very long way round because I couldn’t get straight into Finance. I ended up working in recruitment and that was because a lot of the recruiters I was meeting with to try and find a job said, come and work with us, and after a few months of looking and getting nowhere, I thought ok, maybe I’ll do this for a period of time. I ended up recruiting people into finance firms and asset managers and I eventually started recruiting salespeople into asset managers and I was already doing sales as a recruiter and I looked at the people I was placing and thought, I can do that job. So, I quit recruitment and thought I’d use my recruitment skills on myself, which was challenging because no one would take me seriously as this recruitment person trying to get a job in finance. Also, bear in mind that there are still very few Black people in that industry now but there were even less then, so it was doubly hard. However, after about 4-6 months – which was a difficult time because I had just bought a flat and didn’t have any income, so the debt started piling up – I got a job with a start-up who gave me a shot. This was just before the global financial crisis and these were guys who’d already made their money, so they were fine, whereas I was young and just starting out, so I wasn’t. So that was difficult because there were some months where we didn’t get paid, but I stuck it out because I knew how important it was in terms of just getting the experience. After a few years, my CV started to look more credible and one of my old recruitment clients who I’d stayed in touch with, Russell Investments (a US fund manager), said, why don’t you come and talk to us? So I did and got a job and since then I’ve worked at UBS, Vanguard and now, BlackRock.
What is the most exciting thing about what you do? First and foremost, I work for a leading, global business which is an experience in itself. I’m paid to think about the world, the context of everything, and all the things that I studied and that I’m interested in and that is great.
Particularly, the firm that I work for is very innovative and entrepreneurial and that culture suits me which makes it a lot more enjoyable. I’m responsible for a distribution team and I get to do a range of things, so leadership and managing people is important to me and I get to do that in abundance. I don’t like to just be sat behind a desk or a computer, so I have clients and I have personal relationships and business relationships with them and that’s incredibly interesting. I get to do new and interesting things; I get to innovate, build products, think about new ideas.
The other thing is that #TALKABOUTBLACK and trying to advocate for diversity is very important to me and I think before, it was almost seen as a HR issue, so it sat separate from my day job, but I would say now that it’s a business issue and, interestingly, my clients are now taking it seriously as well so I’ve ended up in a place where I’m a subject-matter expert for something that my clients really need to know and understand, so that is a very interesting outcome. But also, I’ve achieved a level of seniority and I have a platform which fundamentally allows me to help people. Quite simply, I’m in a position now where I can’t change the world but maybe I can make life easier for others or provide some guidance or launch a school programme that helps kids. I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t in the position that I’m in.
You said in an interview that you have rarely found anyone born in the UK who is Black and at a senior level in the organisations that you’ve worked for. What do you feel are some of the challenges and rewards of being looked up to as one of the few Black British role models in your field? One of the challenges is that there are so few, so you become a magnet for everybody. It’s difficult because I see young people who are up and coming and I see myself in them, but I can’t physically meet everyone and have a coffee or have a chat with everyone; it’s just impossible. So, you unfortunately always feel like you’re letting some people down. This is why we started the mentoring circles, so I do try to refer people on, but I just can’t get back to everyone. I have a family and my day job is very demanding so I’m not sure people understand that.
I think the intent behind being vocal about this was to advocate for myself and for others because no one else was, but it does place you in the limelight which was never the intention, and you do feel that you have the pressure of achieving because people use you as an example of what can be done and your successes are magnified but then so are your failures.
I also think that it’s a bit of a false economy because people tell you that you’re different and you’re special but actually you’re not and, I don’t feel this has happened to me, but I think it’s very easy for people to lose sight of what’s important - which is the cause and helping disadvantaged people, particularly Black people - and to confuse it with PR and celebrity and I think that detracts from the issue that we should really be trying to focus on.
The reward is, fundamentally, that I have a platform to help people, as I keep saying repeatedly, but I do - which is a unique and privileged position to be in. And you know, I am now privileged – I wasn’t born with it, I earned it – but it doesn’t matter how you get it, if you have it, it’s my belief that it’s your responsibility to use it to lift up others and I can do that and that is pretty amazing. For every challenging period where you’re having to work evenings and weekends and giving up family time, out of the blue you might just get an email that says “you made a difference to me” and “thank you” which makes it worthwhile.
You’ve also said that you were encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, but you didn’t have the confidence and felt you wouldn’t fit in. You’ve come a long way since then – was there a turning point for you where you decided that you would no longer allow limitations to hold you back from what you wanted to achieve? I don’t think it was confidence, it was more that I felt like it wasn’t a place for me. I grew up in Tottenham and it was a very alpha male culture and it was already difficult enough being in that environment, being a bit geeky as I was, because you just don’t fit in and I still lived in Tottenham, and at that time, I was still having to look over my shoulder and having to defend myself so I felt that I wouldn’t fit in there and I wouldn’t fit in back home. So that was what deterred me.
Was there a turning point? I guess probably, when I was in recruitment. I had people saying to me, look, you can become a director and it’s a great career, but for me, I felt I had more to do, so why settle? Why not try to fulfill your potential? And that comes with risk and the fear of failure, but I think, since then, if I do something, I have to do it to the nth degree, rather than settling for something that would not help me fulfil my potential.
What do you think are some of the most important qualities you need to possess in order to climb the ranks and become a successful leader? First and foremost, you need to be good at the job that you’re doing. Leadership is fundamentally about other people but you have to be reflective, so having emotional intelligence is just as important as your IQ and understanding your style of leadership and the ability to flex that style is important, particularly when you're dealing with other people who are also going to be different so, adaptability, and really trying to get people to perform to the best of their ability – that is leadership.
How do you think Black History Month should be recognised and celebrated today? I think it’s necessary to recognise it, although I do wish the dialogue would change somewhat. If you look at the equivalent, so the LGBTQ+ community have Pride where they celebrate, ours is looking backwards at history and it’s a difficult history so I certainly wish it would be more of a celebration and I wish it would be more forward looking.
Based on your own time at university, is there anything you feel that Queen Mary can do to improve the university experience for Black students? When I was at Queen Mary, there was an African & Caribbean society which I didn’t have that much to do with if I’m honest. I guess I didn’t really live the university lifestyle that a lot of people do by moving out, and I think that’s common for a lot of Black students because they don’t think it’s going to be an environment that’s for them. It may have changed now as I was there twenty years ago, but certainly while I was there, it was a continuation of me being in a very white world and I think I was the only Black person on my course. There were very few Black people at the university – when you put them all together in a room, there were some – but when you think about the thousands of students at the university, there were very, very few. No Black lecturers.
Outside of the African & Caribbean society, there weren’t any initiatives I saw that thought about Black students and the experience they might be having. I think a lot of universities do attract minority students – often these are from overseas – and I think there’s a distinction to be made between those that are born in the UK, who probably have a higher propensity to be economically disadvantaged and those who come from overseas. I think universities could think about that in their intake and what they do because they can say “look at our BAME statistics” but we know what ‘BAME’ means; it’s that UK disadvantage piece that I think is missing.
Your role is very busy, what do you like to do outside of work? I read a lot, I listen to a lot of music – I’m a huge music fan across all genres, but particularly Black music. I exercise a lot and I run a Brazilian Jiujitsu Club which is a grappling-based martial art – so I’ve been running that club now for about 7 or 8 years – it’s like an extension of my family but unfortunately not right now because of the pandemic as it’s a contact sport. And probably, most importantly, spending time with my family – I have two daughters who are 8 and 5 who keep me very busy and are always a lot of fun and if you want to get out of your work zone, just spend 20 minutes with them and they will wrap you up in their world which is great.
Did you belong to any sports clubs at university? If football, who do you support? I didn’t because by the time I got to university, I was heavily into martial arts and I don’t think at that time there were any martial arts clubs at university. I had played a lot of football and basketball and a lot of athletics but by the time I got to university I had, more-or-less, given that up and had started boxing and martial arts. I always played football and I watch football and, even though I grew up in Tottenham, I'm a life-long Arsenal fan. On the estate I grew up in, there were a lot of Spurs fans, obviously, but there were a lot of Arsenal fans as well which will probably surprise some people.
You’ve spoken about how education provided a route out of the circumstances you grew up in in Tottenham but getting a degree wasn’t enough to get you noticed by employers. “You apply for jobs, but something is missing. Unlike your university peers you’re not connected. You’ve been so focused on getting the grades, you haven’t even thought about the extra-curricular activities that are supposed to prove you’re a rounded person.” What would your advice be to students, and especially Black students, trying to get ahead?
I’d say that, unfortunately, you need to level the playing field – and it shouldn’t be your responsibility, but it is because privilege is not going to help you, it helps other people. You do have to equip yourself with a whole bunch of other attributes that other people take for granted to make sure there are no gaps and, where I didn’t know this, I think there is greater access to knowledge now. I think I said before that actually what companies need to do is value the experience those students have – so, putting themselves through university, working part-time just to get there while studying and not going on holidays, takes grit, but I still think companies don’t appreciate this. So in the absence of that, you need to figure out how it works and how it works is that you need to have internships and work experience and equip yourself with the things that your competitors have.
What advice would you give to students considering studying at Queen Mary? I think what attracted me to Queen Mary – and I could have gone anywhere as I had very good grades – but it just felt like a very inclusive university, quite simply. I did go to some of the others, but it’s a Russell Group university, and it just felt more accessible. I got very good A-levels and it made the newspaper because there were so few Black people who were doing that. It’s changed now, you know, there are a lot of Black students who have got just as good or better grades than I did, but back then it was a thing and it was a bit weird for me that I was suddenly on this path, but Queen Mary felt very comforting and welcoming but still had prestige and academic rigor. I think if that’s the environment and the culture that you want, it’s a great place to be. And it’s part of the University of London so you can access other courses so if you want to go to SOAS and learn about African History, or if you want to go to UCL or Kings, that is open to you and you’re learning at a leading institution. I didn’t move out – again, I think that’s a cultural thing with Black people – not all, but certainly some – and it was a money thing for me, but, if you can, do it and have a full experience.
- Find out more about #TALKABOUTBLACK
- Read Gavin Lewis' story, Now that I have your attention
- Join the Queen Mary Alumni Network
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Gavin or engage him in your work, please contact Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.