Apart from social disapproval, the lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT+) population also face barriers at the workplace. Till recently, the corporate world was clearly hesitant to move towards LGBT+ workplace inclusion or even talk about it, while no employee “came out” at work, for fear of IPC’s Section 377 criminalising homosexuality. Leave alone an ‘Indian’ approach to Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), there was no experience of it even in multinational companies. There was, thus, no bridge between the LGBT+ community and corporates, making it almost impossible for organisations to foster workplace inclusion.
Sriniwasan Ramaswami and Ramkrishna Sinha, however, saw everything negative or absent or uncertain as an opportunity. With a mission to enable and empower LGBT+ people and support organisations in fostering a culture of belonging, they gave up their flourishing corporate careers to launch Pride Circle, India’s premier D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) consultancy service in 2017.
“We partner with over 150 Indian and multinational companies across India, conduct audit and assessments, sensitisation, industry roundtables, job placement, and research. Besides, we provide executive leadership development, comprehensive D&I training and consultation, and professional networking opportunities that build inclusive and welcoming work environments,” says Ramaswami.
On their inspiration, he says, “We saw a vacuum as there was no one else doing what we intended to. The only reference points on D&I were leaders from the West (mostly the USA) and the heads in less than a handful of Indian companies. What we envisaged was to create an organisational and thought leadership model that was new to the India market. This meant providing a mix of offerings that helped organisations, schools/colleges integrate LGBT+ talent in their system, create a culture of inclusion and assist the LGBT+ community to bring their whole self to work, proud and competent.”
“Many people said, ‘no one is doing this, why take a risk?’ In short, they suggested this was not sustainable for a business or worth activating. We, however, saw it as a business opportunity as well as service to society by contributing to change,” he adds.
Headquartered in Bangalore, Pride Circle’s team comprises 25 members, a majority from the LGBT+ community, from different Indian cities.
The Sphere of Action
Pride Circle’s path-breaking initiatives span job fairs, skill-building workshops, roundtables, and conduct of research.
It organised RISE (Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equity), India’s first LGBT+ conference, job fair and marketplace in Bangalore in July 2019. This saw 45 companies turn up to interact with, interview and offer jobs to LGBT+ talent. “From IT/ITES, BFSI, Hospitality, Manufacturing, FMCG sectors, from a start-up to a century-old organisation, we were able to mobilise India Inc. 400 LGBT+ job seekers came and 50 job offers were rolled out, for an annual aggregate CTC of INR 4.5 crore,” says Ramaswami.
Bringing together the LGBT+ community, workplace champions of Inclusion, civil society, government, the legal fraternity, business leaders, the event saw 50 international and national speakers, and multiple breakout sessions on specific areas of law, policy, and culture.
“We also invited 20 LGBT+ owned micro & small businesses from across India to showcase their products/ services, encouraging our corporate clients to onboard these businesses as part of their Supplier Diversity programme,” Ramaswami added.
The success inspired RISE’s second edition in 2020 in Delhi with over 1200 guests, 50 speakers from India and abroad, 20+ LGBT+ owned businesses and 1200 LGBT+ job applicants. The 3rd edition is planned for May 2021.
Since its inception, Pride Circle, through its online (RISE) and offline hiring channels, has placed over 150 people from the community across the spectrum.
The Pride Chamber of Commerce is also powering prosperity for Queerpreneurs with their Financial Literacy and inclusion programmes, seed funding, incubation and supplier diversity.
Education is not neglected. Through their Campus Partner Programme, Teacher Training and Parent Support to create safe and caring homes and regular roundtables, Pride Circle is working towards creating welcoming, affirming, and supportive environments at schools/colleges.
From companies who would not even want to talk about LGBT+ inclusion at workplaces, Ramaswami says, they have come to a point where companies say “how do we go about it”. “Some companies take our help on sensitisation while others have started hiring from the community. Some companies have gone one step further by engaging with LGBT+ lead suppliers and vendors. That is a big shift,” he adds.
The Founders’ Whirlwind Ride
Meeting each other for the first time at a D&I conference in 2012, Ramaswami, then with Intuit, and Sinha, with Intel, had been associated with inclusion with both having drawn up an LGBT+ charter and the Employee Resource Group (ERG) in their respective workplaces and having assisted many other organisations in this endeavour.
Their efforts had got them global recognition and awards. Ramaswami had spoken at the United Nations LGBT+ Consultation 2019, Berlin, and was among the TOP 100 Leaders of RAHM 2018 – The Global LGBT+ Leadership Contest, London, while Sinha was featured in the list of 50 LGBT+ Future Leaders Globally by Outstanding & Financial Times besides having won Champion of the Year Award, 2017 by Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, US among other accolades.
“We kept in touch, collaborated on projects and, almost simultaneously, decided it was time for us to chuck our 9 to 6 jobs and create a firm that addresses workplace inclusion. We realised it is a mammoth task and needed full-time attention,” recalls Ramaswami.
The duo did go through long spells of doubt on their decision. “We belonged to typical middle-class homes where we had no inheritance and no family business. All we had was our savings and our work experience. We also had, as is the case for people from the middle class, sceptics all around us suggesting we were taking a wrong step. Such an environment was hardly encouraging as it seemed that our plans to ‘disrupt’ a market, was seen by our families as disrupting a home,” he adds.
Finally, in January 2017, they decided to quit the corporate world for good and launched Pride Circle. However, it wasn’t until April 2020 that the founders started taking salaries. “All these years we put our own money in our venture. Even today we are bootstrapped as there is no investor funding,” says Ramaswami.
Even after working with the LGBT+ community for 12 years, Ramaswami says he still has to go through stereotypes, bias and microaggression.
“In my personal space, there are challenges in terms of people asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you yourself from the community and coming in terms with yourself?’” On the professional side, he says even some from the D&I consulting space disparage his “niche” venture.
“Then, many companies we reach out to say they not ready for inclusion. While the intention of many is always right, it is backed by the fear of saying wrong things, doing wrong things, of affecting the company’s brand,” he adds.
Pride Circle has mapped out its plans till 2025. “We are working on a project on workplaces of 2030 with the United Nations. We have also started doing a lot of connects with schools and parents. The intention is that by 2025 if someone comes to school in grade VI, the students should know which school and college they need to study in going forward and which are the safe places to work for in the future,” Ramaswami says.