Suresh Raj has been among the most vocal proponents of diversifying the marketing & communications industry – sitting in the intersectionality of being a person of colour as well as LGBTQ+. Suresh advocates on the job as well as through his activity throughout the larger movement. Raised in Malaysia and having lived in the UK and now New York, he is openly gay and of Middle Eastern and Asian descent. Raj serves as a senior counsel for Vision7 International’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Recognitions include being named to the Financial Times’ top 100 ethnic minority executive leaders for the last five years and one of its top 100 LGBTQ+ executive leaders from 2016-19. Raj also is a founding member of The Collective, which includes senior LGBTQ+ leaders from across the private sector, government/politics and NGOs; a global mentor for INvolve, the diversity and inclusion specialists; and an inaugural member of McKinsey’s The Alliance, a global network of senior LGBTQ+ leaders.
What is something about you that surprises people?
Due to the nature of what I do (business development), most of my time is spent cultivating, nurturing and growing relationships – internally within our teams, and externally with clients and prospects – which means most of my time is spent with people. On the surface, that may mean I am an extrovert. In truth however, I am a really introverted. I find my greatest peace, strength, and solace when I am completely on my own, and often crave time alone. Even my husband knows this and allows me my ‘quiet time’ so I can regroup with my own thoughts. It helps me recharge and helps me stay balanced.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from failure?
That it repeats. And that is fine. But the real lesson from failure is ‘change’. What part of the failed attempt/moment could I have changed to better the outcome? It is change that really matters at the end of the day. Actionable change – in thought and in action. Actionable change makes failure an opportunity to grow into becoming a better person.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from failure?
That it repeats. And that is fine. But the real lesson from failure is ‘change’. What part of the failed attempt/moment could I have changed to better the outcome? It is change that really matters at the end of the day. Actionable change – in thought and in action. Actionable change makes failure an opportunity to grow into becoming a better person. Putting this into a work related example, is the craft of pitching for new business – the core to what I do everyday. After getting to the final stage and losing three significant pitches in a row, I took a pause and spent some time analysing the feedback to each pitch, and interestingly, found a common thread to each loss. Whilst we laboured over getting the team perfectly right for the client, and spent so much time delivering brilliant creative ideas, we completely overlooked one crucial factor. We failed to appreciate where the client was in their own business journey, and therefore failed to recognize that our lofty ideas were at times, simply too far a leap for the client to achieve in their current guise. So on the next new business pitch, we made sure to spend time acknowledging the client’s current path, and more importantly, showed them how we would take them, step by step, from where they were currently, to where we believed they could be. This bolstered the client’s confidence in the idea and approach. Needless to say, we won.
How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective in business?
Who I am today is a result of four pivotal circumstances in my younger life:
1. I am a child of mix parentage – very rare in the culture I grew up in, which meant I was often the ‘outsider’ or considered ‘not normal’ growing up.
2. The religious faith I was brought up in contravened the State religious law, which resulted in lots of religious persecution.
3. As a result of both situations, my family were shunned by extended family, so we never had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or the like – acceptance was never there.
4. And when I finally began to understand that my sexuality did not ‘conform to the norm’ I realised my existence would forever be different and that is something I just needed to get comfortable with.
Each one of these situations was an ‘obstacle’ in my formative years. But one thing I did learn, even at a young age, was that obstacles were there for me to overcome – this developed into the competitive streak in me and is now how I make a living. My experiences as challenging as they were at the time, paved my way to achieve more than I had ever expected growing up or even early in my career.
As I learnt to overcome these obstacles, what I found to be the most important outcome was achieving peace with myself. And when I have peace within myself, I am my most effective self- personally and professionally.
What do you wish leaders were more honest about?
In my 23+ years working, the corporate world has continued to be dominated by the white majority. And whilst the needle has shifted slightly in some industries in terms of gender balance, the corporate business world is still primarily white men. I have often wished that straight white male leaders would be honest with themselves that they are not always the answer to everything. Honest enough to accept that humanity and equality belongs to all, without the need to fight for it. Honest enough to put words, thoughts (prayers!?) into actionable change. And honest enough to admit that they took ‘control’ in times they should have relinquished it to others. The moment that honest realisation kicks in, the sooner we stand a chance of reaching utopia in every aspect of life because change will naturally follow when more people have the opportunity to feed into the world’s outcomes.
What made you dare to be different?
My niece and nephew – who are basically my kids. I brought them up from when they were just 1 & 3, and they are now 18 & 20. I want a very different world for them – a world where they do not have to battle obstacle after obstacle just to get the same opportunities as the privileged few. I want their concerns to not be about the colour of their skin, or their sexuality, or their gender, but about their natural ability to achieve and be rewarded in as fair a world as possible.
Because we’re not there (yet), I realise that my voice counts, and my deeds count. So here I am, daring myself to push boundaries that I never knew I could, daily. And my kids are following in my wake. And soon, they will overtake me and do more than I ever could. That for me, is a promise for a much better world. It forces me to dare to be different. And that is definitely worth it.