Dr. Kamel Hothi, OBE has been ranked in the top 100 most influential black, Asian and minority ethnics leaders in the UK by the Financial Times and others.
For Minority Mental Health Awareness Month I was honoured to share a very honest conversation with Kamel. In this exclusive interview for Make a Difference News, she opened up about how she’s broken one glass ceiling after another as a minority senior global female business executive, as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and social changemaker– and also about the personal hardships she’s endured along the way.
Could you tell me about your cultural background and what it was like growing up in the UK as an immigrant from a minority ethnic group?
I was born in Punjab, India, as the youngest of six kids. My family survived the division of India and Pakistan and sadly my parents lost everything during the refugee migration across to India. Our father was a civil engineer who built one of the biggest Dams in India and was recognised by the Indian Prime Minister. When there was a calling from UK to come and help build Britain, Dad decided for all of us to migrate there – we landed here in the 1960’s.
Like most during that period, my family experienced a lot of racism, not just because of the colour of our skin but because of our religion. We are Sikhs and one of our physical identities is not cutting our hair and our menfolk wear turbans to keep their’s covered. My brothers were constantly harassed and often had their turbans ripped off from their heads.
I too was bullied as a child. I felt constantly intimidated trying to fit in. Eventually my father finally had enough. He took himself and my brothers to the barber and cut his and all my brothers’ hair off. It was quite a traumatic thing to do.
On his return my father said to us, ‘We decided to come to this country so we need to do what is required to be accepted and tolerated’. It was a lesson that shaped me for years to come as effectively Dad was telling us to not be ourselves, and to wear a mask so we could fit in by keeping our heads low. He had become very disillusioned and bitter having been unable to find work that fit his skills.
Hearing about Black Lives Matter now feels so much like déjà vu to me. In the 60’s the racism was toward brown people in the UK. I remember the Rivers of Blood Speech by Member Parliament Enoch Powell in 1968 to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham where he strongly criticised immigration, essentially saying ‘Send these people back home to India.’
I learned at an early age not to question anything. Just to accept this is how things were and this also meant not being allowed to further my education or explore a career that inspired me as Dad felt I would never be given a chance.
Can you tell me about your early career and how your cultural background influenced your life as a young woman/a young professional?
Due to the racism and grooming at that time, women were protected and mainly stayed at home, we didn’t really have a voice to stand up for ourselves. However, it was my brother who challenged my father and stood up for me, suggesting I get a job in an office. Thankfully I got a job in a bank as a cashier at the age of 16. Although it wasn’t the career I wanted, I spoke several languages and I soon became one of the most popular bank tellers.
Things were a bit calmer for a while until my 19th birthday when I returned home to be told that my family had been introduced to a boy from a good and respectable family background and they had arranged for me to marry him in 3 months’ time. I met my husband for the first time on our wedding day.
I landed in a very strict, full household. Sense of honour & responsibility is huge in our community. My mother told me, ‘Your father will die of shame if you ever do anything to disrespect us. And your brothers will kill you if you ever come home, so ensure you are a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law.
I was however still hoping my wedding night would be romantic, like what you see in a Bollywood movie. But instead my husband showed me a map of the family. I was at the bottom. The family told him to ensure I understood my role from day one, so that I’d know where my place was. They wanted him to control me as they feared that I may have ambitions above my ‘station’.
My father-in-law was my only ally. He told me if I wanted to keep my job at the bank, I needed to balance this with all my daily chores expected of me at home from cooking, cleaning, caring for the elders etc. By keeping silent and my head lowered, including not telling anyone about my job, would be the best way to juggle both. Each month I would bring my pay home in cash and give it to my father-in-law as mark of respect. I had no say in the running of the household or the raising of my two sons. It I felt like I was living two lives.
How did your career developed at Lloyd’s Bank and were there any challenges you faced?
I was ambitious and wanted to develop professionally at the bank, but I couldn’t tell my family this. I secretly took my banking exams at night when everyone was sleeping at home. When I passed, I ended up as the first Asian female bank manager at TSB Bank in Walton on Thames. It was a very white upper-class community. Some customers wouldn’t talk to me because of my colour and gender. However, this only drove me harder to win their trust and not let this hinder my success. I went on to run 160 branches. It was my little empire. I loved it.
How did you end up getting involved in supporting diversity and inclusion at Lloyd’s Bank?
Following the merger between Lloyd’s and TSB Bank, I started an initiative to help improve some of the processes across the two banks. This was noticed by an Exec who invited me to role this out out nationally.
When I arrived to work at Lloyd’s TSB headquarters in London, I realised the lack of diversity and the more senior I got the more isolated and alone I became. My confidence started nosediving.
So, I started exploring with a few colleagues who looked like me to have a coffee table conversation and we formed the bank’s first Ethnic Minority Group & Women’s Group. You could say it was an early version of what people today call, Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) or Employee Champions Groups.
As I became more vocal about diversity issues, I was asked to chair a taskforce for the government to improve their supplier diversity. This really boosted my confidence over the 18 months of this voluntary role.
Did you feel you ever faced discrimination at the bank and how did you respond to this?
Yes, there was a point when I realised that my cultural upbringing was being taken advantage of.
I’d often outperform my peers (e.g. my male colleagues), however, at year end my boss still wanted more from me. I accepted this feedback without challenging him because in my culture you don’t disrespect seniority or elders, just like my father or my in-laws. I would witness my ideas being stolen by others, or credit being taken for my work.
In the back of my mind I always heard my father’s voice saying, ‘Keep your head down, wear the mask you need to, to be accepted’. However, for the first time I started challenging these words and started looking in the mirror asking myself what was actually stopping me smashing these glass ceilings.
Tell me how you started to break the glass ceilings you were facing?
After the voluntary role, this boost of self-confidence inspired me to develop an idea I had about the Asian market. My husband was a businessman and he would continuously complain about lack of access to finance and how my company didn’t understand the community. I pulled together a concept and business case on what the opportunity was and how we could win business.
I presented to the Board and they offered me a secondment for 6 months to develop the concept. It was a win-win formula for both my bank earning increased market share and the community who gained improved access to finance.
I then got headhunted by corporate banking who wanted me to take this initiative global. I took a delegation to India and became the face for the bank in the Asian community. As a result of this strategy, the bank became the leaders in the Asian market within 4 years.
As you gained influence and success in your professional life, how was this received by your conservative family and community?
Although my profile had hugely increased externally, invited for TV interviews, radio chats etc., when I returned home each night I would take on the subservient role of a dutiful daughter-in-law with no voice or opinions.
My external profile meant I was being approached by companies for help as they now saw me as an expert in my field and soon the community leaders were calling my in-laws and praising me. This resulted in my in-laws allowing me the freedom to continue with this new-found profile as long as I still carried on with my role at home. The women found it hard to give me any overt accolades and the men definitely wouldn’t.
Did this have any adverse impacts on your mental wellbeing?
As you can imagine I was struggling to balance the demands on both fronts and this came to a head with my mental wellbeing on the birth of my second child. I hadn’t realised I was suffering from post-natal depression. It resulted in being unable to manage the constant control and criticism and pushed me into a very dark place in my mind wanting to end it all.
This is difficult for me to share, but if it hadn’t been for my eldest son who stopped me and broke that spontaneous impulse to escape the trauma that I felt, I might not be here today. It was a shameful moment. It was shameful because I hadn’t considered what I was doing and the impact it would have on my beautiful children.
You never know someone’s story at home. After this moment, it made me wake up to realise how far down I had fallen and that I needed to take control and fast. So, I asked myself very honestly, ‘How do I put on my own oxygen mask first? How do I become stronger and re-build my personal life?’. I asked for help from doctors and went to counseling. That helped me find my way back. It taught me a great lesson to watch out for the signs and take a pause when it all gets to be too much.
Can you tell me about your involvement in Lloyd’s Bank’s trailblasing mental health programme and in Lloyds Banking Group’s CEO, Antonio Horta-Osorio, opening up about his mental health?
I got involved after the 2008 financial crisis hit. I was thinking of leaving when I was asked to stay on and help rebuild the bank. My task was to help 150k staff to regain pride and trust with customers. I started exploring creative ways to engage our colleagues, which resulted in me writing a new blueprint of how we’d build charity partnerships and volunteering.
When I on-boarded Mental Health UK as our Charity of the Year, we asked our new CEO Antonio Horta Osorio, who in 2011 had taken leave of absence for stress, to speak out about his experiences and what led to his mental health pressures. After some serious thinking he agreed to do an interview. This article in the Financial Times expressed his experience. It had a ripple effect across the world for other CEO’s, and also internally with our 85k colleagues who now felt he was more human.
This encouraged us to explore what more we could do as a company to support customer mental health. We recognised the impact financial problems could have toward mental health issues and vice versa. So, we funded the first ever united mental health helpline across UK.
The halo effect helped build pride in the company again and trust amongst our customers and we raised over £20 million in fundraising for our charities. In 2017, once the bank had repaid the government back its debt and become independent again, I decided to retire. I’m proud that this was my final achievement in my career at Lloyd’s and that I’ve been able to continue working in this space.
You’ve been awarded an Order of British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen. It’s an outstanding achievement. Can you tell me what you were awarded for and what it’s meant for you?
Yes, I was awarded an OBE by the Queen for the work I did to improve diversity across banking. This boosted my confidence but it also carries a sense of real responsibility that I need to do more.
Since my retirement I have a portfolio of roles, some pro-bono and some paid. The key one, I’m humbled to say, is as a special Advisor to the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust Fund. It covers 53 countries, which are part of the Commonwealth, and I try to help them collaborate and explore how we can help young people take ownership of their problems in their local countries.
After the great success you’ve earned in corporate life and now as an entrepreneur and Non-Exec, what’s next for you? What are the next goals you’ve set for yourself?
To hopefully continue my work with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust Fund, I want to help more young people to take initiative to make change happen. I want to help them to become leaders, to find their own voices through peaceful ways and creative thinking and collaboration.
And I also I want to continue inspiring more mental health awareness and inclusion in workplaces through the company I help as a Non-Exec Director, TLC Lions. We help bring powerful stories about enduring challenges and building more empathy, wellbeing, inclusion and also kinder leadership into workplaces to shift the dial up.
I want to encourage employers to stop paying lip service and just ticking boxes when it comes to supporting inclusion, diversity and workplace mental health inside their companies.
What advice would you give to leaders keen to genuinely create inclusive cultures when it comes to mental health and minority awareness?
- First I’d say, find storytellers in your company. Give them a platform for sharing their lived experiences with mental health problems or with discrimination, regardless of their pay grade or role.
- Second, it’s imperative that support for this agenda must come from the top down. Leadership at all levels needs to take accountability. Until they empathise, nothing will really change. They are the captains of the ship and can make change happen across the organisation if they want to.
- And finally, if you’re truly passionate about changing culture, get out of your office, go to the people, listen to them about their experiences directly so you can step into their shoes and really get to know your people.
We must ask ourselves as leaders now after what we’ve experienced this year with the Covid-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter movement, ‘How do we make everyone’s lives matter?’.
Do you have any specific thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement, and how this translates into workplaces?
Yes, I do. It saddens me that we’re still having these same conversations that I’ve been hearing since the 1960’s and society still doesn’t understand. I believe it’s about empathy versus biases and respect versus tolerance.
I encourage people who come from a minority background to think how to work within a system to educate and share their thoughts and views without getting bitter so as to build empathy and put that into action internally. Because you understand these experiences, you can productively educate others in your company, in your community.
We need to bring our personal and work lives together to help really understand the talent we have out there and how it can be embraced. We need to think about how to take our masks off.
Do you feel you’ve been able to eventually break some of the glass ceilings in your family and community?
It has taken me some time to really find my courage and be my whole self and know the things that matter to me. I do want to help improve working lives, but I also want to improve my own culture–to help the Asian community understand the role of women and how by allowing them a voice we can do so much collectively.
I am proud how far we’ve come. I have 4 generations living under my roof. My mother-in-law became my biggest ally and my husband my greatest advocate. I now coach my daughter-in-laws to pursue their careers and my sons to be different type of husbands by sitting beside their partners. I hope by speaking up and sharing my lived experiences can help others to find their own voice.
In the words of Gandhi, I believe we need to think about how we can be the change we want to see in the world.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.