Brave: Defined as ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
I have lacked this trait for most of my life, specifically as it pertains to my ethnic identity. From a very early age, I was bullied due to my race and ethnicity, hindering me from building the courage to be brave. I tried very hard to blend in and avoid conversations about ethnicity, but that always proved to be an impossible task with the name Ashish Gandhi.
Throughout my educational path, I associated with people who “looked” like me as a solution. This approach seemed to work well during my undergraduate studies. However, when I embarked on my professional journey into financial services, I quickly realized that I would not find many others like me given the lack of diversity in the industry. After over 20 years of blending in, I felt like an outcast once again. I can recall countless comments with racial undertones from former colleagues or industry peers (some subtle, some not so subtle). I saw numerous diverse job candidates get passed over for far less qualified white candidates due to “cultural fit.” A former boss once recommended I remove a thread bracelet with religious significance because he felt it didn’t look professional. I obliged and stood by silently as I experienced these inequities, wondering if things would ever change.
I often contemplated transitioning to industries with greater Asian-American representation, but my passion is in asset management. I yearned for change in the industry, but the likelihood seemed to be as unrealistic as my childhood dreams of becoming a professional basketball player (at 5’7” in height, the odds were stacked against me). Firms would tout that they valued diversity, but too often their actions did not match their words.
In 2019, I joined Boston Trust Walden and my perspective quickly changed. I was finally part of a firm that “walked the talk.” I was impressed by Boston Trust Walden’s multi-decade work on advancing equality and its commitment to bringing about change, while recognizing that there is still a long road ahead. What also struck me was the firm’s transparency and accountability for its actions. For example, it had made great strides in hiring, promoting, and retaining women, but it was not satisfied with its progress on ethnic diversity and acknowledged it publicly.
Even though Boston Trust Walden had several initiatives already in place to advance diversity and inclusion, the firm wanted to further its commitment, so it launched a new committee exclusively focused on these initiatives in 2020, which I am very proud to chair. We aptly named the committee READI, which stands for Respect Equity Accountability Diversity Inclusion. Even though there are only ten individuals formally on the READI Committee, it feels as if the entire firm is part of it, as support from employees across the organization has been outstanding.
READI is not trying to hit statistical quotas or check off the boxes. Rather, our focus is on fostering an interconnected, diverse community in which there is a feeling of belonging and differences are embraced. We have committed to being held accountable for our individual and collective growth by engaging with, listening to, celebrating, and encouraging one another.
A pivotal moment for me was during our Black History Month celebration, at which employees watched a couple of TED Talks and then participated in an open discussion. Mellody Hobson’s 2014 talk, entitled Color blind or color brave?, inspired me to share the feelings I had suppressed my entire professional life with my colleagues. The support I received was unbelievable. I’ve found that employees want to share their personal stories and raw emotions, and this truly enables us to learn from one another. I’m very proud of the environment we are fostering.
My newfound courage has also motivated me to serve as a resource outside of our organization. I find great joy in serving as a mentor, both on an informal and formal basis. I love working with organizations such as UNCF and YearUp. Additionally, I proactively make myself available to industry peers across age and ethnic cohorts.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong. For the first time in my life, I am READI to be brave!