An author and the Founder and Head of Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh Shahani serves as Vice President at Godrej Industries Ltd.
A multi-faceted personality and a role model for many, Parmesh is a part of FICCI's inaugural D&I task force, he is a board member of Khoj International Artists’ Association, a TED Senior Fellow (2017), Yale World Fellow (2014), a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2014), a Utrecht University-Impakt Fellow (2012), and an academy member of the Global Teacher Prize.
An active advocate and member of the LGBTQ community, Parmesh voices his take on LGBTQ in India and the workplace through his books, blogs and his presence in the media. His first book Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India was released in 2008 and is being re-published in 2020 as an updated edition. His new book Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in Corporate India is also slated for a 2020 release.
As Pride Month makes its way, colliding with prolonged social distancing woes, Parmesh in conversation with People Matters talks about how the Godrej India Culture Lab came into being, the current status of LGBTQ inclusion at workplaces - acceptance and policies, the business case for missing empathy as employers make life-altering decisions for employees, and how he plans to keep up with Pride Month celebrations in the era of digital existence.
Here are excerpts of the interview.
What went behind the creation of Godrej India Culture Lab? What have been some of the milestone achievements for the culture lab?
Well, it’s been 9 years since the lab was created and we are looking forward to its tenth anniversary next year. The lab began very much with the aim of creating a new kind of space in which we could cross-pollinate different people and also different ideas about contemporary India, in an ongoing conversation. The premise was that there were so many people trying to understand contemporary India sitting in different markets, be it in academia, in business, in policy-making, thinkers, writers, filmmakers. We thought why not create an open space through which we can have an ongoing exploration of understanding contemporary India. That was the broad idea.
I met Nisa Godrej and proposed this very open-ended idea to her and she loved it. That’s how the culture lab came into being with Godrej as its home. But very early on it was clear that while we were housed at Godrej, it was very much a space for the general public at large, it’s for the city and for the country.
Through 9 years we have grown so much from that small idea. We have grown into 3 pillars - Curation, Creation, and connection. We have year-round events and while all the physical events happened in our auditorium, now owing to COVID-19 we have moved to online events. Having theme-based events was the center-piece of how we started, and these events are on recurring themes like issues about identity, gender, LGBT rights, women’s rights, feminism, issues about seeing the connection between urban and rural India, understanding what digital India is all about, recognizing that we need to pay attention to our environment.
We are very invested in expanding the cultural ecosystem of the country.
Conversations and in-person gatherings being the core of Godrej India Culture Lab, how have the last few months of a virtual work setup been for you and the employees?
It has been hard for sure. We are a small team of 6 people. The biggest challenge is not seeing each other. The second challenge is that we used to program until recently for a year in advance, this year was already planned in terms of what we were doing for physical events, fellowships, etc. It was a big challenge to cancel that and translate some of it into online. Not everything can be translated into online. However, we have pivoted our offerings to an online space. Everything has become Zoom, WebEx, Hangouts and Instagram Live.
The third thing since many of these were physical events, we had very diverse audiences.
People would either learn about our physical events online or through local newspapers. Now since a lot has moved online, not everyone knows how to access Zoom webinars, or how to see Instagram live. That digital literacy is restricted to few.
But that audience that was so diverse earlier ranging from school children to older retired individuals, how do we reach that big diverse range of audience that we were getting earlier, how do we communicate, how do we get our work out to them? Everyone is doing online programs, and there is so much happening online, what would differentiate us from so many others? These are all questions we have all been asking.
What distinguishes us is our deep focus on curation. We have been thinking about what is meaningful, what is going to help people the most, how can we value add. We have been thinking through those lenses. Our country is in a moment of deep crisis - in this moment, what can we do that can add value? No one has any answers. We are stumbling along as we learn on the go. But it has been an interesting learning journey for our team.
Pride Month is around the corner and pride marches are one of the highlights during the Pride Month celebrations every year. What do you think will help keep up the spirits given that the marches are unlikely to happen? How do you plan on celebrating Pride Month this year?
Of course the plan was very different originally on how I would spend this month and that plan has completely changed. I am currently in the middle of re-releasing my book Gay Bombay and pre-publicity of my new book Queeristan which is slated to be released around August.
I am spending most of the Pride Month doing a lot of webinars with companies who want to talk about LGBTQ and I think it’s vital because especially in a post-COVID scenario, it’s vital that companies keep their eye on the inclusion ball. Things like what Pride Circle is doing with the 21DaysAllyChallenge are vital, building momentum around it. What is going to help companies in a post-COVID world? Companies will have to learn how to be innovative, and innovative not just in the products they are offering, but innovative in how they offer these products, innovative in being able to quickly pivot if something is not working.
All the research says that companies that are diverse and inclusive are more innovative. There is a very strong correlation. Whether you look at BCG, McKinsey, or any research, there is a direct correlation between how diverse you are and how innovative you are, so I think it’s more and more evident that if companies want to be able to innovate in these uncertain markets, they need to have a wide range of people. How can you innovate if everyone around the table looks and sounds the same as you?
You won’t be able to know there is a market that is waiting to be served. If it’s all men, how will you know what the experience is like being a woman in a post-COVID world? If you are all straight, how will you know what it means to be a queer person at this time?
On any dimension, if you are able-bodied, how will you know how difficult is it for someone who is in a wheel-chair or visually challenged to access a Zoom call in a world where every meeting is happening on Zoom?
It is very vital for companies to recognize that they need to have a diverse workforce. Who knows maybe that’s a big market for you which you are not even seeing because you don’t have that person on your team.
Smart companies are the ones realizing that they need a wide range of people and they are upping their diversity and inclusion strategies. The future belongs to smart companies who are able to use this moment to reimagine themselves. You have to be diverse for your own survival.
I am going to spend Pride month talking to companies, asking them to be smart companies.
What are the biggest workplace challenges for the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of social distancing? What would your advice be for organizations to maintain the progress and momentum achieved so far towards LGBTQ+ inclusion?
I think companies who want to be involved with the LGBTQ+ people have to recognize that it’s not just gestures during Pride Month or at moments like the present that count. It is a comprehensive set of things that you do all the time. If you care about LGBTQ people, you should start with basic policies of non-discrimination, you should make sure you offer benefits to all their partners, you should make sure you offer transition benefits for your employees who wish to transition. All of these things are what’s needed at any moment. If you are LGBTQ, and you are insured but your partner isn’t, it’s a big problem.
Whatever employees go through in general, LGBTQ employees go through the same things as well, in addition to the added burden you might not be out, or you might be out at the workplace but closeted at home. Companies should at any given point of time offer a comprehensive set of benefits and not just emerge during Pride Month and ask what we can do for you.
Employees value companies when they commit to them for the long haul. Having a comprehensive approach which includes everything from policies to benefits, making sure that you go out and hire LGBTQ people, especially trans people who at this point are the most affected, within the LGBTQ spectrum as well. How can you reach out in your hiring efforts to the LGBTQ people saying we are looking at hiring right now, who can we work with within the community to make sure our message reaches out and we hire LGBTQ talent, making sure you have counselling services available for those who need it and not just for LGBTQ employees, but for anyone, because employees are going through a lot and they need someone to talk to. Can you provide for these facilities in full confidentiality? Employees just want to know that companies are treating them decently and care for them.
There is anyway so much uncertainty about what’s going to happen. I think companies that will act humanely and kindly at this moment will really have immense loyalty from their employees, and at any given time they should act humanely and kindly, but especially under stressful situations like the current one.
Employees are stepping up, they are all working hard, they are all working through this uncertainty, and you want to know that the company you are doing this for cares about you, cares about your well-being.
Employees recognize the situation. Be honest and be kind and have that empathy if you are making a firing decision. Being very honest and saying - I am so sorry that this situation has come and we have to let you go, here’s what we are doing to make it easy for you - and having a basic sense of empathy makes such a difference.
Employees also recognize that industries are going through a bad time. How you have those conversations, how you choose to keep in touch with employees will ensure that if things get better they will come back to you and they will be committed to you.
On one side companies say employees are our human capital but then to see them not treat employees in a fair or just manner, it’s very perplexing, it’s truly a test of character.
How you behave during moments of crisis is going to determine your future relevance and sustenance.
Recent reports highlight an impending mental health crisis that the world will soon walk into. What are your thoughts about it? What are your suggestions for leaders and the workforce at large to be prepared for what's being called a 'global psychological pandemic'?
India is one of the most poorly served in terms of mental health professionals. It truly is a mental health pandemic in so many ways. If we speak of domestic violence in particular, violence happens across, it is not just people at the lower ends of the socioeconomic strata. It’s everyone. A recent video by my friend Nandita Das for UN Women talks about how the lockdown is so much more disproportionately harmful to women, in terms of domestic abuse and violence. How do you then create infrastructure of support?
And I would argue it’s the same for queer people as well. If any company wants to help at this time, investing in helplines, investing in creating resources, investing in toolkits, investing in things people can share. And not out of any altruistic reason, if employees have good mental health their productivity will go up and they will serve the company better.
Corporates have started talking about it and producing content. More can be done in terms of encouraging good mental health, helplines for people if they have issues and providing access to someone they can talk to. Sharable toolkits right now that enable self-help or provide access to professionals that companies can pay for. That will be super useful. Organizations need to find mental health resources, put them on platforms, translate them into multiple languages so they can be accessed not just by white-collar workers but workers across and share, that would be really useful because COVID is not going away anytime soon and anxieties are only going to increase.
Companies need to see the link between the mental health of employees and their own profitability, and that’s when they will think of it seriously. Look at it from the point of employees bringing their whole selves to work, their sense of belonging, their sense of wellness and wellbeing, all of that adds to their productivity, loyalty and happiness.
Once companies recognize that, they will make efforts to walk the talk.
We are underserved in terms of mental health professionals but there are a lot of resources that people can use. If companies want to do good they can help in producing more and more of these resources, they can help in facilitating some of this.
What is the one practice you hope to start, stop and continue as we prepare for the new normal?
This year I wanted to work a lot on queer philanthropy. I really want to start thinking of my queer philanthropy journey and the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
I want to stop calling this the new normal. I don’t want the new normal; I didn’t like the old normal as it was. I wrote the book Queeristan because we didn’t like the old normal, to create an alternative, positive better world, so maybe we can call it a better normal instead of the new normal.
To me a better normal would be one which is more inclusive, and one which is more intersectional, in which one recognizes that solutions to issues are often interconnected, challenges are interconnected.
I would want to continue just being grateful, being full of gratitude, continue recognizing my privilege, and help others in whatever way I can. There is just so much to be grateful for and to recognize. I want to continue learning always, especially from my team members or the people I come into contact with. I am blessed to be working at the Culture Lab and meet so many different people, all of whom are so inspiring, so I want to continue learning from all of them and just own my own growth and become a better person.