Werqwise Co-founder and Chief People Officer, Richard Evans, discusses the value of authenticity and representation in the workplace. In this exclusive interview, Richard shares his story of growing up in the closet in a society that criminalized homosexuality, finding the courage to come out, and how he wants everyone to be able to come to work authentic. At the heart of our organization is its people. This could not be more true as Richard explains his role as a community developer striving to embody true diversity at Werqwise.
What does it mean to be yourself?
Freedom. When you get to be yourself, your entirely authentic self, it’s bringing your whole self to the table, free of fear and constraint. It’s a kind of self-value that can turn into confidence. Ultimately, it’s the realization that there’s nothing you can’t do as you. Being yourself is amazingly freeing.
How difficult was it to be yourself growing up?
When I was growing up in the UK, I knew I was different. This feeling went beyond an inability to fit in with the rest of my schoolmates. It was a kind of unspoken difference that made me feel bad and ashamed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what made me different from the rest of my peers until I was in my teens.
This sort of thing was almost never talked about at school. Only in hushed tones by adults. I worked out, by hook or by crook, that I was gay, but I was too frightened to do anything about it. I believed that being gay was shameful, sick, that I wasn’t normal. I didn’t like myself because of it, because I was told not to. So, I hid that part of myself from the rest of the world.
My parents didn’t know, my family didn’t know, even my best friends didn’t know. I grew up in a society where it was illegal to have a partner of the same sex. Back then you did it alone. And I think there’s still a lot of people out there that go through this alone. It has changed, but there are still kids out there that live in isolation. I think it all depends on where you are.
Do you feel like changes have brought you closer to safety?
Yes, they did. These are changes you can see. I’m married now. That’s offered me and my partner a level of legal protection we could have never achieved in the past. However, if it takes the Supreme Court to say that I should be protected at work, like everyone else, there’s still a problem. Does it genuinely make me feel equal? No, not yet. The fight goes on.
At what point do you feel like you met your definition of being yourself?
When you have a tribe, certainly life makes a lot more sense. In my early 20’s in the UK, I started a career in an industry that had a lot of gay people working in it. My senior boss was gay. I had a mentor who ran a business and was gay, openly gay, and I realized that was possible. I started to find gay role models that have achieved success, and in some cases achieved because they brought something unique in themselves to the table.
This started to make me see my value, I felt proud and came out to my family. It made me massively uncomfortable to be lying about my identity all the time. You invest so much energy in keeping the plates in the air and spinning the damn things all the time, it’s exhausting. When I stopped having to do that, when I could go to work and be gay, when I could talk to my family about having a same-sex partner, when I stood up for myself, valued myself, respected myself, my whole outlook on life changed. I started to genuinely believe I could do anything I wanted to do if I set my mind to it. I couldn’t be stopped.
Do you think the LGBTQ+ community is underrepresented in today’s modern workforce?
You know that is a very hard question for me to answer. I am not sure it’s that simple. LGTBQ+ people have jobs, they work, they are in the workforce. Are they represented truly in the workforce? No.
Nearly 50% of the LGBTQ+ community in America is in the closet at work. So, are we underrepresented in the workforce? Hell yeah. 50% of us are hiding, which means they are not coming to work authentic. They’re not giving all they can because they are keeping the plates in the air. But at the same time, 20% of the LGBTQ+ community reported having been discriminated against in the job application process. If you’re white, that’s 12%, if you’re black? That jumps to 32%. That adds another layer of fear and discrimination by combining two very challenging situations around equality. No, the LGBTQ+ community cannot be represented accurately when many people feel they need to hide or face discrimination.
I’m personally in an incredibly fortunate position to have found people to be cofounders who believe in the equality and equity of opportunity. I’m very fortunate to have found people to build a business with who have the same commitments and values as me. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here at Werqwise.
As the co-founder of Werqwise, how do you open the door for people in the closet, for those who are still hiding in the LGBTQ+ community?
I’m uncomfortable with the word role model, I don’t love that. It’s not about being a role model. For me it’s about just being there, being me, being authentically human. When I behave this way, it’s pretty hard for anyone around me not to do that themselves. One of the reasons I wanted to build Werqwise is because I saw an opportunity for us to build a community where everybody could come to work authentic.
We are just starting off, but I know that we are setting a standard for that, and as we get bigger, we will have more influence. It’s about the 60 other companies in this building seeing what a truly diverse business looks like, in race, sexuality, gender expression, whatever. I want the young startups in our community to look to us and say, “that’s what I want my company to be like when we grow up.” That’s what this Werqwise community can do.
But we are always asking ourselves what more can we do? And that’s where our new initiative, the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, comes into play. Recent protests and the BLM movement have pushed us to ask the question: have we done enough? We are asking ourselves what can we do now to actively bring true diversity to life in our business? As an organization, as an influencer, as a community developer?
I believe the solution can be found by bringing our community together in collaboration. Creating a space where actions mean something. It’s not just pretty words on a piece of paper. We need to address the invisible barriers that prevent marginalized groups from accessing opportunities. I need to go around and make sure I get work applications from people in minority groups, impacted groups. If I don’t go out and seek it, then I’m not doing enough. I want to take this mindset of equity and make it a part of our business strategy. I believe that is our work going forward here at Werqwise.