Interview : Sanjay Sood-Smith

Interview : Sanjay Sood-Smith

He made it all the way to week ten on the 2014 series of hit BBC show The Apprentice. Since hearing the words ‘you’re fired’, Sanjay has been very active and visible with his support of tackling homophobia and hate crime. We chat role models and more with him.

When you were at school, what did you want to do for a career ‘when you got older’?

For a long time I actually wanted to be an actor! I did loads of acting as a kid and was in a couple of plays at university. I chickened out of going to drama school and went and studied maths at university because it was the subject that I enjoyed the most. Banking didn’t even cross my mind until I was in my final year.

What was the career advice like at school for you?

The career advice at my school was very strong and I think people were encouraged to do what they loved. Most people went off to university at the end of it but others followed different routes, Florence Welch for example was in my year and look at her now!

Were you encouraged to follow your dreams at school and at home?

Absolutely. My parents are both teachers and I was really fortunate to be encouraged from a young age to be myself and that I could do whatever I wanted in life. My mum and dad spent half their lives ferrying me around in their car from drama club, to french lessons to music lessons to the theatre to give me as much of an opportunity to experience and try out new things as they could.

“I share some of my experiences of homophobia and bullying as well and how it made me feel to try and make them think about how actions can affect others.”

Did you have any role models when you were growing up?

Ha – I’m sat racking my brain trying to think of something a bit cooler, but the honest answer is the Spice Girls. I was very much the generation when they became huge. I loved their songs but I think their whole message was around not being afraid to be who you are which I found inspiring.

“I think there’s still far too much focus on labelling people or putting people in categories and I find myself being asked to define myself to others on a daily basis when it really shouldn’t matter.”

How important do you think visible diverse role models from all backgrounds are for children growing up?

In a word – vital. When I was growing up there was nobody that I could really relate to. The only person on TV that was gay at the time was Graham Norton and there was certainly nobody non-white and gay around.

I remember watching a TV drama called “Clapham Junction” with Paul Nichols in which dealt with gay characters but I kept on having to change the channel over when my dad came into the room. My friend Daniel who I grew up with had two mums, a lesbian couple, which meant I had exposure to an alternative family set-up from a young age which was good but I didn’t really have anyone that was similar to me to look up to. I think that would have really helped and I think it’s great that there are more and more high profile gay people for kids to look up to. I think now the challenge is to represent the diversity that is within the gay population – not all gay men are white, not all lesbians have short hair.

Photo : Sanjay has been very visible in his support for equality and tackling hate crime since his time on The Apprentice.

Do you think there is still work to be done in schools around making children and teenagers feel they can be themselves and succeed in life?

I’ve been to a number of schools now talking to kids and there is definitely still work to be done. These are the schools as well that are doing a huge amount of work to tackle this sort of bullying, but there are many more that aren’t currently doing enough. People think that racism doesn’t happen anymore – it does. I still experience it from both caucasian people and asian people. I don’t look particularly asian but have an indian name and I was getting tweets like, “Why is there a white guy called Sanjay on The Apprentice?”. I think there’s still far too much focus on labelling people or putting people in categories and I find myself being asked to define myself to others on a daily basis when it really shouldn’t matter.

Did you ever experience any bullying at school?

Yeah – at my first school that I went to until I was 11 years old, I had a pretty tough time. I was one of only four kids in my year that wasn’t white, it was a posh prep school and I came from a different background to the other kids so stuck out for being different. I hated it and got called things like “Sad-gay Sod-Smith” which as an eight year old really hurt. I begged my parents to move me and got moved to another school where things were much better.

What would you say to someone who can see a great apprenticeship opportunity but taking it would mean they wouldn’t be able to continue with their education? Do you need to go to Uni to have a successful career?

You don’t have to go to university to have a successful career, just look at Richard Branson! However for me it was the right decision as I wanted to have a strong academic foundation. If someone has a great apprenticeship opportunity and it is something they are passionate about then I would say take it, it’s all about doing what is right for you as an individual. There is no right or wrong route in life but I always think it is important to plan ahead and have a clear goal in mind. If you know where you want to get to you can then work backwards and think through the steps you need to tick off to achieve it and it helps to put any opportunities offered into perspective. If they are going to help you get to your end goal, then take them, if not then don’t, it’s that simple.

“When I finished The Apprentice it was really important to me to try and use my five minutes for something positive.”

We’d love to know more about your role as a Stonewall Role Model

When I finished The Apprentice it was really important to me to try and use my five minutes for something positive and having spent six years as a gay man in the corporate world I felt it was my opportunity to speak out about it. We had a press day after being fired where I sat and did about twelve newspaper/magazine interviews back to back and talked about it in every single one. I also did an interview with the website RUComingOut where I talked very candidly about my experiences.

Following that I was asked by Stonewall to be a part of their Role Model programme and I jumped at the chance. It was something that I never had growing up and the opportunity to go into schools and hopefully make a difference for young people was a dream come true.

Photo : Proud Stonewall Role Model. Some people are gay. Get over it!

What would you like to achieve in this role? What have you done to date in the role?

I just want to go and visit as many schools as possible and speak to as many kids as I can. Many of them have never met anyone gay so my aim when I go in is for them to see that I’m no different to them. I share some of my experiences of homophobia and bullying as well and how it made me feel to try and make them think about how actions can affect others.

I’ve done around ten sessions so far from assembly’s in front of a whole year group, to smaller sessions with thirty kids. If in each session I make one child feel better about being gay and give them some optimism, or make one child thing twice about picking on someone or using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, then for me they are time well spent.

It was International Women’s Day on 8 March. Is there a female that has played a big part in your life, been a big influence on your career path or inspiration?

I’m sorry to be so incredibly clichéd but it has to be my mum. She has supported me wholeheartedly in everything that I have ever done. As a kid she made sure I had the opportunity to do a wide variety of different things and ensured that I was exposed to culture and politics from an early age. She’s not a massive fan of bankers so I don’t think she was over the moon when I chose that as a career path though.

She moved to England at thirteen and is a die-hard feminist, she and her group of friends even produced their own magazine to empower British-Asian women back in a time when racism and sexism were much more prevalent. She truly is an inspiration and I think the work I’m doing with Stonewall is definitely a bit of her activism rubbing off on me!

LGBT Pride season is upcoming. Have you ever been to a Pride event? Why do you think they are still relevant and needed?

I am a regular frequenter of Pride events – I go regularly to London, Manchester and Brighton and also love LA Pride. I think they are a fantastic way for the LGBT community to unite together. As long as there is homophobia in the world and cultural change required I think there is still a need for Pride events. I think they will always be relevant.

For me personally it is about coming together and remembering the progress that has been made, and the people that have fought and struggled to get us to the point where we are today. People have died to stand up for our rights as human beings and to lay the foundations of the freedoms that we enjoy and it’s important that we acknowledge that. We are so incredibly lucky to live in a progressive nation in the UK where our fundamental human rights aren’t compromised, which unfortunately can’t be said for a large portion of the world so we have a lot to be thankful for.

“I think network groups are great as they give employees support and ensure they feel like they are valued within their organisation. It is also a great place to find mentors and role models who have progressed in their field to offer advice.”

What do you have planned for the rest of 2015?

I’m really enjoying the visits I’m doing with Stonewall so as much of that as possible. I’m also doing lots of public speaking at events as well as running workshops and doing motivational speaking in schools and organisations. I’ve started doing some writing and would like to start doing some work as a freelance journalist – particularly on gay issues and LGBT issues in business.

I want to do my Indian Street Food business but that is taking a back seat at the moment for all the other stuff that I’m doing. I’m going to co-host my friend’s radio show soon and would quite like to go into broadcasting and I’ve got an idea for a book I’d like to write. So lots to keep me busy!

What has been your highlight since appearing on The Apprentice?

Giving my first ever Stonewall talk at the school that my mum was head girl at 40 years ago. It was such an honour to be there and I really felt like I was following in her footsteps – it was quite emotional!

“People have died to stand up for our rights as human beings and to lay the foundations of the freedoms that we enjoy and it’s important that we acknowledge that.”

Photo : Bumping into Lord Sugar on a visit to Wanstead High School.

Have you ever been a member of an employee network group, or more general networking group?

When I was at Lloyds Banking Group they had a LGBT group called Rainbow. They have a really strong presence and were definitely working hard to promote support and equality throughout the organisation.

I think network groups are great as they give employees support and ensure they feel like they are valued within their organisation. It is also a great place to find mentors and role models who have progressed in their field to offer advice. A group of voices makes a louder noise than one voice alone, and so people are more likely to be listened to when they unite together. In organisations having such groups means that people have more of a chance of being heard when they speak out, particularly if there is a cultural change required. It also gives people confidence.

Personally I love networking. It’s great to meet new people and listen to their perspectives. I try to learn something from everyone I meet, even the ones that I don’t like!

Find out how you can support Stonewall :

www.stonewall.org.uk

Keep connected with Sanjay :

About The Author

Thomas Anderson

Founder and MD of Inclusive Networks. Thomas was Chair of the award winning LGBT network for The Co-operative Group, ‘Respect’ (2011-14). Thomas named the network and designed and managed all of the branding, communications and engagement until he stepped down from the role of Chair in March 2014. He also created the branding, name, was Editor of the quarterly magazine and developed the launch of the UK’s first Inter-Retail LGBT network ‘CheckOUT’. He contributed to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 5 Year review. In recognition of his work in the diversity field he was shortlisted for ‘Diversity Champion of the Year’ at the 2013 European Diversity Awards, shortlisted for ‘Role Model of the Year’ at the 2012 Lesbian & Gay Foundation Homo Heroes Awards and shortlisted for the ‘Positive Action’ award at the 2013 Asian Fire Service Association Fair & Diverse Awards. He also won the 2012 ‘Pride of The Co-operative’ award. He was a judge for Scotland's biggest diversity awards, The Icon Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

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