Certified B Corporations @GladstoneHotel and @RampAgencyTO launch an inspiring bi-weekly blog series #TorontoTheGood. The series sparks thoughtful conversations through interviews with influencers, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who are shining a light on the city’s toughest issues and championing change to make Toronto, and the world a better place.
Al Ramsay is TD’s National Manager for LGBTQ2+ Business Development.
Have you always lived in Toronto?
No, I was born and raised in rural Jamaica. I moved to Canada when I was 18 years old. At that point, I hadn’t seen my mom in five years. My mom and dad selflessly left their kids behind and immigrated to Canada to create a better life for us. I will never forget how my mom broke down when we were first reunited. My parents worked so hard to create a new beginning for us and it changed our lives. In Canada, I settled in Brampton and after university, I moved to Toronto.
What was life like for you growing up?
Jamaica is not the most inclusive place to live as a gay man. I struggled with my sexuality and lived ‘in the closet.’ When I turned 18, I was at a crossroads. I could no longer hide behind my studies and I was worried that I might be found out. Moving to Canada quite literally saved my life. I would not be where I am today if it were not for my mother’s bravery, love, and support.
Were you able to come out to your family once you got to Canada?
My ‘coming out’ story is unique. I had a very religious upbringing. I was an altar boy and a Sunday school teacher so I had many internal conflicts to overcome. In university, I was living a dual life while I was still coming to terms with my sexuality. Working at TD was a turning point for me because it helped me ‘come out’ to myself first. I was doing an internship at another financial institution where I was being bullied in the workplace for being gay. I thought my career was over when I was fortunate enough to meet a former vice president at TD. He took a chance on me and it changed my life forever.
What was your first role at TD?
When I walked into TD, I decided to rebrand myself. For the first time in my life I showed up as a proud, open, gay man. My role was Manager of Community Relations. I formed partnerships with grassroots organizations that were meaningful to the South Asian, black, Chinese, Korean, and LGBTQ2+ communities. Living authentically empowered me and I brought my whole self to work. I was out and proud at TD before I ever came out to my parents. I felt comfortable because I knew TD was a truly inclusive place. The culture and support I received here fast-tracked my ‘coming out’ story.
It did? How so?
I was speaking about inclusivity a lot at TD and supporting the LGBTQ2+ community which caused me to self-reflect. I knew that employees looked to me as a leader and a guiding light. At that time, our former CEO, Ed Clark mandated that we kick start Diversity 2.0. We already supported inclusion from an HR perspective but Diversity 2.0 meant making it an embedded, integral part of our business that was non-negotiable. Our areas of focus were LGBTQ2+, Women in Leadership, Persons with Disabilities, Visible Minorities in Leadership, and Indigenous Peoples. In 2005, these conversations were so avant-garde and new to Bay Street that the media became interested in what we were doing. The National Post wanted to feature TD and they interviewed many of our senior leaders. Guess what? Even though I was the most junior person, they wanted to use my picture on the front page of one of their sections. I called my mom and told her that we needed to talk. Being featured in that article gave me the courage and motivation I needed to ‘come out’. I knew I had to stand tall and embrace it because I wanted to be featured. TD was leading the inclusivity movement and I felt so privileged to be a part of it. I refused to stay ‘in the closet’ any longer and that’s how I came out to my family. It’s something I look back on and smile.
That must have felt so good!
I still remember that day vividly. It was like these huge bricks were lifted from my shoulders. I glided all the way home. I walked down Church Street with my head held high (something I was too afraid to do before for fear of being spotted). I finally found my truth and it was powerful. Thankfully my parents were supportive.
What was the reaction to the article?
It felt like TD was ‘coming out of the closet’ too. For the first time that I knew of, a big Canadian company was openly and directly supporting the LGBTQ2+ community. We were the first bank to sponsor Pride Toronto and today we support over 80 Pride festivals and 160 community organizations across North America. Of course, there were many naysayers and we faced opposition. Certain customers threatened to withdraw millions from the bank. It was a moment of truth. The news reached the top and our senior executive team responded. They said that we would continue to embrace and support the LGBTQ2+ community because they are a valued part of our customer base. If some of our customers did not like our culture and our policies, they were free to take their money elsewhere. That response is one of the reasons I am so passionate about working at TD. As a young man, hearing those words from leadership showed me that inclusion is an authentic part of our culture and it’s embedded in our DNA.
Tell me about your role:
I’m the National Manager of LGBTQ2+ Business Development at TD. It’s the only role of its kind in the financial industry in North America. My job is to show our LGBTQ2+ customers that we value their business and I work with a team of regional managers across Canada who support, recognize, thank, and retain customers from the community. We have a mantra called “forever proud” and the symbol is a rainbow flag in a circle. It means we’re not just Pride Month and done. We think about the community 365 days a year. It makes good business sense because it’s a lucrative market, it also helps us attract the right talent, but ultimately, it’s just the right thing to do. A lot of work goes into pride 365. Some of it is part of the scope of my job, but a lot is volunteering and giving back to the community. We support many grassroots community organizations across North America. We talk to them, partner with them, and engage authentically to understand what the community wants. We live and breathe pride 365 and we’re part of the community year-round.
Did you always think that this is something that you’d be doing?
To be honest, no. People say that I have the best job in the world and it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like work because my personal life and my professional life are so intertwined. After I left my last job where I was being bullied for being gay and I came to TD, the values and culture here were such a pleasant surprise. I never experienced anything like it before. I went to school for marketing and my previous role was in community relations so I had the background but everything I learned about equity, diversity, and inclusion I learned at TD. So no, not in a million years did I think that I would get paid to do this, as a minority and as a gay man, absolutely not, that’s a dream.
What has changed since you started living and working in Toronto?
I’ve seen inclusion put into practice in many companies throughout the city. It’s not perfect and there’s still work to be done but incremental changes are happening. Diversity is a journey that we’re all on together and I’m proud of how far Toronto has come. We’ve evolved as a city because of our multiculturalism. We can all learn from each other and work together as each other’s allies. One challenge we have is that we can tend to remain in our own silos, pockets, and communities. I don’t want to just be surrounded by people who look like me, sound like, and think like me. The more we break down silos, the better we can be, together.
What do you think can and should change?
As a society, we need to continue to remove barriers for minorities in leadership positions. Growing up, I was not connected to the corporate world through my family or my community. I had to take the hard road and scratch and scrape to get to where I am today. Now that I’m here, I know it’s my mission to give back. I’m on the board for Rainbow Railroad which helps LGBTQ2+ people escape violence and persecution in their home countries. They pluck them, sometimes in the middle of the night, and bring them to Canada. This is a cause I feel passionate about. Many of the people they help are from Jamaica and they save their lives. I also volunteer to educate youth, and I give back to the black, and the LGBTQ2+ communities because that’s my intersectionality. When I was growing up, I wished I had someone from the corporate world to look up to. Now I’m in a position to do more and I always think, if not me, then who? We can all step up to do more to help.
What were some of the things you learned when you first started?
It’s a tough risk to stand alone and do the work when no-one else is there. What I learned is that when you believe in something that’s at the core of your values, you stick with it no matter what. Even when you face opposition, stick with your strategy, your plan, and what you believe in. Folks were watching us thinking we’d fail because of our overt support for the LGBTQ2+ community. We stuck to it because we knew it was the right thing to do. Now, look at everything that’s happening in Toronto. Everyone wants to support the community and I’m so happy that other organizations are moving the diversity and inclusion dial forward. Starting out in a space that’s new can be scary. I’m always willing to share ideas, I speak at different companies and share best practices, even if it’s with other banks. At the end of the day, when one boat rises, then all boats should rise. It makes it better for Toronto and for everyone. Have you heard of the 519?
Yes, they came in and did an LGBTQ2+ inclusivity workshop here at Ramp.
Guess what? That training you did, TD partnered with the 519 to create it and make it free for everyone to use. We heard from companies that wanted to learn more about LGBTQ2+ inclusion in the workplace so we responded. We’re one of the 519’s largest partners and we have been for years so we collaborated with them. We knew it was the right thing to do to move the diversity and inclusion conversation forward in society.
It sounds like TD is a thought leader in this space. What marketing successes have you had?
In 2008, TD was the first major bank to feature same-sex couples in mainstream media instead of just targeted LGBTQ2+ publications. We featured ads with lesbian and gay couples in mainstream newspapers across Canada. It was a huge win because we were saying that these ads should be seen by all, not just hidden away and only seen by LGBTQ2+ people. That was a very important milestone. It broke barriers and evolved our support of our customers in our marketing.
What was the response to the ads?
Just as it was when we sponsored Pride Toronto, we got a lot of backlash. We responded the same way we did then. The LGBTQ2+ community embraced it. Our employees were so happy to see themselves represented in our mainstream marketing for the first time that they looked at it with pride. It wasn’t easy to execute because our ad agency didn’t understand how to make it live within our TD brand. We created an internal advisory group of LGBTQ2+ employees who provided feedback to make the ads non-stereotypical and more inclusive. We ended up using TD employees as our ‘models’ and they became superstars. I even got their autograph! We knew that it was the only way to make it authentic and make it come to life the way we wanted to. The agencies at the time weren’t getting it right. We brought one of our lesbian leaders and her wife down to the Scarborough Bluffs and we did a photoshoot with them on the water. They were living their truth so it was easy to shoot and that’s how we ended up getting it right.
What can companies do to enhance their impact?
My advice is to start. It may seem daunting at first, but just start. Make an effort, put a stake in the ground, and say that it’s important to your organization. Leaders have to lead by example, become champions, and commit because employees are looking to the top for guidance. Take baby steps because it’s a journey, not a sprint. It’s OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Start with your employees and harness their advice. If they aren’t diverse you should ask yourself why. A lot of organizations want the latest and greatest research but sometimes you just have to look within your own team and have a conversation with your employees. After that, make tough decisions about what needs to change within your organization. Understand the climate, the culture, and use it as a benchmark. Do a climate survey to see where you’re starting from, get feedback from your employees, and evolve your strategy. At TD we look at diversity through the three C’s: colleagues, customers, and community. Start with colleagues then move to the customer piece as the work evolves. Start, do so authentically, and go from there.
Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue their purpose but may be struggling?
Look for safe spaces and community organizations where you can get help, support, and find role models. There’s no magic solution but there are others who have done it before you. Learn from them and don’t recreate the wheel. Look within your circles, your family, and your community to find safe zones. Know who your allies are and reach out to them. Do some self-discovery and truly embrace yourself as who you are, then find out what you want to do. Keep evolving as a human and know that you’re not alone.