Interview with Kohinoor Choudhury
ESG-talks is a series of interviews with ESG professionals with diverse educational and professional backgrounds, whom we regard as role models. This series aims to encourage participation in the ESG and responsible investment (RI) space, to attract talent from different sectors and industries, and to widen the conversation.
Kohinoor Choudhury studied law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is the author of the Investor Briefing and Toolkit on Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting and leads the campaign on racial equity and ethnicity pay gap reporting at ShareAction. She joined the responsible investment sector after reading the book titled ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth. Prior to this career, she accumulated over 13 years of experience in programme funding and co-designing projects at international charities (EveryChild, Childreach International, Y Care International, The Fairtrade Foundation).
First of all, why did you choose law as a degree? Also, LSE is famous for being a difficult university to get into.
After taking my GCSEs and starting A-levels, some people started to tell me about applying for university. I was so unsophisticated; I did not even know the concept of ‘university’. Also, it is important to mention that back then you didn’t have to pay for fees; otherwise, I couldn’t have afforded it. Those days were a bit easier to get into LSE, and my father very kindly paid for my living costs.
I thought that a lawyer would dream of a different career than first working with international charities, and later joining the responsible investment movement. How did you first get involved in social topics?
I started to volunteer with Amnesty International in secondary school and continued at university. It all started, I think, from the fact that as my parents are Bangladeshi, we often visited the country where I saw extreme poverty and countless other human rights abuses. And of course, you can see injustice in the UK as well. So, I had many reasons to be interested in social justice.
At university, I volunteered for the Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund, which is an organisation that supports defendants of Human Rights incarcerated for their advocacy. I continued volunteering for Amnesty, but unfortunately it was a troubling experience, as I began to have horrific nightmares about the material I was coming across on human rights violations. I finally had work experience (called a ‘mini pupillage’) with a barrister’s chambers, under Baroness Helena Kennedy. She wrote the book ‘Eve Was Framed’, revealing how women are discriminated against by the legal system. This all concurred with the violations of human rights in the poorest countries in the world: how differently we experience life, and even the law depending on the place and gender we were born in. Yet given the UK was so much more advanced on social justice, I felt my place was to be in Bangladesh and advance change there.
After I finished university, I spent one and a half years in Bangladesh, working in micro credit lending for women entrepreneurs at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).
Did you ever think about settling down in Bangladesh?
Initially I went with that expectation. However, after eighteen months I came back to the UK. All my family is here, and my culture is British. I didn’t want to uproot myself like my parents did. When I went back to Bangladesh, I was doing the reverse of what they did, but I could not complete it; I had to come back.
On my return from Bangladesh, I decided to study Economics based on my experience with micro credit lending initiatives and took a one-year conversion course at the University of Sussex. I was going to go onto study a Masters in Economics, but I became disillusioned with it as I recognized the theory did not match the reality I had experienced in Bangladesh. This also explains why I was so hooked by Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics. In summary, the book argues that the economy should not surpass planetary boundaries and outstrip its natural resources, whilst also ensuring everyone has access to their basic needs; food, healthcare, education, water, and shelter. As a humanity, we are far from working within these boundaries; currently almost one in ten people in the world are living in extreme poverty (less than $2.15 a day)1.
What were your first experiences when you started working after university?
First, I started at the Department of Trade and Industry (replaced in 2007 by the creation of Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.) I was always interested in the links between trade, industry and poverty. This position was in regional development and then I went onto work at the local level at my next position, at Camden Council. Here, the objective was to make sure deprived communities could access enterprise and employment opportunities coming out of the Kings Cross development. We wanted to ensure we would not repeat the mistakes made by the Canary Wharf development.
How was the Canary Wharf case different in comparison with this project?
Canary Wharf was a major regeneration project which was inaccessible to local communities. Canary Wharf is surrounded by poor communities, yet few could get jobs there. Instead, workers were migrating in from West London and beyond.
When we did the King’s Cross regeneration, we wanted to make sure that local jobs were accessible to local marginalized communities.
How did you end up working around the world?
Soon after the King’s Cross regeneration project, my dreams were fulfilled in the sense that I finally started working in International Development. The opportunity came up initially as a fundraiser for Education Action, a charity to support refugees in the UK and children overseas in conflict affected countries.
Before my career in fundraising and programme design, I used to think of fundraisers as ‘professional beggars’. In my role at Camden Council, I had to submit a yearly bid for the next year’s income, and I discovered I thoroughly enjoyed it.’. I realized that it is about developing a vision to solve a problem and raising money for it.
I then went onto EveryChild. Here, I learnt about children’s rights, and democracy in general. We used so-called ‘participatory planning’, which means that we consulted the affected communities we wanted to support, and co-designed solutions. This usually works well, as you combine your expertise and research with their lived experience. I went on to work for another children’s charity and a youth charity. I had the opportunity to work with marginalised communities in Bangladesh, Togo, Liberia, Nepal, India, Egypt, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Ghana.
You said that harsh circumstances can be daunting. How did you manage to process your experiences this time?
I wanted to work in poverty alleviation as I felt the worst human rights abuses occurred in the poorest countries in the world. Working in international development and poverty alleviation was very different to my experience volunteering in the human rights sector. It was an uplifting experience. Marginalised people in these countries can have a lot of pride, love, and joy, despite their circumstances. However, they are, naturally, suspicious with the outsider coming to their ‘rescue’. So, it was important for me to communicate that I wanted to be a partner to them. Of course, the reaction and the relationship between us was different in each country. In one case, for example, in a post conflict country still reeling from the aftereffects of trauma, they remained suspicious.
During the Covid-19 outbreak, I happened to read Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics,
Two weeks after reading this eye-opening book, I saw an ad for a position with ShareAction; a charity with an ethos aligned with the book. I applied for that position, and to my biggest surprise, I got the job, thankfully due to my transferable fundraising skills.
What was this new position about? What did you find challenging or rewarding about it?
The new position was a Fundraising Manager for trusts and foundations.
However, after I spent one year in the fundraising team, there was a new opportunity at ShareAction: to lead a campaign on ethnicity pay gap reporting. It was a senior officer role, yet initially I did not have the confidence to apply for it, given my lack of campaigning experience. Thankfully, my prospective manager reassured me that I had the transferable skills. So, I applied, and yet again was surprised to get the job. I went on to lead a campaign for UK companies to voluntarily disclose their ethnicity pay gap, as part of a broader campaign to push the government to make it mandatory. I conducted several interviews with representatives of the financial industry, who gave a deep insight into ideas and practices to report and address the ethnicity pay gap. In the end, we, together with the Runnymede Trust, published a toolkit and briefing for investors on ethnicity pay gap reporting.
Whilst gender pay gap reporting is now commonplace, ethnicity pay gap Isn’t. Do you have any idea why?
First, it may appear that it is more complicated to collect ethnicity data than gender. Although gender is not binary, gender pay gap reports solely focus on women, therefore it is a binary figure. This means that generally 50% of the population are women. However, there are many ethnicities, distributed differently geographically. Nevertheless, the reality is that ethnicity pay gap reporting is feasible. As many as 35 FTSE100 companies are already voluntarily reporting their ethnicity pay gap and the figure is growing.
Unfortunately, I suspect the other reason is prejudice. A few investors mentioned that before gender pay gap reporting became mandatory, it was easier to persuade their white male board members to voluntarily report their gender pay gap, than their ethnicity pay gap. They found merely raising the topic generated intense negative feelings.
How was the toolkit and the campaign received?
Generally, it was very well received, we received several encouraging messages, however, I think we need to do a lot more. I would like to find out how the toolkit is being used, and what impact it is having.
In your opinion, what does the future hold for the ESG sector? You can think of in five or more years’ time, whatever you deem predictable?
I think ESG is going to grow in Europe, but I am concerned about the backlash in the US and how certain investors are pulling back from it there. We need to be aware that whatever happens in the US might trickle down to Europe. I’d like to think that instead the whole meaning of Responsible Investment will be stronger, and that it will bring forth greater accountability to people and planet. We do need a greater balance towards the S of ESG, as it is underplayed now compared to the Environment. Investors want to make a profit, so in that sense ESG must make a business case to persuade them. Nevertheless, the pension industry, for example, is looking for long-term profits, and subsequently tend to be more serious about ESG. Statistics show that Gen Z, millennials and women are more interested in ESG, and I think this tendency is going to grow.
Interview taken by Rita Sebestyen