Author: Daniel Yates, CFA
Anthony Watson, CEO of The Bank of London talks to Daniel Yates, CFA about Pride, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence.
Catch the full discussion on the latest episode of our In Conversation podcast series.
“If someone gave me a pill and said this would make you straight, I wouldn’t take it!” exclaims Anthony Watson, who describes being gay for him as “one of the biggest blessings” of his life. Watson is the openly gay Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Bank of London, though don’t let that deceive you, he describes himself as “a technologist first and banker second!”
His career certainly matches this description, having started out at Microsoft before founding Uphold in 2014, which has grown to become “one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world”. It was through his crypto venture that he learnt about the pain points of moving money. To solve these, he founded The Bank of London in 2020 to disrupt the clearing and payments sector through technology and innovation. “We’re the second clearing bank authorised in the UK in 250 years,” he says.
For Watson, Pride Month is a celebration, and whilst the LGBT+ community enjoy freedoms today, Watson, who started his career in the late-90s, recalls a time when there weren’t gay rights.; “We had no protections in law, we had no protections of rights of employment, we had no rights of marriage.”
You don’t have to go too far back to see the impact. “We lost a generation of gay men because they couldn’t be properly educated about HIV and AIDS,” he says. This was due to Section 28, which prevented the teaching of homosexuality in UK schools. Even today, Watson highlights there are continued attacks on freedoms like the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida.
Watson can’t remember a time when being openly gay has helped his career but recalls many times when he has felt at a disadvantage. He recalls a time when “someone made a gay slur” in his early career and he called out the behaviour as unacceptable - an event which contributed to him coming out in the workplace.
Building Inclusive Cultures
With around 25% of LGBT+ adults going back in the closet after starting work Watson wants his employees to bring their whole selves to work.; “If you haven’t got someone’s brainpower focussed on your business and they are constantly hiding or changing pronouns or are being evasive, they're not being authentic, they're not focussed on your business.”
He encourages other CEOs to look at their own cultures, which may be preventing employees from being out in the workplace. “It may be only a minority of employees but it’s a barometer for their overall culture,” he says.
“Culture isn’t something that’s created overnight, it’s something that you have to work on constantly”. Watson says the culture at The Bank of London is “deliberate”, adding “we don’t just tolerate diversity, we embrace it and celebrate it!” It’s perhaps no surprise that with an openly gay CEO around 30% of senior leaders at The Bank of London identify as LGBT+. The Bank of London seeks to attract the “best diverse candidates for roles,” says Watson. “We don’t care if you’ve gone to university or not.”
Watson believes that corporations have an “obligation with our money and our influence” to promote the decriminalisation of homosexuality across the world. In 2023 it’s still illegal to be gay in 64 countries. Anthony explains that for many of these countries the root of this comes from a hangover of the British Empire where laws were translated from Britain at a time when homosexuality was illegal. “I would argue any company that does business in those countries has an obligation.”
The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
The self-proclaimed technologist believes AI is a powerful tool but he is also concerned that AI seems to default to “homophobic and racist positions.”
“It's fascinating!” Watson continues “There is something embedded within AI where it defaults to positions that would not be acceptable in society today.” As such, work will need to be done to put in place safeguards and “embed values” in this emerging technology.
I ask him where the industry needs to go further on Diversity Equity and Inclusion. “There are no openly LGBT+ people leading a FTSE100 company,” he replies. Watson believes that despite “very capable LGBT+ leaders in the world,” the community is underrepresented. “I do think it's important that boards, when they are selecting the best candidates, they're selecting from a much wider pool because the tone always starts from the top.”
Watson’s advice for the next generation is led by his experience “Be your authentic self! If you want to be a leader, be authentic, because people don’t follow inauthentic leaders.”