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I grew up in poverty in London. Now I'm an MD at BlackRock

Gavin Lewis has come a long way. As a managing director and head of BlackRock's local government pension scheme business, he's responsible for local government pension investments across everything from ESG and private markets to passive indexes. He lives in the London borough of Finchley, where RightMove says the average house costs £763k. He's on the board of trustees for the Old Vic theatre...

Lewis has the accoutrements of the middle class lifestyle. But he didn't have the stereotypical middle class upbringing. He's black, but not black in the mould of some in financial services who come from elite boarding schools and wealthy families in Africa. Lewis grew up in a Tottenham council estate with his mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and his sister. His father left when he was four. "I recall living in a constant state of unease, as if I was always in danger and had no protection," he wrote in 2018 of his childhood in a fatherless household. Bullying and name-calling when he was a child progressed to fights, fear and violence. 

Aged 12, Lewis decided that he needed to get out, and that education and self-improvement were his route to change. He passed his GCSEs and A-levels, attended Queen Mary University London and progressed in the investment industry through a series of increasingly senior jobs at increasingly big-name brands, including UBS, Vanguard and now BlackRock. "I've always felt that I was wired differently from people around me," says Lewis. "I grew up in relative poverty, progressed through financial services and am leading a very different lifestyle now. It's been very difficult at times, and I think there's a lack of understanding about what disadvantage really means."

Unusually for someone currently employed in a high-profile role in the financial services industry, Lewis has written a book* about his experiences and his insights into how the financial services industry can improve the lives of disadvantaged groups and dismantle the racial wealth gap.

Lewis's point in the book is that finance can transform lives. Not just individually, by providing opportunities for bright, driven, individuals like him to find jobs in the industry, nor just through philanthropy, but more systematically by creating products that help reduce inequality. "Inequality is a risk and the financial services industry quantifies and mitigates risk," he says. "We work with inflation risk, interest rate risk, climate risk and longevity risk, but for some reason inequality has never been quantified and mitigated, even though it's intertwined with everything." 

The effects of economic inequality are all-pervasive, says Lewis. It has social impacts through levers like access to education and healthcare, which influence life outcomes. "Having a stable income has enabled me to invest in my own wellbeing," says Lewis. Some of those he grew up with haven't been so lucky: in 2018. Lewis also wrote about Jamal, a 26-year-old man whom he last saw at school aged 11 when Jamal was athletic and popular. 15 years later, Lewis passed Jamal in the street, and Jamal was barely recognisable. He'd been sectioned under the mental health act and looked almost homeless. 

Lewis wants to use his platform in the financial services industry to make a change. His own path hasn't been easy: in Tottenham he was isolated by his own sense of difference and in his career he's been isolated by the shortage of other people with experiences like his own.  As a 6 foot 3 inch black male, Lewis said he felt the need to downplay his masculinity when he started his career, "lest it be seen as intimidating or threatening." In 2018, just before he joined BlackRock, he said he still felt compelled to "demonstrate that I am the consummate professional and here on merit," to dress impeccably and to be conscious of his mannerisms and tone of voice. And he still came across people whose faces betrayed their shock to find that, "Gavin Lewis is in fact a black man."

Lewis's solution is to encourage more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the industry, and to improve comprehension of what disadvantage really means and how it can be combatted. He's not preaching, and he's not presenting himself as a template for change: "My experience isn't the experience of every black person, or of a lot of black people in Tottenham," says Lewis.

He is asking for understanding. Lewis acknowledges that the culture among young black men can be very "alpha male," and underplay educational attainment. This is situational, he says: "Whether we like it or not, society is hierarchical and when society denies you broader opportunities, disadvantaged communities create hierarchies of their own." 

*The Opportunity Index

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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