Inspirational Woman: Devia Gurjar | Chief Charity & External Affairs Officer, Hft

Meet Devia Gurjar

Chief Charity and External Affairs Officer at Hft

In this piece, we talk to Devia Gurjar, Chief Charity and External Affairs Officer at learning disability charity, Hft.

She tells us about her career journey, making the move into the charity sector and opens up about how she struggled with imposter syndrome.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I was born and raised in London, and have always lived in the city, although I spent some time travelling the world when I was younger. My parents emigrated from East Africa in the late 1960s and have made London their home since then. I’ve now settled in the city with my husband and two young children.

I studied law before moving into a communications role for a FTSE 100 retailer. I moved within the retail environment for a while with different communications and engagement roles and then a charity role came my way.  I moved across to the charity sector and haven’t looked back. I’ve been in the sector for 13 years and have largely worked for charities that support different diversity groups, such as children, disability and women’s charities. Diversity is a passion of mine and being able to work with causes which create a world which is more inclusive has kept me in the sector.

In my current role, I lead the policy and public affairs activity, fundraising, communications and marketing for Hft.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When I was 12, I felt as though I had a fixed life plan and I would describe myself as a natural planner. But things have certainly changed along the way and I’ve taken a more organic route to where I am today. Making the most of opportunities that have come my way have helped me to find things I love that I might not have otherwise considered. I loved studying law but wasn’t sure if I’d love a career in it as much. At the time I was also working part-time as a student in retail, and a role came up in the communications team, which wasn’t what I had planned but I thought I might enjoy. In fact, I loved it. When I moved across to the charity sector, I knew I wanted to broaden my experience but I wasn’t necessarily set on a sector. What has kept me in this sector is the variety of things I’m able to get involved in. From parliamentary policy briefings, to growing support for our fundraising challenge events – no two days are the same.

What is your favourite country you’ve travelled to?

I loved India which was the last destination on my year-long travels. I was lucky enough for my parents to join me and they were able to share their heritage with me – I learnt so much from them.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

As a woman and especially as a BAME woman, I have had lots of moments where I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. I’ve stepped into many settings (particularly executive and Trustee Boards) which lacked diversity. Over the years I have grown in confidence and feel proud that I could inspire more leaders within the sector from diverse backgrounds.

Having children also presented choices I didn’t think would be so difficult for me. I love my work, but it took me a while to find a rhythm where I felt I was successfully balancing work and my home life. Importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have a fantastic support network around me (both professionally and personally) to help me make the transition. I just needed to realise I could absolutely rely on both to help me become a better colleague and mother/partner.

There have been several moments when I’ve questioned my decisions or when things are feeling tough at work. In the heat of those moments, taking a step back to get some perspective and anchoring myself in my personal values has always helped. Of course, I couldn’t have got through those times without a fantastic team and partner. I firmly believe that you’re only as great as the network around you and I’ve been fortunate in that respect.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

My children. I try to keep family life separate from work although it’s not always successful e.g. I seem to be the only person in the house who can authorise sweets requests in the middle of work calls! It’s taken me quite a while to accept that they will never be as excited as I am about how much I have grown awareness or income – for them, it’s what their latest netball match score was or whether I can sort out pancakes for breakfast – and that is totally fine.

Workwise, I felt incredibly proud when I saw one of the first adverts I’d been involved in creating on TV. And being appointed to the Executive Team for the first time was amazing, particularly as it was a promotion and it was very special knowing that someone believed in my capabilities. I have also been a charity Trustee for the MND Association and I have really enjoyed giving back some of my knowledge and experience to the sector.

Personal achievements include my first skydive, travelling around the world alone, running a 10km (I’m really not a runner!) and picking up my flute after 20 years to play with my daughter.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The support networks I’ve had are a major factor because I’m only as great as the people around me. The best environment I’ve worked in is where I have felt inspired and challenged by my colleagues to be my absolute best.

I’m always wanting to learn, to do new things and give things a go. Along the way, if I hadn’t taken opportunities that weren’t always what I had planned, I wouldn’t have found things I love to do, met some inspirational people or experienced life-changing moments. Throwing myself in, even if it’s not on my to-do list, seems to have worked so far and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn and grow because of it.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I am part of the Charity Comms mentoring programme so I have mentored several people across the sector over the years. I have also helped to support ex-colleagues and have found I’ve always come out of the process having learned more myself, as well as supporting the mentee. It’s certainly a two-way process because I can learn about shared and different challenges.

I also have a network of people, peers and former managers that I reach out to regularly to bounce ideas around with.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

We can only truly achieve gender equality when men also play just as much of a role in achieving it. I hope that we will get to a place when women are not seen as a barrier in the workplace because men and women are jointly taking on caring responsibilities. I hope that more women have role models they can look up to and become in the future.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Have more confidence in your decisions, and don’t worry so much about what other people might think. Continue to speak truth to power and understand your role in creating that change. Things will always work themselves out.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I am intent on doing the utmost I can for Hft; to get myself firmly embedded in my new role, to get the charity known so that we can achieve the most for adults with a learning disability. In terms of the future, I would like to continue sharing my knowledge and expertise, and possibly join another board so I can give back to the sector. I would also love to do more for representation of women, especially BAME women, at senior levels and encourage Third Sector board diversity.

I still feel I’ve got more room to grow and learn in the roles I’m doing. On a personal level, I’d love to keep my house plants alive!

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