Queering business: Q&A with Uber Eats’ Thabang Sebata

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Thabang Sebata is one of those rare individuals in South Africa; an openly queer business leader who’s vocal about LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion.

As the Strategy and Planning Lead for Uber Eats Sub-Saharan Africa, she focuses on developing long-term ambition and identifying strategies around innovation, differentiation and growth for the company.

With a BEng (Hons) in Industrial Engineering, she has a passion for exploring consumer tech and how it enables socio-economic development as well as diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Thabang is also a director at the South African LGBT+ Management Forum, a network group seeking to create safe and equitable workplaces that enable LGBT+ professionals to contribute to their fullest potential.

As part of our commitment to highlighting LGBTQ+ public figures, we spoke to Thabang about all things queer – in her life and in business.

Tell us about your coming out experience?

I never thought of coming out as an event and preferred to rather be myself at all times around family and friends. Nevertheless, I understood that it was an important step towards my process of getting married, so in 2018 I shared this with my mom and grandmother as I was planning to get engaged. Instead of centring it around my sexuality, I told them that I was seeing my now wife Khanyi. Similarly, with my friends, I just introduced whoever I was seeing at the time and they mostly carried on as though they’ve always known.

While coming out might not be right for everyone, what role can this kind of everyday visibility play in creating change?

I think everyday visibility is about making queerness as “unremarkable” as possible. The more of us we see in different spaces and contexts, the less we’ll need identifiers to define us in those spaces. I would like to get to a point where I’m not profiled for being a queer woman in tech…

What made you decide to be open about your LGBTQ+ identity in the business world?

Representation matters! [But] as it turns out, part of not having to come out all my life is that my masculine-presenting appearance has often done it for me. I have been lucky enough to work in organisations with a clear stance on LGBTQ+ inclusion and/or visible LGBTQ+ representation in senior positions allowing me to, in turn, navigate the workplace.

What does Pride mean to you and how do you celebrate it?

This may be scandalous, but I haven’t attended a Pride festival before – mostly because of my introversion and general homebody personality. For me, Pride means self-affirmation and the courage to be true to yourself. How I choose to celebrate it is choosing to be visible, authentic and a strong advocate of inclusion – especially in the workplace where we spend so much of our time

Is Pride still relevant today?

Absolutely! Pride is an opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community to reflect on how far we’ve come and the work that still needs to be done in spaces where people cannot openly celebrate their identity or gender expression

In what ways does Uber promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity and diversity?

We’ve launched our diversity and inclusion policy as part of our mission is to ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion. We see direct parallels between how we ignite opportunity through our company and how we ignite it within our company. But we also know that a solely data-driven approach will never be sufficient because diversity and inclusion are more than a box to check or a target to hit. The numbers matter, but they’re only a starting point; a commitment to diversity and inclusion has to run much deeper.

“Employees that can bring their best self to work perform better…”

How does Uber ensure that its LGBTQ+ affirming policies and values filter down to its drivers who interact with the public?

We have a set of community guidelines, which were developed to help make everyone feel safe, respectful, and positive. Everyone who signs up for an Uber account across all of our apps, including drivers, riders, delivery people, Uber Eats customers and restaurants, is expected to follow these guidelines. Fostering a community of mutual respect matters to us and we believe in shared accountability on our platform.

Compared to, for example, the US, brands and multinationals in South Africa rarely spend money directly in local LGBTQ+ media platforms. Why do you think that is?

Despite our progressive constitution and inclusive policies in some companies, people still hold conservative views around the LGBTQ+ community. More so, many people believe that people in the community make up the minority in the country. This usually results in the idea that spending money in local LGBTQ+ media platforms would be addressing a “niche” market that some brands may not believe they align to or that forms part of their target market. This is why I’m proud to be a part of Uber, who not only invests in our community but actively advocates for us in both the world of work and the world we live in.

How can multinational companies with affirming LGBTQ+ values and policies navigate operating in countries where LGBTQ+ identities are taboo or even illegal?

It goes without saying that a company’s values and policies should be equally applied regardless of where the company operates. A good starting point for navigating operating in such counties would be having clearly-defined policies and a position on employees working there, covering the company’s response in the event that an employee is exposed as identifying as LGBTQ+ and the company’s position on LGBTQ+ rights. Outside of policy, it’s important for companies to ensure that their values embody equality, inclusion and dignity and that this is part of everyday interactions.

What role can and should business play in creating LGBTQ-affirming change in society?

The role of business should go beyond providing goods and services; it also requires responsibility towards people and societies in which it operates. Businesses can be a significant proponent of positive change and can contribute to creating affirming change in various ways such as speaking up on policies affecting LGBTQ+ communities or even forming coalitions with other businesses that have similar values to advocate against LGBTQ+ non-discrimination.

What do you think the business world in South Africa needs to improve on when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues?

A lot of progressive companies are becoming more aware of and making good strides in implementing LGBTQ+-affirming structures and I believe the next steps are ensuring this translates to the behaviours that should are mutually reinforcing, such as: emphasising respect and inclusion rather than just diversity; ensuring individuals are sensitised to LGBTQ+ matters and use non-heteronormative language in everyday interactions; and affording specific focus to LGBTQ+ matters in employment equity discussions.

Why is it important for businesses to create safe and enabling workspaces for staff?

Safe (physical and psychological) and enabling workspaces contribute immensely to the wellbeing of people and are a significant step towards achieving an inclusive environment. Many studies have shown that employees that can bring their best self to work perform better and are more satisfied with their jobs. Beyond the numbers, at the centre of it, people are what make any business and it’s important to ensure the workspace is conducive to their success.

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