An interview with Samantha Jayne Nelson, Diversity Champion 2017
Samantha Nelson is Vice President of Risk Engineering in the Global Energy Practice of Marsh, a global leader in insurance broking and risk management and an operating company of global professional services firm Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC). In May 2017, Samantha won the Diversity Champion Award at the British LGBT Awards.
Firstly, congratulations, tell us a bit about how much this award means for you.
Thank you , in all honesty I still can’t quite believe it. What a truly wonderful, uplifting experience it has been for me. I’ve been grinning like the Cheshire Cat ever since the awards ceremony.
From an early age I was taught by many around me that being me was unacceptable and if anyone found out I’d be rejected and lose everything. This was what I believed until fairly recently. I overcame my personal struggles through the years of living in the shadows and am now able to stand proud in the light. This journey has opened my eyes.
I never set out to claim any personal reward, it just broke my heart to think there are others out there still searching for the strength to be recognised and accepted as themselves. If I can help anyone to overcome prejudice, whether real or perceived, it’s the least I can do. It is my way of thanking the people, that stood up and helped me find myself.
If being honest and willing to help others justifies an award then there are many people who deserve equal recognition. The individuals and groups pushing the D&I agenda across all areas: LINK, Insurance Cultural Awareness Network (iCAN), Inclusion@Lloyd's, Trans*formation, InterEngineering, Diversity Role Models to name but a few of the organisations carrying out invaluable work in this area.
For those of you who haven’t seen my backstage interview filmed immediately after been given the award then if you watch I think you can see how excited and emotional I was.
You have an amazing story, can you tell us of some key moments.
To frame my story, you first must understand I was bought up roman catholic up in a working class, mining community in the north-east of England. Not exactly a hot bed of diversity, if you have seen Billy Elliot you’ll get the idea.
I started my journey of discovery as a boy, although in my mind this was not the case, I was a girl. Being female was my reality. Something I knew as a fact from the age of around four to five. However this wasn’t universally embraced by my primary school teachers or indeed parents who make it their mission to convince me I was male. This conditioning drove me to adopt a role and play the part everyone told me I must play. Although I submitted to this public act, my personal belief in my true identity was never displaced. However this was before the internet, where I had no way of developing any real understanding of my true self other than the odd sporadic ‘shock’ news headline mentioning ‘Sex change’. You can imagine that this did little to encourage me to be openly me.
I continued to play the role which made everyone happy, except me.
In the mid 1980’s I arrived at the end of my 5th form in high school with ‘O’ levels taken, and ‘A’ levels chosen, believing my path fairly well mapped out. I had planned to pursue a path within science at university. But life doesn’t always work the way you plan. Due to a series of circumstances impacting the community I lived within at this time, I actually ended up leaving school at 16 and took a 4 year engineering apprenticeship with the Central Electricity Generation Board (CEGB). Once I was qualified, my career took another turn as I transferred my skill-set into the offshore oil and gas industry and was fortunate enough to be able to continue my education whilst gaining invaluable experience.
During my 23 year offshore industry career, I fulfilled a number of positions culminating as an Offshore Installation Manager. I had my very own oil platform to manage with a crew of over 130 people – 99 percent male. Well! If I was going to play a part, I was going to play it well……and yet my true self never disappeared.
By the time I was 35, having attained the position I desired in my profession, my thoughts turned more and more introspective. As I preached a doctrine of authenticity, honesty and openness to my staff, I began to question my own life. The offshore work rotation of two weeks on, three weeks off allowed me the freedom to express myself during my leave. So with the help of the internet and contact with groups set up by other trans* people I discovered myself, lived as myself, comfortable in my support network during my leave periods.….But I was still hidden in my working life.
Over a period of time, the lines started to blur and I found it became difficult to live two lives: always wishing I could just be me full-time. That was when destiny intervened. In the late-2000s I had an iPhone and Facebook account as most people had, all mine were in my female persona, and I gave my mobile number to close contacts at work.
What I didn’t realise was that, during one of my smart phones numerous software updates, the provider thought it would be a good idea to link your social media page, including your photo, to your phone number. Fab idea! Like many, I had a habit of not reading the T&Cs and just ticked "agree" and got on with it. Of course this meant that when I called my work friends my female photo and link to my social media page was automatically added to their phone. The blurred line had just snapped without me even knowing it!
Fortunately, the friend who approached me to tell me this was, and still is, a very dear work colleague and close friend. She gave me lots of confidence and support, as did our close circle of friends, which also included the HR director of the company. With the support of these wonderful people, these allies who rallied around, I gained the strength to finally step out of the shadows, shake off the guilt and transition. With the security provided by the safety net of my friends, I knew I was not going to lose everything.
I can honestly say that it felt like a tremendous weight had been removed from my shoulders. I found myself engaged, enthusiastic and much more productive through no longer having to waste energy hiding who I was. Rather than reject me, and I had convinced myself this would happen, people supported, politely asked questions, and just got on with it. The only comment I ever got was ‘Ah... that explains everything!' Perhaps my well-constructed facade wasn’t as good as I had believed.
So where am I now? I left the offshore industry in December 2014 to take up my role as an upstream risk engineer at Marsh, within the Global Energy Risk Engineering team. This was a great opportunity to further my development and embrace my love of travel and exploring different cultures. My new role allows me to travel the globe, visiting various offshore installations assessing their risk exposures.
What I have learned is that authenticity, friendship and support are incredibly important as we all journey through this life. Our worst enemy is the little voice in our heads which says ‘You Can’t’. Well I am proof that you can. Even on an oil rig!
Here is an interview I did when I was nominated for the British LGBT Awards. Enjoy.