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Being yourself at work is something that LGBTQ+ people continue to wrestle with. As part of our Out at Work series, Vada meets Cohlan Coote, Director and Head of Finance at Citypress.
Ten years ago, Cohlan Coote was sitting at a bus stop looking up accountancy on his phone. Aged 19 at the time, he had two paper rounds in his small hometown, alongside attending college, yet he still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. Coming across an apprenticeship at an accountancy firm looked like an ideal way to learn more about finance, whilst earning a wage.
The only problem was Coote’s lack of knowledge about accountancy. “I genuinely had no idea,” he tells Vada today. The role was as an admin apprentice and would be his first experience working in an office. Coote’s daily schedule at the time, however, was intense. Two paper rounds every morning before 8am, followed by a full day’s work at the accountancy firm. He admits that it was easier aged 19. “I needed a lot less sleep back then than I do now,” he jokes.
Overall, his apprenticeship opened his eyes to the world of finance, even if admin wasn’t necessarily his forte. “It was great, I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I enjoyed it.”
During his time at the accountancy firm, Coote says he started to yearn for a sense of community. “I remember being on Canal Street one night and was in awe of everyone wholeheartedly being themselves, and having fun without holding back,” he recalls. He quickly swapped early mornings for late nights, bar-tending in the Gay Village at the weekends and working in his day job during the week. “I think those times are probably some of my happiest memories so far,” he says. “It’s cliché but the impact it had, not only on my confidence, but also my work ethic, was amazing.”
It was around this time that he applied for a job at Citypress, one of the UK’s leading PR and communications agencies. Arriving for the job interview, Coote remembers being nervous. “I was going through that phase of being out, but not really having the confidence to outright tell people. I had my interview, and I remember leaving praying that I’d got it.” A few hours later, he received an email saying he’d got the job.
When he started at Citypress, Coote describes himself as being the “baby” of the team. “I was nervous to start with, but everyone was so welcoming and lovely so it didn’t take long for me to settle in,” he says. “I quickly gained a few ‘work mums’ who took it upon themselves to look after me.” The firm also funded Coote’s studies at Kaplan Financial. He tells me that the supportive ethos at Citypress has allowed him to progress in his career, as well as create meaningful friendships with his colleagues.
I ask about what it was like for him to come out at the PR firm. “I’ve never hid it,” he says of his sexuality. In the years before working at Citypress, there were times where he wouldn’t talk about his sexuality openly and he faced awkwardness when being asked if he had a girlfriend. Fortunately, his experience at Citypress was different. “My manager asked me if I had a partner and I just went, ‘Yes, I’ve got a boyfriend’ and she didn’t bat an eyelid,” he says. “She just carried on the conversation.”
This response from his manager made him feel accepted. “I think that kind of attitude and approach in a workplace can be so under-estimated,” he adds.
Reflecting on the eight years of being at Citypress, Coote says he doesn’t think there has ever been a time where he has felt the need to hide who he is. “I’ve walked into leadership team meetings, with painted freckles and eye shadow – and just been applauded for being myself.” It’s his belief that when people are given the space and freedom to be themselves, that their potential is limitless. “Had it not been for those positive experiences, or that accepting attitude and culture, I don’t think I’d be in the position I am today,” adds Coote. “It allowed me to try new things, push things forward and ultimately grow.”
Ultimately, Coote says he feels a sense of pride. “Looking back to where I was 10 years ago: searching accountancy at a bus stop, to now being in a leadership role, overseeing our DE&I and L&D programmes, I feel proud.”
When it comes to somebody working in the finance sector who is thinking of coming out, what advice would Coote give? “The thing about coming out, is that you have to do it every time you meet new people, which feels a lot,” he replies. “But the truth is that when you’ve done it the first time, it gets easier.”
Coote also appreciates the challenges that some people may face when coming out, especially in less inclusive workplaces, which is why he recommends seeking support from others. “Anyone who is thinking of coming out, I understand why it’s difficult but there is genuine light and happiness at the end of the tunnel,” he reasons. “I’d encourage you to talk to your friends, anyone you’re close to at work. If they’re your friends, they won’t care.”
“Coming out doesn’t need to be telling everyone at once, take your time and let a few people in at a time.”
Cohlan Coote is Director and Head of Finance at Citypress.