KPMG’s Zainab Patel on Her Transgender Journey — From Evangelist to Catalyst

Originally published at Zainab Patel is KPMG India’s director of inclusion and diversity. KPMG ranked No. 16 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


How did someone from an ostracized community, forced to drop out of college, hospitalized from attempted suicide, become a Director at one of the world’s leading professional services organizations?

To understand my story, you have to appreciate the position of transgender people in Indian society. Often referred to as ‘Hijra’, we’re seen as a kind of ‘third sex’, typically cast out of mainstream life and making a living as dancers, beggars and prostitutes. But rather than be ashamed of my label, I was proud of being part of a group that had survived all the bigotry thrown at it. Despite my struggles, I came out fighting, obtained my degree plus an MBA and set out on a conventional career with the UN.

When, after several years with the UN, I decided to seek a position in the corporate sector, I had no idea what my chances would be. After all, I was very far from the typical candidate. But KPMG saw something in me and in a flash hadn’t just sent me an offer letter but expanded the remit of the role, for me. My future boss had seen something in me that I hadn’t even recognized in myself! That was part of what made him such an amazing ally. He saw the potential for me to be a catalyst for cultural transformation by bringing all my experiences to bear on a different industry and empowering real change. This wasn’t easy for him or for KPMG. I’m pretty brash and outspoken. I don’t mince my words. Yet they had the courage and the confidence to give me an opportunity, to act as allies and cheerleaders in my life, and they never cease to remind me how fantastic I am.

Allies don’t necessarily have to be evangelists themselves, wear rainbow flags and attend marches. It’s more about standing up for what is right, carrying their stories of allyship into the homes of their family and friends, spreading the word – that a transgender person could become a capable and trusted leader. To be a great ally, you must walk along with the person and be there with them to let themselves map out their own journey.

KPMG never made a big splash about appointing a transgender woman. What they did is provide a platform, so that when I speak externally, it shines that here’s an organization that is prepared to do things differently, is willing to stick its neck out. In this way, KPMG has benchmarked itself higher in India, a country with huge taboos about sexual orientation and gender expression.

My journey has undeniably been one of struggle. If I’d had allies at an early stage I wouldn’t have had to drop out of college and be shamed and ridiculed. If I’d have had allies back then I may not have hurt myself when the trauma I experienced became too much. If I’d had allies to support me at an earlier stage in my career, and who recognized I was more than my body, I would have had a very different path. My role now is to smooth that path for others who don’t fit the mainstream mold yet have so much to offer KPMG and the world at large.



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