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Inspirational talk show Voices featured compelling stories of four people who used to struggle with acceptance but have since become champions of DEI

Four compelling personal stories were presented during the 4th edition of the Pride Business Forum Voices on Tuesday, February 6, 2024, at the distinctive Opero space on Salvátorská Street. The speakers varied in age, work experience, and relationship orientation, yet they had one thing in common: overcoming the fear of embracing their true selves, which was passed on to them in good faith by their families.

Jan Kotík: I needed to hear that being gay is ok

Jan Kotík, aged 33, currently leads communication and strategy at the Škoda Academy, Learning & Development department at Škoda Auto. Jan is a core team member of the Škoda Proud employee network and serves as an Advisory Board member at D&I Shapers by OPIM.

Growing up in Zlín, Jan grappled with the perception that being gay was something negative. When classmates called him the term as an insult, his teachers reassured him by saying, “Don’t worry about it; they’re just jealous of your achievements,” instead of emphasizing that “gay” is not an offensive word and being gay is ok. It wasn’t until the age of 23, after spending several years at university in Prague, that he gathered the courage to confide in his mother about his sexual orientation. Although she was understanding, she urged him not to tell anyone else in the family. She was afraid that her relatives would condemn her for raising him badly. These subtle negative cues prompted Jan to become extremely cautious and conceal his identity, despite having already gone through an internal process of coming out. 

Even after joining Škoda Auto five years ago, he chose to remain in the closet, carefully observing for indications that it would be safe to be open out in the workplace. However, at that time, the company’s management declined to endorse a letter by IBM to then-Prime Minister Babiš, advocating for the introduction of equal marriage in the Czech Republic. Their rationale was the potential loss of customers. Faced with this, Jan decided against coming out at work. This occurred prior to Škoda Auto’s becoming a member of the Pride Business Forum in 2021, the formation of the ERG Škoda Proud, and the company’s commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“2023 was one of the best years of my life,” Jan shares. He worked at Seat S.A. in Barcelona and it was the first time ever he felt comfortable openly embracing his gay identity both in public spaces and at work. Rainbow flags adorned the streets, and a male colleague in the office spoke freely about his husband, creating an atmosphere where everything felt entirely natural. Jan reflects, “I’d never experienced that before.” The year brought additional uplifting moments as Jan’s employer endorsed an open letter by Vodafone to Prime Minister Fiala, advocating for equal marriage. Furthermore, Škoda introduced a new Škoda Enyaq Coupé Respectline car in rainbow colors. With these positive changes, there is no longer a need for Jan to conceal his identity at work. Embracing a newfound sense of responsibility, he believes that LGBTQ+ individuals in political and managerial positions should actively speak out and serve as role models for those who are yet to come out.

Kateřina Nosek: little talks move us towards understanding

Kateřina Nosek, aged 47, serves as the Country Communication and Patient Engagement Head for Novartis Czech Republic. In 2022, she proudly took on the role of sponsor for One Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion ERG (OneDEI) in the Czech Republic. Kateřina was honored with the Pride Business Forum Hero Award in 2023.

Sharing a common place of birth with her predecessor Jan Kotík, Kateřina comes from Uherské Hradiště, situated approximately 20 minutes away from Zlín. Growing up in a traditional background, she notes, “In South Moravia, we don’t talk about private matters. When I got my first period, my mother gave me a book about to avoid direct discussion.” As a cis heterosexual woman, she didn’t find her conservative upbringing challenging and eventually married a man from a similarly traditional family in Alaska.

The first shift in conservative Moravian worldview occurred due to Uncle Tony. Her husband’s family kept quiet about him because he was a gay man living with HIV. Tony’s interest in visiting the Czech Republic and meeting his new Czech relatives caused consternation in the family. But the visit turned out well, challenging preconceptions about relationship orientation. Kateřina’s mother, in particular, developed a positive connection with Tony, leading her to acknowledge, “Maybe gay men aren’t so bad after all.” 

Joining Novartis brought Kateřina into contact with people from 77 nationalities in its Prague office. Interactions with two colleagues, a gay man and a lesbian, opened a new world for Kateřina. Little office talks evolved into shared experiences outside of work, providing her with the chance to understand the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals, meet their partners, and grasp their joys and concerns. Reflecting on this, Kateřina admits, “I am ashamed that it took me 45 years to figure out that there is nothing wrong with being of a different orientation,” describing it as her personal coming out of her Moravian ignorance. Presently, she and her colleagues lead the Prague ERG group, sought out for advice by groups from other Novartis offices. Kateřina emphasizes the significance of little personal talks outside one’s own bubble, recognizing their role in fostering mutual understanding.

Daniel Aleš Weiss: I embody two personas as Princess Fiona

Daniel Aleš Weiss, 27, is an Associate at Wolf Theiss with two years of experience in employment law. Coming from Krnov in Moravia, Daniel recalls his teenage years, during which only two gay men were publicly out in his hometown. His early attempt to express his feelings to a schoolmate-football player in elementary school led to two years of severe bullying. Fortunately, Dany’s parents provided unwavering support when he came out. “As doctors, they knew it was their fault because sexual orientation is a matter of genetics, not my choice,” Daniel says with a smile. Despite this acceptance, when Daniel revealed his interest in performing as a drag queen, his parents’ understanding reached a hurdle. They feared he would ruin his career as a lawyer.

Daniel was actually considering whether to publicly declare his hobby. Before his first job interview in Prague, he typed his name into a search engine, only to find the first link leading to an interview with him as drag queen Cassiopeia. Recognizing there was no point in hiding his interests, he resolved to work only where he would be accepted entirely, including his drag persona. Things worked out well at home, too. Daniel’s aunt was the first family member to attend Cassiopeia’s show and provided a positive reference to his parents. Eventually, they attended their son’s performance at Prague Pride 2022, shedding tears of emotion. Daniel proudly states, “Today we can talk about my drag during family lunches.”

Berkan Yildiran: I held on to the advice to stay in the closet for too long

Berkan Yildiran, 37, originally from Istanbul, has been a resident of Prague for over 10 years. Currently serving as the Site Support Lead at MSD Czech Republic, he also holds the roles of Rainbow Alliance ERG Czech Republic Co-Lead and capABILITY Network ERG Europe Lead.

“I love my home, but Turkey is a conservative country with a masculine culture,” says Berki. When he came out as gay to his mother at the age of 17, she responded sympathetically, in contrast to his closest friend who was less understanding. His mother’s concern led her to ask, “Are you happy? Don’t you need psychological help?” Alongside her support, she offered three pieces of advice: keep safe as physical attacks might occur; don’t tell anyone else in our family; don’t tell anyone at work, to prevent potential backlash. Berkan recognizes that these words were spoken out of pure love and a desire to protect him. However, he has recently come to realize that by adhering to one of these pieces of advice, he was working against his own best interests.

In 2013, Berki arrived in Prague and immediately noticed a distinct difference in the workplace atmosphere compared to Istanbul. Despite this, he adhered to his mother’s advice and stayed in the closet. However, he increasingly felt like he was living a lie. Eventually, he decided to confide in a close expat friend. To his surprise, her response was, “Berkan, we all knew a long time ago; we were just waiting for you to tell us!”

This revelation helped him break down the mental barriers, leading him to join the ERG group of his then-employer, Amazon. Berkan found a genuine sense of belonging there. “It was liberating; suddenly I could truly be myself,” he recalls. When he transitioned to MSD in 2018, he eagerly joined its EBRG Rainbow Alliance. This time, it went beyond just having fun; at MSD, Berkan found the opportunity to be a voice and actively engage in various platforms. Describing MSD as a company with D&I ingrained in its DNA, he expressed gratitude for the personal experiences this afforded him. As he looked at his mom, who personally came to support him at the Pride Business Forum Voices.

The Pride Business Forum Voices evening was replete with sincere testimonies, touching moments, and practical life advice. To revisit the atmosphere of the event, you can browse through the photos and videos captured during the gathering.