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Almost everything the managing director has done over more than 20 years at the global consulting giant has been daunting and inspiring — including coming out as a trans woman

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For years, AJ Fernandez Rivera had been holding back at work. When the tech executive landed at Accenture’s Canadian office, she decided it was finally time to come out as a trans woman.Wynne Neilly/The Globe and Mail

One morning last September, Annayah Jean Fernandez Rivera had to remind herself to breathe. Years earlier, after she’d begged a monk to train her to meditate, it became the way she best managed stress. That morning, she scanned her body, beginning from her toes and moving up—her lungs filling, chest lifting, her heartbeat slower, more purposeful. She could feel her mind starting to calm as she inhaled, found a rhythm. That morning, the managing director at Accenture Canada felt on the precipice of change. Her breathing settled, though she couldn’t quite quiet her mind. She’d lived two disparate lives for decades, and finally—finally—they were going to braid together in a way she’d hardly dared to dream about.

Born into the body of a boy, Fernandez Rivera’s transition had never been a question or a choice; it just was. “I knew I was unique,” she says simply. Her family and friends had known and supported her for years. But announcing it to a US$50-billion-a-year firm with nearly 700,000 employees in 200 cities, to her clients and colleagues, consultants and contractors, would be different. She didn’t know any other trans tech executives. She didn’t know how the people on her periphery would react. That morning, in her townhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where she posted up for the pandemic, she took one last breath and readied herself for the longest exhale of her life.

Fernandez Rivera had spent the past decade as a director and technology sales lead at Accenture, a management consultancy that solves IT and security problems for just about all of the world’s largest companies. In the early years of her career, she was part of a team advising clients like American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays Bank and Enbridge. For 10 years, she’d been the one leading the teams, with an amalgam of care and approachability unique among tech execs. “AJ leads both with heart and mind,” says Jeffrey Russell, president of Accenture Canada, which has nearly 5,500 employees. “She’s known globally across the company because she steps up and speaks up. And particularly as we pivot more to cloud technology and digital transformation, she plays a key technology leadership role as a sought-after expert in her field.”

Accenture as an organization extolls its employees’ authenticity, encouraging them to share personal stories and advertising its commitment to all kinds of diversity. Its management is vocal about its core belief that people do better work when they can be themselves. “We talk about the need for people to feel comfortable and confident to bring their true selves to work every day. And she’s the epitome of that,” Russell says. Annayah Jean, or AJ for short, has in some ways been primed since childhood to share her story, to stand up and step forward. She had a rock-solid family, generous mentors, the technical expertise that has allowed her to excel at work. Still, no amount of support could guarantee that September morning—the morning she would formally come out as a trans woman, after living for decades in her professional life as a man—would be without pain or fear or hardship. “There’s a quote that’s always resonated with me from Ruth Bader Ginsburg: ‘Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you,’” she says. Fernandez Rivera is on a mission of her own: to change the narrative of what a successful person in tech looks like.

That morning, she sat before her computer and watched as an email opened the door to the rest of her life.

Fernandez Rivera was born in the Philippines, on the island of Cebu, the most Catholic place in a deeply Catholic country. Her father ran a slew of businesses as a carpenter, and her mother stayed home to raise their five children. Even as a child, AJ exuded femininity, growing her sleek black hair long. She eschewed sports in favour of getting lost in science fiction books, fantasy worlds where being different was a gift, a superpower. (She’s still such a fan that she took a Tolkien-themed trip across the world before COVID-19.) Her family taught her it was a blessing, too. At six, when schoolyard bullies called her names, her brother doled out punches to anyone who dared comment on AJ’s gentle demeanour and inability to play ball. One afternoon, when AJ was seven, her grandmother noticed her solitude and asked why she wasn’t outside with her brothers and sisters. When AJ told her she was happy tucked away in her corner, her grandmother knelt to look her in the eyes. “I will never forget what she said. She said, ‘Grandchild, whatever the world thinks of you, Grandma loves you.’” Those actions gave her a safe place, she says, that she could carry with her wherever she went.

In the Philippines, the best schools are Catholic ones, and that meant as a teenager AJ attended an all-boys school. She was terrified, and she learned early to recognize and reach out to other LGBTQ+ students. There was power in numbers. “I wanted a good education, and I knew it was the best school for that. But I was scared. It was a balance of being very, very attuned to what danger is,” she says. At least she had the safety of home. Her parents’ house became a refuge for other queer students, and she says her friends who came to stay took to calling her mom mommy. “Mom would say, ‘How many more days, so we can plan the groceries?’” AJ went on to study business at the University of San Carlos in Cebu, starting in 1993. IT was a burgeoning industry, and Fernandez Rivera needed a job. Her older sister had married young, and her brother was an artist, which meant she’d be responsible for helping put her three younger siblings through university. She knew tech paid well, so she began to look for work in the field. When Accenture (then called Andersen Consulting) came to Cebu to recruit graduating students, Fernandez Rivera applied. And though she was living as a woman in her personal life, she was uncertain the corporate world would be safe. “I projected being this very feminine gay guy. I really wanted to get the job. And I didn’t know if I would. It was the Philippines,” she says. “It was 1997. There was not even the word trans.”

When Fernandez Rivera went in for an interview, she noticed a brochure on the desk calling the company an equal-opportunity employer. Sitting in front of partner Rita Cruz, she said, “I really like the wording on this brochure. Can I ask you a question? What is the level of discrimination in the company?” AJ knew there would be discrimination. She wanted to know if it was something she could handle. “Is there a place for people like me?” Cruz offered her the summer analyst job in Manila and promised that if she succeeded within the company, she’d help her transfer to the United States.

A year later, she landed in Washington, Virginia. Thrilled to be rising through the ranks of Corporate America, she spent the first three years living out of a suitcase, travelling from Boston to Rhode Island to New York to Minneapolis and back again, meeting with clients. She loved the work, developing software to help banks operate more efficiently and managing large-scale projects for companies like Shell and Marriott International. But she began to notice the profession clashing with her identity. She watched colleagues receive assignments she knew she was qualified for. She travelled to Texas to meet oil and gas executives, knowing it wasn’t safe to be herself, reassuring herself it was enough to be breaking trail projecting the identity of a gay man. “Through those seven years, I thought, I’m going to come out as a transgender woman. And then it was back and forth,” she says. “In me there was a constant, Is it the right time? The right client? The right place? The right team? The right lead?” Finally, a supervisor told her they couldn’t present her to clients because she was so flamboyant. “I didn’t know how to react to that. Because flamboyance in my language at home was celebrated.” She wrote her resignation letter.

Not long after, she got a call from Cruz, who’d hired her back in Manila. Fernandez Rivera told her what had happened, that she was planning to quit, that she didn’t want to name names and cause a commotion. It was a matter of finding somewhere safer to land. Cruz listened carefully before beginning to speak. “You want IT, right? You want to be a technology person? This is the industry. Whether you stay at Accenture or you apply at other companies, you’re going to face the same discrimination, or maybe even worse,” Fernandez Rivera recalls Cruz saying. “The company’s not perfect. But if you choose to stay, and if you want to help us change, I will be there to support you. Help us change.”

Cruz’s words resonated, igniting a desire in Fernandez Rivera to shift the culture however she could. She stayed on. Still, she was desperate to prove she was worthy of the roles she’d been given, desperate for her bosses and colleagues to see the calibre of her work regardless of her persona. A few years later, she was finishing her deliverables ahead of schedule, working 14-hour days, sleeping three hours a night before waking up to do it again, when her team lead stopped her in the hallway. He could see she was worn down, that her physical and mental health were suffering. He told her she needed to take a sabbatical. Fernandez Rivera knew he was right—that she was struggling and hadn’t been able to ask for help. Help meant weakness, and she needed to prove she could be great. She was terrified that if she took a leave to get well again, her job wouldn’t be there when she came back. Six months later, she called her lead and told him she was ready to return. When he offered her a position in Accenture’s London office, she was intrigued. After seven years, the U.S. still didn’t feel like it fit. “I didn’t come out publicly because I didn’t feel like I’d found home,” she says.

In London, she was promoted to senior manager, giving her enough clout to pursue a dream she’d been nurturing: to open an Accenture office in her hometown of Cebu, a way to unite the place and profession she loved. When the company approved her plan, she flew home to oversee the set-up, hiring the first 500 employees and training new staff. (The office has since grown to 5,000 people.) While there, she persuaded Accenture to give a $1.2-million grant to Passerelles numériques, a non-governmental organization that gives IT education and job opportunities to youth in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. She established the first LGBTQ+ network in the company’s Asia Pacific region, reaching out to employees she knew were more vulnerable because of where they lived. She’d done an incredible amount of work in just a few years but could once again feel herself swinging between the familiar extremes of passion and burnout. She needed help. She’d always been spiritual, and when she met a monk on a work trip to Singapore, she begged him to take her on as a student. She travelled to India to study meditation and complete her yoga teacher’s training. She became a pescatarian. She couldn’t bring her best self to work, to life, if she wasn’t approaching herself with the same care she gave so freely to everyone else.

She knew, too, that she needed to find a place that would welcome her for everything she was. She began to plan a move to Canada, and when she told her bosses, they created a role for her here. Arriving in Toronto in 2014, she felt a sense of psychological and emotional safety she’d been seeking for decades—like she’d finally found her way home.

At Accenture’s Canadian outpost, where she is tech sales lead, she began to foster change almost immediately. As one of the office’s foremost experts in cloud computing, she oversaw the acquisition of Nashco Consulting, a small outfit in Alberta. Two years later, she led an overhaul of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s backend systems, which had been a patchwork of 1,000 different software programs that left gaping holes in its cybersecurity. Fernandez Rivera streamlined that mess into one new, cloud-based system that automated some of its 1,900 employees’ more laborious tasks, which were rendering the agency obsolete. Clearly, she’d shown she could excel.

One night last year, talking to a friend in the U.K., she began to muse about something that had been on her mind more and more. Maybe it didn’t matter if she came out as trans. Maybe being a vocal LGBTQ+ advocate was enough. “Representation matters,” her friend said. Fernandez Rivera knew she was right. She knew it was time.

This past September, she met with Jennifer Jackson, Accenture Canada’s technology lead, and they crafted an email that would go out to the company and another to AJ’s clients. There was no roadmap, no formula for a tech executive stepping into their own like this. There was barely a precedent for it. Jackson sent the email, and Fernandez Rivera set about willing the world for acceptance, for change. “It felt like hope. I felt more creative, more productive, more energized,” she says. “I could just breathe freely.”

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In addition to her executive role and informal mentorship at Accenture, AJ Fernandez Rivera runs the Pride employee resource group and oversees inclusion and diversity initiatives in the tech branchWynne Neilly/The Globe and Mail

After 25 years with the company, Fernandez Rivera has become a mentor herself, like so many of the women she admires who came up before her. She’s a quietly confident leader whose warmth means she spends hours—over glasses of red wine, in Accenture’s office lounge or on Zoom—guiding others over their own career hurdles, encouraging them to consider what’s right for them, because she knows that’s how they, too, will excel. In addition to her executive role and informal mentorship, she runs the Pride employee resource group and oversees inclusion and diversity initiatives in the tech branch, which means offering guidance and support to 2,500 people at the firm. “She has what I call a spidey sense—she sees things other folks don’t see,” says Joe Mead, a senior manager who worked closely with Fernandez Rivera on the CMHC project. Her job is to identify where companies could be performing better and ways her team can help them get there. That instinct plays out on a micro level, too. She notices when her team members aren’t themselves, takes them aside and works to mitigate stress for them where she can. It’s a strength that helps her laugh it off when she’s misgendered in meetings, to understand when people are trying to get it right. (Still, it must get exhausting—during an interview for this piece, one client misgendered her several times. A colleague says that when it happens in meetings and AJ isn’t there, other employees correct them.)

Today, Fernandez Rivera’s desk is laden with crystals, essential oils and lipstick. Even those items are fodder for connection with her mentees. Prea Grover, who leads Accenture’s Microsoft business group team in Canada and considers Fernandez Rivera a mentor and friend, says that during one video chat, the pair were showing each other what was on their desks, and they both had the same breathing whistle used by Japanese monks. “We both had one. We were both doing our breath work. It’s just so comfortable, like talking to a good friend or a big sister,” says Grover. “Sometimes, as a woman, I’m head-down, doing a good job, not always the best advocate for myself.” Fernandez Rivera has helped Grover see her successes and strength when she can’t always see them herself.

Changing the narrative of who succeeds, who has a place in tech, is a lofty goal, but Fernandez Rivera can see a shift happening in herself, in the company, across the world. Accenture now puts pronouns in the profiles of all its employees, supporting the idea that self-identification is important. She’s working with the company on offering trans-inclusive benefits, even in countries that restrict trans rights from a legal perspective. More and more of her trans colleagues are becoming visible, most recently an executive in the company’s Australia office. And she’s seeing more LGBTQ+ colleagues receive promotions across the firm. The past year and a half have been something of a homecoming. She’s approaching advocacy with the same ethos as she approaches the teams she leads and the clients she guides. Still, there is pushback. There is work to do. “My instinct is always, okay, what’s in people that I can connect with?” she says. “Something’s always going to go wrong. What I’m focused on is, how do we turn it around?”

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