Representation, activism and empowering communities: a conversation with Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir

Awards night Tuesday 14th November Grosvenor House, London


In this exclusive interview, we sat down with Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir, founder of Moonlight Experiences, a pioneering company within the LGBTQ+ community that is redefining travel experiences. Aisha is an activist and social entrepreneur, and here she sheds light on the inspiration behind starting Moonlight Experiences and the importance of representation – not only in the travel industry, but everywhere. We also delve into the significance of the DE&I Champion of the Year Award, the essence of activism and the pitfalls of performative allyship. Our conversation concludes with insights into how businesses can implement policies to foster inclusivity in the workplace. Join us as we explore the journey of Moonlight Experiences and the transformative power of authentic representation in all aspects of life.

Tells us about yourself

I’m Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir and I run my company, Moonlight Experiences, within the queer community. I tend to say I’m an activist and more of a social entrepreneur. I’m part of UK Black Pride, so we put on a big annual festival every single year – this year it’s the 20th August. Last year we broke the record and became the world’s largest Black Pride – with over 25,000 people attending. It’s a really special, free event taking place at the Olympic park.

When I’m not organising events, I run a queer intersectional book shop on Brick Lane. We’ll put on multiple events for authors, cabaret shows, dance classes – it’s just a hub where people can connect during the day and in the evening.

What made you start Moonlight Experiences?

I started it because there wasn’t as much representation within the travel industry, when we look at media images, when we look at marketing, we don’t often see ourselves.

When I started it grew quite organically – I used to just take friends out, but now we’re not just in London, we’ve started operating in different cities across the world. We’re in Paris, we’re in South Africa, Amsterdam and we’ve got new hosts in Ghana. The idea is to showcase the best of our communities and cities whenever people travel. It can often be difficult to find the LGBTQ community, but also to feel safe and find those spaces that are authentic. Sadly, within our community there is still racism, there is transphobia, there is exclusion. When you go to spaces often you expect that you’re going to have a good time, but it doesn’t always happen – so, having somewhere that can be sign posted, you can understand the community, you can learn about their history and contribute to that ecosystem – I think is important because when you’re not in commercial spaces as queer creatives or performers, you don’t often get recognised.

Going to Vogue balls, going to music night, poetry nights, going to an author reading and going to events that are not just at night, but also during the day – all of these are beautiful things that anybody can enjoy and often it is very hard for them to find. They’re also the things that make you feel like you belong. 

Also, because we operate at night there is that safety element. 40% of people who join us are not from LGBTQ+ community, some are allies that just want to have a good time and support. The others are women who feel safer, there’s a range of people and audiences that want to come out with us to experience something quite unique and special.

What does the future have in store for Moonlight Experiences?

Expanding even further and using it as a system creating visibility! When I look at the travel industry, I don’t tend to see myself and therefore others don’t think it’s for them, it is a barrier to them trying things. Since starting this company, a lot more people are coming to it, a lot more women, a lot more queer people that don’t fit the stereotypical gay man model.

People want to connect and make friends. As you get older it’s difficult to say, ‘let’s hang out’, ‘let’s do cool things’, ‘let’s get to know each other and create some form of relationship or friendship’. I feel as adults it’s so hard to do that. This service I provide gives people that opportunity to get to know other people from all around the world, from all walks of life, but they also have a facilitator to ensure they have a great time.

How important is the DE&I Champion of the Year Award to exist?

I think it’s very important because a lot of people need to be recognised in different ways. I think it highlights the fact that the world is changing and almost recognises the change of the world. As time goes by, sometimes we forget what that looks like. Often, we don’t pay attention and awards like this make you think, these people are doing something different and working hard, or this organisation is creating that change we want to see, an award like this is so important to mark that.

It’s about creating more diversity and more representation. I talk particularly about the travel industry, the queer community, but these issues aren’t just industry focused, they actually apply everywhere. Once we start to unravel one sector, it needs to have a ripple effect everywhere and that’s where we start to go. We can go through every industry and identify an issue. This all stems from the lack of having this recognition and actually doing something about it or offering support to those people.

What do you describe as activism?

For me activism is about being in places or being part of something that makes you feel uncomfortable and want that to change. I think for me queerness in general has always been political and wanting to create equality or to champion marginalised voices, all of those things fall into activism. 

A lot of the things that I do, whether it’s with my company or whether it’s been part of UK Black Pride, trying to show that recognition within the community and give space, they all fall under activism. Going on marches, that all falls into activism. It’s all about wanting to no longer be on the side-lines – thinking ‘this doesn’t look right’, ‘that doesn’t feel right’ and ‘I want to be part of creating that change’. 

Most activists aren’t in the limelight, most activists are behind the scenes creating the work. When you look at grassroots organisations that are saving lives you don’t get to hear them because that activism happens behind screens, behind email chains, behind lobbying and advocating for people’s rights. You don’t often see them because they are at the back end of things. It looks very different depending on which area we’re talking about, but they are all for me, quite valid.

Activism is needed for people to realise change needs to happen. Activism can be from little things to major things – for example, at Christmas when a parent, grandparent or relatives says something inappropriate and you actually say, ‘that’s not ok’. It may seem like nothing but that is part of calling it out.

What are your views when businesses change their logos to the rainbow flag?

For us, it’s tiring. It’s pinkwashing – wanting to be part of the trend and wanting to get queer people’s money to show you that you are diverse and inclusive. You can change your colours in solidarity but also you should be doing the work. Doing the work doesn’t just happen in June, doing the work is in July, it’s all year long when people don’t care about Pride – that’s when you’re doing the work. 

Often when you do the work all the time you don’t even need to have the rainbow flag because that is your norm, you are supportive of your employees, you are championing other people, you are working with people on the ground to make it happen so that you are an inclusive company. Therefore, you actually don’t need to put the rainbow flag, your core is inclusive and diverse. I think that’s what business needs to focus on rather than going ‘hey, it’s Pride, let’s wave our flags’.

There are so many amazing companies that are getting it right, they will march or will be part of commercial Pride, but at the same time they’re going to donate some of their sales from their products. It’s about giving back; it’s give and take because that action actually impacts and makes change within the community.

I can give you an example. Years ago Loreal made a big mistake and cancelled the contract of Munroe Bergdoft who is a trans model. They were like oh, we’re not going to work with you, it was a big thing, it blew up and helped propel her career. Once they did that, they started recognising that is something they shouldn’t have done and over the last few years they’ve been working and supporting the community, doing the work that they needed to do. 

We partnered up with them back in 2021 with UK Black Pride, they helped support us and launched the first ever UK Black Pride survey and then from the report we got out of that survey we created a community action fund where they donated over £80000. That money went  to the community, to support others with wellbeing and spaces. For me, that has a positive impact. Saying, hey, we are these major corporations this is something we’ve done wrong but actually we want to get it right. Right now they are one of our best allies because they’re doing the work, they’re supporting us in different ways, not just us as UK Black Pride. For me that’s what allyship is. During Pride Month, should they wish to put the rainbow flag, let them, but on their page there’s a whole tab dedicated to the LGBTQ community, they don’t actually even need to because every part of their identity is celebrating the community.

Businesses are missing a trick, the thing about business is that, you don’t have to just be a charity, you can actually do the best of both worlds. You’ll actually gain more customers, you get more of a community that are like ‘hey, this brand is for us’.

I will go and buy NYX Professional Makeup and every, I don’t know, £1, will go to Black Pride for August. For me, I never used a product before but now I’m like ‘oh, it’s really good’ and I will always go back to them. That loyalty you can’t actually buy because that becomes so authentic.

What do you think business can do policy wise to make the workplace more inclusive?

The best thing for any business is to start at home – charity starts at home. You need to look after the employees that you have and if you don’t have a diverse workforce you need to also look at why you don’t and find different ways to attract more diverse people, so that your company also becomes representative. Often people find themselves doing things wrong because they didn’t include other people at the table. For example, you shouldn’t be talking about women’s rights without any women in the room, you shouldn’t be talking about the LGBTQ community without them in the room or black people or whoever the target audience is, because you’re very likely to get it wrong. 

Building these diverse workforces and looking at things internally will help the future. It will help policies – for example, policies to do with queer parenting, having maternity leave – what does that look like for queer parents or for queer families. I think that often comes from the experiences of your own employees who are like, by the way, this is what I need, this is what we should implement. 

Charity, for me, begins at home. Sometimes for some of the organisations that we get sponsored we say no to them because they need to be vetted. We ask, how are you treating your black employees? How are you treating your queer employees? What are women’s rights like? What tends to be the feedback from your employees for how they get treated within the workplace? If these things are in place, more people are more likely to come to the company, to stay in the company.

Sometimes, there are certain jobs that don’t give the best money but employees love who they work with, think their boss is great or they have this amazing policy that gives them x, y, z. Even though it may not be the job that would give you money to buy a mansion, you feel content there and want to go and do the work because they’ve done the work internally to look after their employees so that they can get the best out of them later.

What does success look like for you?

For me, it’s all about making people feel like there is something out there for them and being able to find it. Having that visibility, having people that want to be part of a change and want to try and contribute and go ‘hey, I want to help’, or ‘I want to come to what you’re doing’, ‘I want to be part of it’ and for them to just take it along to have a ripple effect. It’s not something that can be measured, but also over time, it really makes a difference and I think that’s what we need, more and more of us kind of aligning in basic values i.e that’s right, that’s wrong and actually championing that. For everybody to feel like this world is theirs and they can capitalise and hopefully pass the baton on so that the next generation can do something even better than us. 

I tend to say during Pride Month, I am, we are, living our ancestors’ wildest dreams. When you look at 50 years ago or 60 years ago, the fact that homosexuality was illegal. Even for me now, I have family in Ghana and Nigeria and a lot of the laws there are going backwards. In Uganda the anti-gay bill has been passed and there’s so many things like that, that makes you realise we’ve come so far and right now we are living the things our ancestors wanted. I got married last year, but 20 years ago that wouldn’t have ever happened, because we are living our dreams in one way or another and somebody has paved this way, it’s almost like we need to pass it along. We need to do something else that makes it easier so the next generation can go ‘I’ve had this privilege, I’m enjoying my life, let me do something so that they can carry it on.’