A voice for everyone

How Liam Richards is helping make GE Aerospace and Avio Aero a home for those who don’t have a voice.

May 2024

Liam Richards stood, arms raised, a string quartet seated in a semicircle in front of him. A moment of anticipation, a deep breath, and the baton dropped. Music swelled, rising and falling at the beckoning of his hands. He was 17, performing in his first conducting competition. If he was nervous, it didn’t show. 

Staying cool in the spotlight is a feat for anyone, but for Richards it meant even more. At school, he was the shyest kid in class, so paralyzed with fear that he would never raise his hand, no matter how sure he was of the answer. But music was worth the risk. “If I have something I want to do, forget all the fears and inhibitions,” he says now, more than a decade later. “Passion is my north star.”

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the competition was preparing him for a career following his other passion: aviation. Even today, as a manager at  Avio Aero, he constantly hears echoes of that afternoon in the rehearsal hall. “Operators can be seen like musicians,” he says. “They’ve got skilled hands; they know what they’re doing. As a leader, you don’t have to scrutinize each note they play, but you need to know how they tick, and you’ve got to listen to everyone. The customer is like the audience, and we must deliver quality on time. You’re there to set the beat, and to guide and develop the team so everyone plays together harmoniously.”

Richards’s journey from stage to corporate headquarters — and across a continent — is the culmination of his drive to push beyond the bounds of his fears. It’s the story of how the loner became a global advocate for inclusion, the uneasy gay teenager grew up to make sure fellow LGBTQ+ people feel comfortable coming out, and the shy kid learned not only that his voice matters but that he could help others find their own.

Richards was raised in the English Midlands by a single mother, whom he describes as his “absolute rock and inspiration.” When he was four, she took him to Disneyland Paris. What he remembers best is not Thunder Mountain or Sleeping Beauty’s castle, but the plane ride from England. He loved everything about it: the hustle and bustle of the airport, the mysterious physics of flight, the bird’s-eye view of the world. “I was besotted,” he says. “From that moment, I’ve had an insatiable curiosity about aviation.”

Liam Richards studied to get his pilot’s license.

He signed up for pilot lessons at 14 — “a very expensive hobby.” To pay for training, he took a part-time job at Sainsbury’s supermarket. It was there — helping customers, redesigning shop layouts, rooting out inefficiency — that the shy kid started to build his confidence. His bosses immediately recognized his managerial talents and encouraged him to take on more responsibility. 

“I learned how to lead, be professional, and communicate with anyone, from customers to businesspeople,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that experience, I wouldn’t be working for GE.”

Richards landed an internship at GE Aerospace’s maintenance facility near Cardiff, Wales, during his third year of university. “I remember walking in the first day and seeing the engines right up close,” he says. “Ever since I was little, I’d wanted to have a hand in aviation, to touch what goes up in the air. I could finally be part of it.”

However, because it was his first time on the shop floor, he wasn’t sure how — or if — he should tell his co-workers he was gay. “It’s not easy to come out,” he says. “You always second-guess: Can I? Can’t I? How will this be perceived?” One day, everyone in the office trooped out to the parking lot for a blood drive. When Richards, who had never donated blood before, answered a question about his sexual orientation, the nurse told him he was ineligible. (The rules have since changed.) Stunned, he emerged from the bloodmobile into the crowd of colleagues waiting outside. “That was quick!” they teased playfully. “Did you chicken out?”

“No,” he said. “They rejected me because I’m gay.”

Richards distinctly remembers the pall of silence that fell over the group. Embarrassed by the discrimination he encountered and his own unfamiliarity with LGBTQ+ rights, he committed to educating himself about the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community and promoting awareness and acceptance. Recognizing the importance of creating an environment where everyone feels respected and empowered, Richards sought to not only expand his own knowledge but also to educate others: “It’s crucial in healing rifts and creating allies.”

Liam Richards during the 2023 Pride Parade in Torino, Italy.

The experience inspired him to join the Pride Alliance, one of GE’s most active employee resource groups. The Alliance supports employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, or intersex. As a Pride Alliance rep, Richards adopted education as a first principle; he would go on to visit all of GE Aerospace’s U.K. sites to promote inclusive workplaces.

After graduating from the University of Hertfordshire in 2015 with degrees in aerospace systems engineering and pilot studies — he earned his pilot’s license as part of his coursework — Richards joined GE’s Operations Management Leadership Program (OMLP), which rotates entry-level engineers and managers through three different roles in the supply chain. The training required him to confront one of his biggest fears: public speaking. “As part of the program, you have to speak in front of the class. I’d be trembling with the microphone in my hand. I realized I needed to stop thinking that people want me to make mistakes — they’re rooting for me — a shift in mindset reminiscent of my journey as a musician.”

When he completed his last rotation, he got another chance to venture outside his comfort zone: a job offer at Avio Aero in Turin. He’d never been to Italy, but, “fueled by curiosity,” he signed the contract and packed his bags. 

The gamble paid off. “From day one,” he says, “I fell in love — with the people, the culture, the weather, the history.” His work came full circle in 2021, when he was tapped to lead the OMLP at Avio Aero. 

Now the global co-leader of the Pride Alliance for GE Aerospace, Richards has spearheaded Avio Aero’s drive to be a home for everyone. In 2022, the company became the first metalworking manufacturer to sponsor Pride parades in the cities home to Avio Aero plants — three in Italy that year, plus another in the Czech Republic in 2023. “I will always be a voice for those who don’t have a voice,” he says. “I remember being shy, being in the closet. It’s tough to have the weight of the world on your shoulders.” 

Liam Richards with Vanessa Moo Young in New York City on April 2.

Richards has also taken part in another historic first. On April 2, he was in New York with his GE Aerospace colleague Vanessa Moo Young to witness the opening bell ring at the New York Stock Exchange as GE Chairman and CEO and GE Aerospace CEO Larry Culp announced the establishment of GE Vernova and GE Aerospace as separate independent companies. Richards and Moo Young will shared also their “Launch Day” experiences via a takeover of the GE Aerospace Instagram channel. 

As a leader and a member of the LGBTQ+ community himself, Richards acknowledges that while there is still work left to do, the climate is improving. “The best days of my career have been hearing colleagues, from managers to operators, say they finally feel comfortable coming out,” he says. “We’re proud of who we are, and we can be free to be ourselves.”

A primary focus has been teaching recent college graduates how to build relationships with operators and technical experts who might be multi-decade industry veterans. “Having a title doesn’t automatically make you a leader,” he says. “You can’t charge in, ordering and demanding; you have to earn people’s trust.”

The key, he says, is going to the shop floor to listen and learn. Just as if he were standing in front of an orchestra, Richards takes pains to understand every nuance of the operation by “talking to the people with skilled hands who make the magic happen.” Everyone has a part to play, and he ensures all their voices are heard. “We want program members, regardless of their backgrounds, to understand that we value their ideas and opinions. We encourage them to participate without hesitation so they can make a significant impact and cultivate a fulfilling career with us, much as I was fortunate to do during my internship. I want everyone to feel confident enough to raise their hands.”

The original version of this story is by GE Aerospace.