6 Months After Tim Cook, LGBT Leaders Are Redefining Being Out and Successful

04/16/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

It's been nearly six months since Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly revealed he is gay, making him one of the most prominent and inspirational role models for those who believe that being out and being successful never have to be mutually exclusive.

Life, like business, is about the right move at the right time. Coming out is a multi-level process: to yourself, your closest friends and family, your extended personal circle, then the world at large. Some people don't even manage to take the first step until late in life; others are wide open to the world, but have never had "the talk" with their parents and family. It's always subject to personal trade-offs and self-negotiation -- again, just like any business.

Working every day with such inspiring people at StartOut, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering LGBT entrepreneurs and business leaders, I hear from so many colleagues who were so proud to welcome Tim to the family. But what excites me most about today isn't its repercussions on the market or the LGBT community -- which are gradual, vast, and very inspiring -- but on some of the broader conversations about success we are now able to have.

Let's start with: "What can we do to help LGBT people in business be their fullest, truest selves?"

Can there really only be three openly gay CEO's (Trevor Burgess of C1 Financial Inc. and IGI Laboratories's Jason Grenfell-Gardner) out of more than 15,000 publicly traded companies in America? If you can handle keynoting the most important conferences in the world, what's holding you back from acknowledging your partner in front of them? Thankfully, most major companies have inclusive practices in place to help their leaders feel comfortable in identifying who they are and how that can make their work lives even more productive.

But ultimately, 'Why do gay people need a business network' is the most common question I'm asked in my work at StartOut and when out on the road promoting economic empowerment for the community. And the answers can be as wide-ranging and impassioned as our community itself is. The sheer number of affinity groups and diversity initiatives at major businesses show that the playing field is anything but level but the commitment to make it better is deep.

My work leaves me more optimistic for the future of our community every day because of the stories I'm hearing from newly out entrepreneurs and employees around the country. By reading and hearing the success stories of people just like them thriving in their careers while being at peace with who they are, America's LGBT workforce is perpetuating a cycle of inspirational role models.

Ever since Tim's coming out, I have been talking with the press about what kind of a game changer this was and what all this visibility means for a soon-to-be post marriage equality (crossing fingers) America. It was a game changer, trust me. But not for the reasons many people assume. I kept repeating that Tim's leadership of Apple has not been, and will not be, defined by his being out. It will only be enhanced because now he's empowered to lead without worrying he may have to hide anything about himself. His shareholders still have the same demands on him, and as he points out being gay is just a small part of him -- he's a sports fan, a southerner, and obviously one heck of a businessman.

That's the key to being an out business leader in 2015 and beyond. Just by showing up and being counted, you're changing the narrative. It's up to more and more LGBT business leaders to come forward when they are ready and to be role models for others.

Your duty is to your organization when you're the chief. But your responsibility is to yourself when you're coming out. Sometimes the timing just doesn't work out as we'd like it to. But when they do, and your full potential is freed from the shackles of having to keep such a big part of yourself hidden, your work has an unbounded opportunity to thrive. Then your duties and responsibilities to yourself and your business become intimately connected to the role you can play in serving, inspiring, or just joining 'the community.' These ideas can ultimately become one in the same.

I joined StartOut, and the broader LGBT business movement, to help ensure that when a business leader, from emerging entrepreneur to big time CEO, is ready to come out they have a community of strength, resources and support to count on as they continue on the business at hand: running successful companies. I believe that leaders will continue to look at Tim's example, ask some of the tough questions I mentioned, and likely move a little faster to bring the fullest and truest self to both work and life. And I hope that the allies in the industry keep asking what they can do to make this process even easier for those who follow in Tim's footsteps.