Almost a year ago, I did something I never anticipated doing as an MBA who had traditionally worked in media and technology: I raised my hand as a candidate for a full-time Executive Director role with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer non-profit Reaching Out MBA.
Since then I've had numerous peers ask me why I was making the shift. As one of the students at my organization's spring School Summit simply put it, "Aren't we pretty much past the equality battle?"
My response is that while there is huge legal momentum, there is still a stigma to working as an out professional. Shockingly this issue is most prevalent with young professionals. In fact a recent HRC Workplace Study shockingly found that only 7 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 32 percent of 32 to 44-year-olds are out in the workplace.
Studies like this have lead to some figures such as Lord John Browne to openly call for closeted LGBT C-level executives to come out and serve as professional role models for younger queer professionals.
However, as much as having a prominent CEO to come out would be an inspirational moment to some of these young adults, that action alone will not change minds. One LGBT MBA student, who helped organize one of our events and then went back into the closet, put it best when he expressed that while a company, or its leadership, might be supportive of equality that doesn't mean someone's direct coworkers personally are supportive.
That's why right now there is a golden opportunity for organizations such as Reaching Out to help educate these young LGBTQ business professionals (and their allies!) about what it means to work openly and connect them to their peers about what life is like within industries and companies as an out professional.
LGBTQ organizations, particularly those working with young adults, have the ability not only to bring those individuals together, but also to get them to have meaningful conversations about how they can erase that stigma that many young business professionals feel.
We believe this conversation is so important that we've adjusted our registration criteria for coming to our events, including LGBT MBA Conference, and placed being involved, or having an interest in being engaged with LGBTQ causes in some capacity (such as an on-campus LGBTQ club... or even just describing meaningful conversations about what it means for someone to be out) in the spotlight for LGBTQ and ally students. The hope is that this moves some of our events away from just being another resume drop point, which many straight attendees saw it as, and being a more participatory event.
Cynically some of the more conservative media has picked up on this change as a ban of straight students for an LGBT Job Fair. Admittedly, the application may dissuade some students (just to reiterate there is no ban) that were being sent by their schools without understanding the purpose of the conference; however, we encourage all students interested in actively participating beyond the career fair to join us and already have a number of allies registered.
What's more upsetting is that in this spin by some bloggers, they continue to miss the purpose of this event and keep referring to it as a job fair. Events like our LGBT MBA Conference actually exist to bring people together for a dialogue, which will hopefully positively inspire individuals on a peer level to be open in the classroom and the workplace. A recruiting component is part of building an open and inclusive workplace environment, but at least for our main conference, the job fair is also only three hours out of a two-and-a-half day conference.
The potential impact LGBTQ organizations can make is demonstrated via many of our alumni who have gone on to lead their companies' ERGs and mentor younger professionals who may not yet be out in the workplace. It's also seen in allies who have actively participated in events. One of my favorite stories is about the winner of our 2012 Startup Pitch competition, who participated in that event and become a more vocal advocate for equality on his campus and the startup world than some of his LGBTQ peers. This ally, now a professional, actively seeks to have LGBT representation within his startup.
So why did I raise my hand to go into the non-profit world? Because despite the legal equality progress our community has made, we've yet to reach the status of "out" in the workplace. I truly believe our work educating and connecting LGBTQ students and their active allies from the point they launch their careers will get us closer to that goal.