I was out of the closet as a gay man on my liberal college campus, but when it came time to enter the professional world of corporate internships, I checked my sexuality at the door. Fear gripped me. Didn't I have enough to worry about as a young liberal arts major trying to compete in the world of New York big business? Why come out?
I clung to my belief in having different personal and professional identities until I attended the Out for Undergraduate Business Conference (OUBC) as a college senior. At the conference, sponsored by the country's most prestigious financial services and consulting firms, I was confronted with an entirely different message: Bring your authentic self to work. Hundreds of LGBT students just like me sat through a weekend of eye-opening programming absorbing that message. We were the future LGBT leaders of corporate America, and the days of closeting oneself to get to the top were over.
Upon graduation, I was openly gay at my first employer, McKinsey & Co., taking the irreversible move that the out professionals at the conference had encouraged. Being open about my sexuality didn't affect my performance reviews or the relationships I had with superiors or clients. In fact, I was better positioned for success inside the firm, with involvement in intra-firm LGBT efforts enabling me to add value and connect with senior partners with whom I would never have interacted otherwise.
A 2011 study in the Harvard Business Review provided data that corroborates my openly LGBT friends' and my anecdotal experiences. There are benefits to coming out of the closet. The study's authors concluded that closeted LGBT employees are less likely to be promoted, more likely to feel isolated and more likely to leave their jobs early.
Today I sit on the board of directors of Out for Undergrad, the nonprofit organization that hosts OUBC and its Silicon Valley equivalent, the Out for Undergraduate Technology Conference (OUTC). I and a team of dedicated volunteers created OUTC last year to bring the same message to students considering tech careers: Bring your authentic self to work.
The second-annual OUTC took place this past weekend. Nearly 200 of the country's brightest computer science students came to Facebook's campus in Menlo Park, Calif., to meet professionals and recruiters from nearly 30 of the hottest tech companies. Participating companies included Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Pandora, LinkedIn, Neflix, Airbnb, Uber, Box and Square. In our second year we have nearly doubled the number of sponsors and student attendees, a testament to these tech companies' acceptance of the best talent, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Amy Errett, a partner at venture capital firm Maveron, offered the keynote address and shared her personal story. She explained that because she wasn't out at the start of her career, she wasn't able to discover what she was truly good at. Her message was not only absorbed by the students but tweeted. #OUTC.
The students have flown back to their campuses across the country, and our conference's Facebook group has become a hive of activity, with promises to stay in touch, thank-yous to the sponsors and organizers and links to the students' blog reflections on the weekend.
One student wrote on his blog:
OUTC changed me ... What witchcraft enabled this drastic change in me? The answer seems almost trite, and yet it remains effective. It was the main theme of the conference: to be your authentic self. To not compromise one's beliefs and values. To be open with your identity. When I had accepted that simple idea, things started to open up for me, both socially and professionally.
In Facebook's conference center the walls are covered with huge posters of inspirational phrases. One of these, staring at the students the entire weekend, reads, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Now that they are a little less fearful about entering the professional world as openly LGBT, I'm excited to see what these students will accomplish professionally, how they will give back to the LGBT community and how they will do both without checking their sexuality at the door.