When I first started working for PepsiCo 32 years ago, I was the poster child for corporate change and workplace equality. As the only woman working in Pepsi's manufacturing plant in Long Island City, N.Y., I had an experience that was as rewarding for me as it was transformative for the plant. My presence alone helped foster a workplace that was more respectful and inclusive.
Back in 1981, I was already aware of PepsiCo's rich history of embracing diversity. Over the years, I saw the evolution of corporate policies to increase the security and protection for diverse groups. I also observed a growing understanding that in addition to clear corporate policies, a culture that celebrates rather than tolerates differences is what results in a truly inclusive workplace.
But despite my continued career successes and accomplishments, a full 15 years passed before I was ready to come out as a lesbian at work. We all have our own path.
To me, the most remarkable part of my journey is what happened in this next chapter. Instead of doors being closed to me or barriers being created (which of course was part of my reticence), my coming out was the catalyst for growth personally as well as professionally. Being out was liberating. Intellectually I knew I had been expending energy by not bringing such an important part of who I am to work, but I can't begin to articulate the difference it actually made for me.
Being out provided me with the opportunity to engage in our early LGBT inclusion efforts. I co-founded the East Coast chapter of PepsiCo's LGBT Allies employee resource group, EQUAL. And I am extremely proud that EQUAL drove an increase in awareness that ultimately helped our organization recognize that our policies needed to reflect our corporate ideals, leaving no one behind. That is what makes PepsiCo's perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index most meaningful to me.
Despite increased awareness and societal progress, many LGBT youth still experience difficulty gaining acceptance by their families, communities, and employers. This is particularly true for LGBT youth of color, who often face unique obstacles in their efforts to achieve equality.
To help address this challenge, PepsiCo sponsored the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities LGBT Leadership and Career Summit, designed to help empower LGBT students enrolled at HBCUs across the nation. Over the last few days, LGBT youth of color traveled from HBCUs around the country to Washington, D.C., for the four-day summit, courtesy of PepsiCo.
Through identity development and leadership training courses, the summit has sought to empower students as black LGBT leaders on HBCU campuses. And PepsiCo is especially proud to offer paid internships to select participants, which will provide students with a unique experience to learn and grow within one of America's leading companies.
For me, coming out not only transformed my personal experience at work but enabled me, as a leader within PepsiCo and EQUAL, to serve the LGBT allies community and help influence the policies and culture of our organization.
I feel honored to have the opportunity to share my story with students and with anyone who needs encouragement to bring their whole selves to work. From my own experience, not being afraid to be yourself and following your own voice are vital to achieving personal and professional goals.