Open for Business

While the initial generation of gay activism was ignited in the streets, the up-and-coming set of business students are sharpening the skills needed to propel the movement further

BY Michelle Garcia

March 11 2008 11:00 PM ET

In 1994, Kevin
Jennings left his teaching career to establish the Gay,
Lesbian and Straight Education Network and become its
executive director. Two and a half years into his
tenure, the president of GLSEN’s board of
directors asked the Harvard graduate if he would be willing
to go back to school for his master of business
administration, better known as an MBA. He enrolled at
New York University and graduated in 1999.

Jennings is one
of the few executive directors of a national gay rights
group with an MBA -- others have law degrees or worked their
way up without an advanced degree. It’s a
degree he sees as integral to the success of the gay
rights movement.

“Progressives in general tend to make the mistake of
thinking that we're going to win because we're
right,” Jennings says. “That really isn't how
that works. Organization and persistence is incredibly
important, almost as important as motivation and
passion. I was trying to build an organization that
could convert people’s passion into concrete
improvements. Going into the training of an MBA was very
helpful for that.”

The early
founders of gay rights organizations gave the world an
incredible gift, says Jennings, by establishing their
organizations and building them into complex,
big-budget operations of human activism. But the
future of activism requires a new skill set.

“We've
built them, but now we need people who will know how to run
them,” he says. “Of course, they still
need passion. If they didn't have passion, they would
be working somewhere like Goldman Sachs. God knows
they aren't working at some of these places because of the
money.”

Coming Out Corporate

Brian Richardson,
a student at the University of California, Berkeley’s
Haas School of Business, had apprehensions about entering
his MBA program. “I feared the worst from the
business world, especially toward LGBT people,”
he explains. “But I could not have been more
surprised about how welcoming and affirming the
community is -- not just Haas but business schools
around the country.”

Richardson became
familiar with other business schools this year when a
group of LGBT business students from Haas and
Stanford’s Graduate School of Business
organized the annual Reaching Out LGBT MBA Conference in
October 2007 to connect MBA candidates and potential
employers.

Ten years ago the
conference was a small affair, attracting 30 students
and three companies. But this year there were “almost
900 people and 80 companies,” says Richardson.
“We wanted to have even more companies, but we
ran out of space at the hotel. Everyone wants a piece of
that pie.”

Richardson
started out in 2001 as a high school geography teacher for
Teach for America in New Orleans. Two years later he went to
Washington, D.C., to work in politics, became a
spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee
during the 2004 presidential election, and then went
on to work for Louisiana U.S. senator Mary Landrieu. Now he
intends to use his MBA to make an impact not in the
boardroom but back in government.

“I felt
like Washington was filled with people who wanted to do good
but who had no management experience or
skills,” he says. “So I thought I'd go
back and see what I could find from an MBA program and try
to translate that into the public sector.”

Victor Eng, a
sophomore at the Wharton School of Business at the
University of Pennsylvania, wasn't out when he first came to
school. He didn't want his sexual orientation to
conflict with his education or his future career in
financial services, so he kept mum on the subject. As he
puts it, “business isn't really a super-gay
profession.” Eventually a friend convinced him
to attend Out for Undergraduate Business Conference,
similar to Reaching Out MBA but for undergraduate students.

Tags: Business

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