The Ten Most Innovative Companies and the LGBTs Who Got Them to the Top

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 12 2012 3:00 AM ET

Every year, we look at the LGBT people who are making strides in their fields, pushing beyond the conventional wisdom to improve their workplaces or propel their industries forward. This year we look at 10 innovative companies, all of which have high-ranking employees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Google
Megan Smith
Mountain View, Calif.

Megan Smith, 47, is the vice president for new business development at Google, making her one of the highest-ranking lesbians in a company that has earned its stripes as an inclusive innovator. Smith is a pioneer in her own right, as the former CEO of the LGBT corporation PlanetOut, before it was purchased by Here Media [The Advocate’s parent company]. Smith is also juggling work and motherhood: She and her wife, journalist Kara Swisher, have two sons, Louie, 10, and Alex, 7.

Smith’s involvement with Google began nearly 15 years ago, when PlanetOut signed on as one of Google’s earliest partners in 1998. Smith officially joined Team Google in 2003, after working with the company’s founder and key higher-ups whom she met as fellow early innovators in online technology. According to Smith, Google’s founding philosophy of innovation and creativity, and its mantra “Don’t be evil,” make the company an ideal place to work.

“It’s an amazing place not only for LGBT people but for anyone to work,” Smith says. “Anyone who wants to innovate in the world is very welcome there.”

Cementing its status as a groundbreaker, Smith points to the lead Google has taken on workplace issues, including domestic-partner benefits. In addition to offering employee benefits to domestic partners, in 2010 Google became one of the first major companies to compensate its partnered same-sex employees to offset the federal taxes imposed on spousal benefits, a practice called “grossing up.” Google crunched the numbers to discover the exact amount of this additional tax burden and then issued payments to affected employees. Several other large employers and many universities have since adopted similar policies.

Google has another particularly generous benefit for both gay and straight workers: After an active Google employee’s death, the company pays half that person’s salary to the surviving spouse or partner for 10 years. The survivor also receives immediate vesting for any stock holdings, plus children receive a $1,000 monthly payment.

“I think what we do — the products we make — are innovative,” says Smith. “But I do think that there’s something additional in that we take time to innovate how we work as much as what we work on.”

As for Google’s next innovation, Smith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, is passionate about the power of information-sharing and wants to spread that capability to the two thirds of the global population currently without Internet access. “It sort of flattens the world in a good way,” says Smith, “where more people can access parallel experiences.… If you can get the Internet to people, they can build their own roads, they can get their own research, they can innovate and prioritize what they want to do.”

Genentech
Christy Gaughan
San Francisco

Christy Gaughan, 36, wanted to work for a drug company that makes breakthroughs, not just pills. It’s expensive to be first in the world of medicine. But Genentech, where she works in marketing those advances, has a long list of discoveries.

Since 1976, Genentech has used research about our DNA to target health problems. Its drug Rituxan was the first targeted cancer medicine approved in the United States. Herceptin was first for treating a type of metastatic breast cancer. Other drugs made important leaps for asthma patients and those facing degeneration of their eyes with age.

Gaughan, the marketing science department’s group manager of infused oncology products, is also cochair of the company’s LGBT employee group, which just scored progress of its own for employee benefits. Genentech already has a perfect score with the Human Rights Campaign for its inclusive policies, and every year the company sponsors one of the loudest floats in the San Francisco Pride parade and even sets up a viewing suite on the route for employees. Their tongue-in-cheek T-shirts at these gatherings declare “Pride Is In Our Genes.”

But come January, the biotechnology company will join the small and growing list of employers that gross up.

“I went and talked to our senior vice president of HR and I was like, ‘Hey, by the way, do you realize that this exists, that I pay taxes on my partner’s benefits?’ ” says Gaughan. “So they said, ‘All right, what should we do about it?’ ”

Gaughan floated the idea of grossing up and was told, “That sounds like the right thing to do, let’s do it,” she recalls. “For us, it’s always about what is the right thing to do for our employees.”

Macy’s
Chuck Miller
Cincinnati

In 2005, when Macy’s acquired more than 400 regional department stores through a merger with the May Co., the retailer was determined to build a stronger national brand. That was also the year Chuck Miller, Macy’s vice president in legislative and legal affairs, started working at the company. He’s been enthusiastic about it ever since.

“The vision that Macy’s had in that acquisition was to create the national brand,” says Miller, 57. “It’s been a very successful and exciting time to be at the company.”

Before starting at Macy’s, Miller had worked at a chemical company in St. Louis. Macy’s brand strength, the positive corporate culture, and the emphasis on diversity appealed to him. He says the company embraces its diverse staff, from collaborating for different perspectives on corporate decisions to participating in local LGBT pride events.

“Macy’s is a culture where diversity is valued,” Miller says. “It represents an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds to come together around a common goal, which is offering choices to customers.”

Choice is key to Macy’s success. One of the company’s newest innovative strategies, called My Macy’s, tailors merchandise choices and shopping experiences to each store location.

The strategy calls for approximately 15% of the merchandise to be chosen specifically for the customers who shop that store. When a select few stores test-drove My Macy’s in 2008, their sales rapidly outpaced other stores. The My Macy’s strategy is now rolling out to all 800 Macy’s locations.

As for LGBT employees, Miller says Macy’s is “very supportive.” The company’s diversity council works to create opportunities to enhance inclusivity — for instance, choosing LGBT-friendly law firms to work with. Macy’s partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to feature HRC merchandise in select stores throughout June, and the company participates in LGBT pride events nationwide.

“I remember the days when those of us in the LGBT community felt it necessary or appropriate or helpful to remain in the closet,” Miller says. “Not only do I not feel that pressure at Macy’s, I feel embraced and welcomed as an LGBT person.”

Apple
Tim Cook
Cupertino, Calif.

Facebook had a gay cofounder, Chris Hughes, and Microsoft’s early team boasted a few gay employees (like Soraya Bittencourt, the lesbian who created what eventually became Expedia and left Microsoft a millionaire). But few companies can compare to Apple, both in innovation and in the rank of its most senior gay employee: CEO Tim Cook. While Cook, 51, has been cagey about his sexual orientation, never discussing it with the media, he’s certainly never hidden it either. While a “Does it matter?” debate accompanied his ascension to the top post last year (shareholders decided it does not), most LGBT folks realized it was very important that an openly gay man was among the slim list of people at the top — in Silicon Valley and corporate America.

As Reuters tech writer Felix Salmon wrote last year, “It’s still not normal, in most workplaces, to have an open and accepting culture where all gay employees feel comfortable being open about who they are and who they love. Apple, by all accounts, is very good on that front and Steve Jobs’s other billion-dollar startup, Pixar, is even better.”

Apple leads on the LGBT employee front, being early to add gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy, compensating employees for the unfair taxing of partner benefits, supporting a highly active LGBT employee group, and making sure its business backs up its ideals (it dumped a “gay cure” app last year and released an It Gets Better video, for example).

And Apple continues to lead on the innovation front. Just think about all the “i” products in the average household and the massive hit that Siri was this year (so massive that Google and Amazon have both had to snap up rival technologies). “Think of it,” Fast Company magazine quipped. “They had to compete in a space that Apple just created. And in some cases the followers can barely keep up.”

By many accounts, it is Cook’s leadership (described as more “humane” than Jobs’s) that has led to this success here, and in China, where the company is growing rapidly. Cook says he’s planning to keep Apple the company it was under Jobs without making it a museum of the past, and in his office he displays photos of leaders he admires — Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. — which says a lot about him as a man. One of his recent actions: a program to match employees’ charitable donations because Cook believes that “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

When Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg sat down with Cook in front of a packed crowd at the D: All Things Digital conference in May, Jane Lynch and a giant marching band warmed up the crowd. But they hardly needed it, so rapt was the attention paid to Cook, who onstage was warm and unflappable and willing to admit to relishing secrecy — about his company at least. One telling moment was when he explained how his daily email count went from hundreds to thousands after he became CEO, with most coming from customers. He sees it as an absolute benefit, and one that CEOs of other companies don’t have. “They talk to you as if you are sitting in their living room,” he said.

American Express
Gail Wasserman
New York City

American Express has reinvented itself quite a few times in its 160 years. According to Gail Wasserman, another revolution is under way.

Wasserman, 51, is the senior vice president of public affairs at American Express, making her second “tour of duty” with the company. In 1990, she started out as a PR manager for American Express’s consumer cards. She left in 2000 to be a consultant but returned to American Express to head public affairs in 2004. Now working from New York, Wasserman manages a combination of internal and external communications for American Express, but says she recognizes the “tremendous variability” of the work she can do with the company.

“I wanted to work with a company that was a leader in their industry that was known for being great at what they did,” she says. “The range of things this company gets involved with can be tremendously diverse.”

American Express, like the financial industry as a whole, has had to revamp its business model to jibe with the increasingly digital times. The company’s latest innovations place a new emphasis on connectedness. For example, a mobile app offers deals customized by location, while travel services use technology to help customers navigate natural disasters abroad.

“In a world that’s changed so much from people living in a physical world to an online world, trust is an incredibly valuable asset,” Wasserman says. “As it’s changing, this asset we have is becoming more valuable.”

Technology isn’t the only type of innovation at American Express — the company has long been a leader in workplace equality for LGBT employees. Wasserman knows this firsthand from the way American Express has treated her partner of 16 years, Ilene Miklos. She and Miklos married legally in New York on April 11 of this year but received benefits as domestic partners as early as 1999, something American Express has offered since 1996. When they lived in London from 2004 to 2007, they were treated as equals even though they couldn’t be legally married.

“American Express treated Ilene as a member of my family long before gay marriage was possible or popular,” Wasserman says. “It was not a matter of policy, necessarily — I don’t know if it was or not — but my experience was that it was the right thing to do, and they did the right thing.”

SolarCity
Bradley Robinson
San Mateo, Calif.

SolarCity harnesses sunlight to bring clean yet affordable energy to homes and businesses, and it does so while allowing employees to bring their full selves into the light.

“The company was born with a true entrepreneurial spirit,” says Bradley Robinson, 42, SolarCity’s director of field marketing. “It’s a very open and creative environment.… The culture here is very young. There’s not a distinction between LGBT and non-LGBT employees.”

Robinson, who is gay, joined SolarCity in July 2008, just two years after its founding by brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive. He was originally director of online marketing, then switched to his current position last April.

SolarCity designs, installs, and maintains solar energy systems for residential and commercial customers, and its financing program allows them to do so without a huge up-front cost. When the system is up and running, it provides electricity at less expense than a traditional utility company, Robinson says.

“SolarCity has removed all the barriers to get all consumers access to clean energy,” he says. For its removal of these barriers, the company was named one of the most innovative companies of 2012 by Fast Company magazine and was honored at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June by being listed in the Sustania 100, a guide to the top 100 sustainable energy solutions.

The company has grown to 2,000 employees, serving 28,000 customers in 14 states, and it’s still expanding. Besides homeowners, its customers include more than 100 school districts, government agencies, and high-profile corporations such as Walmart, Intel, and eBay. It’s embraced the LGBT market, with booths at San Francisco’s pride events and other functions, Robinson notes.

Robinson works out of SolarCity’s San Mateo, Calif., headquarters and lives in nearby San Francisco with his husband, Reynald Hiole. He says SolarCity’s innovative nature was the key factor that drew him to the company. “Technology has always interested me,” he says. “When someone like SolarCity comes along and is making technology affordable to everyone, that was the allure.”

Is there anything that’s surprised him about working for the company? “How much I love it,” he answers quickly. “What is most impressive is that everyone is willing to listen.”

Twitter
Dana Contreras
San Francisco

In her commencement speech to Harvard Business School’s class of 2012, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg quoted past Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who once told her, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

That’s how Dana Contreras, 31, says she felt about starting work at Twitter in San Francisco two and a half years ago. A senior systems engineer who has always worked in programming and IT, she says the diversity, innovation, and engineering challenges at Twitter were “irresistible.”

“I’m amazed by how engaged everyone is,” Contreras says. “We all bring something unique to Twitter, and we tie it together with a shared belief that we’re building something great, something that’s a force for good.”

Twitter’s significance in the new media landscape is indisputable, and the company knows it. As a sphere for inciting revolutions, a platform for sharing breaking news, or a space for documenting thoughts and feelings, however poignant or obscure, Twitter is all about the freedom of speech — as long as it can fit in 140 characters.

“The 140-character limit started as a way to fit tweets into a single text message, and as the service grew we found that it had a lot of positive side effects,” Contreras says. “It forces you to get your point across quickly and succinctly, and it prevents any one person from monopolizing your attention.”

That openness lends itself well to supporting the diversity of voices behind Twitter. As a transgender woman, Contreras says she’s found the company to be as LGBT-friendly as they come. Twitter has had antidiscrimination policies and domestic-partner benefits “since the very beginning,” on top of an active LGBT employees group and a strong contingent of LGBT and allied employees.

Contreras married her wife, Melissa, in Indiana five years ago, just before she transitioned. Their marriage is still legally recognized, though they couldn’t be newly married today. Contreras says she knows her family, including Melissa’s four children, is considered equal to other families at work.

“I know Twitter will take care of me and my family, and that frees up a lot of mental and emotional space,” she says. “I can give Twitter my best work every day. That’s good for everyone.”

Procter & Gamble
Julie Eddleman
Cincinnati

Julie A. Eddleman, 42, is the marketing director for North America brand operations at Procter & Gamble, which means she has a lot on her plate. P&G manufactures thousands of products, including such well-known brands as Bounty, Duracell, Febreze, Gillette, and Pampers. Eddleman oversees everything from their placement on the shelves to the purchasing of over $2 billion in media advertising.

“I’m not getting a lot of sleep right now,” she jokes.

Eighteen years ago, Eddleman pursued an internship with P&G because of the company’s own reputable brand name. “I wanted to work for the best,” she says. “And P&G brand management has traditionally been known as being the best marketing organization in the world.”

But P&G proved to be a leader in areas other as well. The Human Rights Campaign listed P&G among the Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality in 2010, and Eddleman, who has climbed the corporate ladder as an out lesbian, couldn’t agree more. “My personal experience has been outstanding,” says Eddleman, who met her partner, Diane Cummins, 15 years ago at a P&G conference. “I was out from the very beginning and I have absolutely not had one issue.”

Education is a big priority for Eddleman, who is also a leader of GABLE, Procter & Gamble’s LGBT employee organization. For 20 years, the group has worked with the corporation on issues including health care, diversity in recruitment, and sensitivity training.

But P&G applies its support in the marketplace as well as the workplace. In 2000 the company canceled sponsorship of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s TV talk show after the host called homosexuality a “biological error.” Eddleman was among those who first raised concerns with senior management. “When they found out what she had said…we immediately pulled that sponsorship,” she says.

P&G continues to innovate in home and health care markets, and more than half of new product initiatives involve significant collaboration with those outside the company. In a program it calls Connect + Develop, P&G partners with small and large companies, inventors, and sometimes even its competitors, to find and nurture innovative ideas.

Eddleman, of course, is also a customer. She lists Swiffer as one of her favorite inventions—in large part because her five children enjoy it as well. “I love it and my children love it,” she says. “And the fact that they use it and help me clean the house is a beautiful thing.”

The Amazon Factor
The man behind the magic gives $2.5 million to equality

In late July, amid roaring controversy over businesses with antigay ties, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, quietly gave the largest-ever reported donation to a marriage equality organization.

It came at the earnest request of a former Amazon employee, Jennifer Cast. She’s now the finance cochair for Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of organizations, congregations, unions, and businesses working to defend the state’s law establishing civil marriage rights for same-sex couples in a ballot battle in November.

Cast told The New York Times that she had emailed Bezos, expressing her wish to marry her partner of more than 20 years, with whom she has four children. “We need help from straight people,” she wrote. “To be very frank, we need help from wealthy straight people who care about us and who want to help us win.”

The response, a few days later, was brief: “Jen, this is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million. Jeff and MacKenzie.”

In February, Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage when Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law. But the day before the law was set to take effect in June, opponents turned in enough signatures to put Referendum 74 on the ballot (a yes vote preserves marriage equality). With their contribution, the Bezoses doubled the funds raised by Washington United for Marriage, for a total of $5 million. The group’s opponent, Preserve Marriage Washington, had raised less than $255,000 as of early August.

For Bezos, who rarely makes public appearances or holds showy press conferences, the donation was a chance to put money toward a cause he and his wife feel strongly about, says Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener. The Bezoses join Microsoft founder Bill Gates and CEO Steven A. Ballmer, who each donated $100,000 to the referendum campaign.

Microsoft  has also signed on to a court brief opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, among nearly 50 other companies including Nike, Starbucks, Google, CBS, Levi Strauss, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Ogilvy Group, Time Warner Cable, Xerox, Zipcar, and Zynga.