Scroll To Top

Open for Business

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

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.

"It changed my life," says Eng. "It opened my eyes to the reality of things and how Wall Street, investment banks, and firms are really reaching out and targeting gay people. From there I wanted to convey that message back to the business school for the people who were like me."

Going to the conference encouraged him to join the Wharton Alliance for undergraduate business students, the only undergraduate preprofessional organization dedicated to gender and sexuality minorities, according to its website. A year later he is now president of the two-year-old group. Eng says that his involvement with the Wharton Alliance has encouraged him to be out and active in his life and work.

"I would much rather choose an LGBT-friendly firm than one that's unfriendly or even one that's neutral about it," he says. Even better would be a place in a proactive firm with already established LGBT practices and programs. And Eng has a good chance of finding that perfect company to work for. Opportunities for LGBT business students looking for work in gay-friendly companies are staggering compared to just a decade ago.

In 2002 only 13 of the nation's most powerful companies received a 100 score from Human Rights Campaign's annual Corporate Equality Index, awarded for providing programs like domestic-partnership benefits and companywide gay groups. This year 195 of the companies scored 100, with many others scoring nearly as high. Furthermore, 32 banking and financial service companies attained a perfect score, the highest of any industry in the study.

This explains why conferences like Out for Undergraduate Business and Reaching Out MBA are teeming with companies looking to introduce themselves to LGBT students. Jennings calls these conferences a "pipeline for talent" where he can network for future employees and volunteers for GLSEN.

One such prospect is Ganesh Rao, an MBA student at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business who is also copresident of the 15-year-old Gay and Lesbian Management Association. He and his counterpart, Pete Vujasin, head up an active group; thirty of their members attended Reaching Out last fall. While Ganesh did garner a contact at, where he is scheduled to begin working after graduation this spring, he says the event's greatest draw for him is the camaraderie.

That's something Rao and Vujasin replicate in their own organization. GLMA's great strides in tolerance and inclusion on campus led to an invitation to participate in the Reaching Out conference's inaugural LGBT Leadership Summit. Scheduled for April 26, it's intended to introduce LGBT student leaders to one another.

The summit, explains Vujasin via e-mail, is an "opportunity to increase coordination and communication among business school LGBT groups and improve the business school environment for LGBT students."

Kellogg's assistant dean and director of admissions, Beth Flye, says the school's atmosphere cultivates tolerant business leaders by setting a high standard for its students. "Schools -- higher education in general -- tends to be more diverse, generally speaking," says Flye, who also serves as adviser to GLMA. "But I will tell you that there are schools, just like there are companies out there, that are model organizations. In my opinion, Kellogg is the model business school in that regard."

As director of admissions for Kellogg, Flye has the difficult task of building a class of 1,310 MBA students from thousands of applicants per year. Students of all stripes, including LGBT prospects, are integral slices of the pie.

"We're trying to build a class," she says. "Just imagine a mosaic. Each person we admit is a tile in the next class. And we're not just putting together an outstanding class in terms of quality and diversity; we're also putting together what we hope is going to be a very stimulating and enriching experience for everyone coming in. We're trying to mirror how the world really is by bringing in an interesting, diverse class."

Colleges are typically petri dishes of social change and tolerance, but business schools are unique. Most MBA students come to business school with a few years of work experience under their belts, which means many of them have already been exposed to the corporate world. With their presence in business school, LGBT students are changing the landscape of education and, ultimately, corporate America.

For Evan Horowitz, Harvard Business School's LGBT Student Association copresident, the existence of his group not only shapes curricula but the prospective workplace and defies a few stereotypes along the way.

"On National Coming Out Day we had hundreds of students wearing rainbow ribbons and stickers," he says. "You always assume that a guy who has been in the Army for 10 years is going to be homophobic. But he's wearing a rainbow sticker all day."

In a 2002 study by Stanford MBA alum Jason Larber, of the top 21 American business schools, 86% had an LGBT group, compared to 50% in 1995. What's more, all of the top schools had an antidiscrimination policy that covered sexual orientation. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton tied for the most tolerant.

By being out and active to fellow MBA candidates, LGBT students can make a lasting mark. A heterosexual student who graduates with gay cohorts will be more likely to accept tolerance in the workplace, if not expect it.

Richardson recalls a social event that a large group of international students attended. He decided to go with his boyfriend, and the two were the only openly gay people there. "The next day my friend came up to me and said, 'Thanks so much for bringing your boyfriend. That was the first time I ever interacted with gay people.' He said, 'Growing up in Korea and the companies I worked for, no one was ever out,' " remembers Richardson. "He wanted to ask me how Alberto was doing, but he didn't know what to call him -- my partner, my boyfriend, or my spouse."

In response to that experience, Berkeley's q@Haas -- the business school's LGBT group -- hosted an event the following semester to answer those questions, targeted specifically to international students. Says Richardson, "There are still people who come to business school who don't know about gay issues, or gay rights, or even what words to use."

At Harvard, Horowitz and the LGBT Student Association are working with faculty to integrate more case studies, adding LGBT workplace affairs to racial, gender, and religious issues. In fact, Jennings says, Harvard instruction includes a case study about GLSEN, arranged by two board members who are Wharton and Harvard professors.

Doing Well by Doing Good

After graduation, when LGBT students enter the work world, their methods and priorities may be very different from the old "greed is good" stereotype. Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBT campus leaders, says companies benefit from employing young gay workers because of their innate traits as well as their acquired skill sets.

"LGBT advocates throughout their lives have had to be persistent and patient with what they were trying to accomplish -- whether that be trying to get a policy passed through their college or university, or starting a gay student alliance at their school. Many of our LGBT youth today as employees have those skills and qualities," he says. "I think those pay off, and they're highly sought qualities to have in workers."

While many choose to apply their professional degree to finance, banking, consulting, and other business avenues, others use their leverage to do pro bono work. Rich Carolson works at the Monitor Group, a Boston-area consulting company that collaborates closely with GLSEN, helping the organization spread the message of tolerance in a way that the average person can understand and empathize with. Jennings estimated that Monitor's donations to GLSEN would probably reach into the millions. The President's Council on Service and Civic Participation, created by the Bush administration, honored Monitor in February for its pro bono work over the last decade.

Alex Goldsmith, an MBA candidate at the University of Michigan, points to a high level of gay and lesbian participation in activism and charity work. "As a community we're focused on creativity and philanthropy -- if you look at us as a group, the rates are very high. It's something for us to be proud of," he says. "Something that comes across in corporate America is doing more nonprofit projects and philanthropy."

According to Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues, 2005 was the first year that the top 10 LGBT grant makers awarded $1 million or more to gay issues, and the number of grants for LGBT groups shot up 63% between 2002 and 2005.

Jennings describes the help that GLSEN and other groups receive as "a fantastic gift. It represents an important maturing in our movement."

Business school prepares each MBA candidate to become a power player. And by bringing their issues to the forefront, gay MBAs help the LGBT movement to be a bigger power player as well. "It's not that they end up working full-time in the movement," says Jennings, "but they end up leveraging their skills, really, as volunteers and consultants to organizations. The same skills would cost us millions of dollars."

Advocate Channel - Out100 StreamAdvocate Magazine - Gio Benitez

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Michelle Garcia