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It's Time to Pick Up Tim Cook's Baton

TC

It’s been one year since we welcomed Tim Cook to the family of out business leaders in America. And what a year it’s been. In that time he has been one of the most powerful reminders that being out and being successful never have to be mutually exclusive. That constant reminder that no office and no level of success is off-limits to America’s 1.4 million LGBT business owners is a force that is accelerating the LGBT community’s equity. Every day the community is increasing its power to create jobs, grow economies, and innovate industries from coast to coast.

Ever since Tim's coming out and the incredible year we’ve had for LGBT rights since, I have been talking with the press and our colleagues about what’s next for our community. I believe it’s no longer a discussion focused on what we’ve been denied, but entirely about the endless possibilities that lie ahead. When given an equal seat at the table and the freedom to achieve the American Dream, there is nothing but greatness ahead for LGBT people here and abroad. Harnessing each new opportunity to succeed is the key to being an out business leader in 2015 and beyond. For too long it was too hard to own a business or lead a company as an out person in America. As we continue standing resolute against discrimination, imagine the potential we’re unlocking as it becomes easier for every young LGBT person out there to create a business of their own.

Tim was recently quoted as saying, “Of course, I've had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people's differences. Not everyone is so lucky." I go to work each day knowing the brilliant LGBT entrepreneurs in the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce family are creating the businesses that do embrace people’s differences and make sure everyone will be that lucky. I would wager that most companies who embrace a business-savvy, openly LGBT CEO — or better yet, allow him or her to create his own business from the ground up — will see their company thrive because they have a fully-supported leader with the best skills for the job. When Tim Cook came out there wasn’t a massive panic at the company or a slide in share prices — Apple’s leadership in the market didn’t even hiccup and in fact only grew stronger.

When I cofounded the NGLCC with my colleague Chance Mitchell in 2002, discussions on LGBT rights in America were just starting to be part of the mainstream. Now, 13 years later, our fight for equality is surging forward, shattering barriers and creating opportunities like never before. But we need equity to back up those wins for equality. It’s one thing to have the option to be out and successful, but it’s another to own a stake in the American Dream and see the fruits of your labors flourish with unfettered access to the capital, tools, and connections needed to succeed.  In this short time, NGLCC has certified nearly 800 LGBT-owned businesses from Manhattan to Miami, to Seattle to San Antonio. We’re shattering all the preconceived notions of what a gay business owner is supposed to be by welcoming everyone to the business community — creating a business environment defined by success, not labels. We may not all look like Tim Cook, but our dreams of shaping a brighter economic future for our community are the same.

With greater economic and social visibility, we will empower our community to bring their best talents and vision to building businesses, legacy businesses that will create sustainable economic strength in LGBT communities worldwide. It's up to more and more LGBT business owners and emerging leaders to come forward when they are ready and to be role models for others. We need that kind of strength in numbers to keep our fight for equal opportunities in corporate and government contracting for certified LGBT business enterprises going in the years ahead.

My work leaves me more optimistic for the future of our community every day because of the success stories I'm hearing from out entrepreneurs around the country. While there are still countless battles ahead to ensure dignity and respect is given to all LGBT citizens, the future looks bright and our place at the table is becoming more permanent every day.

Tim's leadership has not been, and will not be, defined by his being out. It will only be enhanced because now he's empowered to lead without worrying he may have to hide anything about himself. The market and his team still have the same demands on him, and as he points out, being gay is just a small part of him — he's a sports fan, a Southerner, and obviously one heck of a businessman. As a gay man from Wyoming, I know how much it meant to me to see someone from humble all-American beginnings achieve so much and find strength in being authentic. I look forward to meeting thousands more just like Tim Cook in the decades ahead. The great work continues, one LGBT-owned business at a time.

J

JUSTIN NELSON is the cofounder and president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

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