I vividly remember a moment during my orientation at New York University's Stern School of Business when I mentioned my boyfriend and I watched a classmate's eyes light up. "I'm so glad I'm not the only one," he exclaimed.
It turned out that there were seven others in our class of over 400, about 2.5 percent of the class, who would identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (we had no out trans students) with several others coming out at or after graduation. The percentage seemed a little low, but we saw it as a win since the prior class had only three out LGBT students.
Five years later, I became executive director of Reaching Out, the only national organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and connecting LGBT MBA students and professionals. One of my first new initiatives was an annual survey on LGBT populations at business schools around the world. Despite increased social acceptance, this survey has consistently shown that the percentage of LGBTs in business schools has stayed stagnant at under 3 percent on average, regardless of class size or geography.
With recent studies suggesting that 7 percent of millennials self-identify as LGBT, this stagnant number is a demonstration that LGBT Americans are opting out of business school, or often simply staying closeted, as I've personally witnessed several of our student leaders do upon starting corporate interviews.
The reality is, the perception that MBA programs and corporate business in general are not particularly welcoming to LGBT students is common. I can tell you nothing is further from the truth. If the 80 Fortune 500 companies that come to our annual conference are any indication, corporate America is embracing the LGBT community.
Refreshingly, the country's top business schools shared our concerns about creating an inclusive campus and demonstrating it to those LGBT people actively thinking about going to business school or just pondering the possibility. Together, we created the Reaching Out LGBT MBA Fellowship, a scholarship and leadership program to encourage out LGBT people to enter business school and stay out as their authentic selves.
Each participating school in the program commits to offering admission to an LGBT (or active ally) applicant who is both academically strong and shows potential to be a leader for the LGBT community. Each fellow receives a minimum $10,000-a-year scholarship from the school in addition to leadership and mentorship opportunities through my organization, Reaching Out.
This year 16 schools participated, including MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School, and Rice University. We also saw immediate increases in engagement and applications from self-identified LGBT candidates. This month 22 ROMBA fellows from the class of 2017 will start their MBA programs. Next year that number will climb when 10 additional business schools are join the fellowship.
Yet the LGBT MBA Fellowship is more than another diversity inclusion program. I'm a big believer that inclusion is a lot like having a seat at the table -- just because you have a seat doesn't mean anyone wants to hear you talk. If policy, inclusion, and legal protections worked fully, we would have moved beyond gender and race struggles decades ago. Equality is about power and influence.
The list of out LGBT executives in Fortune 500 companies is remarkably thin and hardly representative. Business schools are designed to mold the next generation of leaders so that they will swiftly rise into positions of power. From these positions of power, leaders speak up for the underrepresented and effect change that echoes throughout society.
With this fellowship we are raising leaders with potential. Our goal is that the fellows launch their post-MBA careers as out LGBT professionals who will ultimately be more impactful as they climb the corporate ladder, because they influencing their peers from the start.
I can't wait for the day when that queer kid starting her business career or MBA doesn't debate coming out, but rather which LGBT leader she wants to emulate.
MATT KIDD is the executive director of Reaching Out Inc., the nation's leading not for profit organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender graduate business students.