Apple CEO Tim Cook received the Newseum’s Free Expression Award this year for using “his spotlight to take a public stand on major societal issues, including racial equality, privacy, protecting the environment, access to education and LGBT rights.” At the helm of Apple, the openly gay Cook sits as the only member of the LGBT community who is also a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Cook’s visibility as an out leader has made a significantly positive impact on LGBT diversity in corporate America, yet many still perpetuate the false narrative that he’s the only out executive in the C-Suite (CEO, COO, CTO, etc.) and his ascension represents minimal progress for LGBT leaders in the business world.
That perception does not tell the full story of LGBT advancement in the corporate arena. Those who believe we have not come very far in furthering LGBT business leadership are missing an important story that has evolved incrementally and on a parallel track with the overall achievements of the LGBT movement.
In the past 20 years we witnessed spectacular achievements in LGBT justice including passage of the the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the lifting of the ban on HIV-positive individuals from entering the United States, and the establishment of nationwide marriage equality, among others. As laws have advanced and society has changed, so too has the corporate world — perhaps often in a less visible manner. In fact, in many cases, corporations took the lead on LGBT inclusion, well ahead of politicians, courts, and cultural forces.
In the same period of time I, as the executive director of Reaching Out MBA, and my predecessors have witnessed that evolution firsthand through the growth of our signature ROMBA Conference, which marks its 20th edition this month in Boston. Just 100 people attended our first conference, along with only three companies. This year, 1,600 current and prospective business students, professional business leaders, and alumni will participate in the conference, along with 95 corporations, over 50 of which are Fortune 500 companies.
The annual event provides these lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer young professional leaders from around the world the opportunity to network, learn, and improve their skills so they emerge stronger and more confident in the business world. It is also a pivotal opportunity for us to motivate them to believe they have the power to be the next generation of business leaders.
That’s why, while Tim Cook, himself a gay MBA, represents a beacon of progress for all of us to admire, it is critical that we acknowledge he is not alone in the C-Suite. Thanks to straight allies at the top of corporations and boards, our community has silently moved beyond the age where being an out business leader exclusively meant heading small, often LGBT consumer-focused businesses and nonprofits. There are dozens of LGBT people rising in the ranks at a myriad of companies. Not all have reached the top in their industries, but they are ascending through the middle ranks and moving closer to the corporate pinnacles.
Our ROMBA conference attempts to illustrate that story every year. Just consider our slate of plenary speakers this year, which includes out and ally LGBT executives Jim Fitterling of Dow Chemical, Beth Ford of Land O’Lakes, Jan Siegmund of ADP, and Martine Rothblatt of United Therapeutics, who is a very accomplished CEO herself. Past ROMBA speakers also include current and former C-Suite executives from around the globe: Jonathan Mildenhall of AirBnb, Mark Addicks of General Mills, Beth Brooke at EY, Joseph Evangelisti at JP Morgan, and Sally Susman at Pfizer, to name a few.
Our organization routinely pushes back on the misperception that business schools and corporations are somehow unwelcoming places for LGBT people. The key to winning that argument is having tangible role models — but we must do our part in celebrating these leaders and correcting the misleading notion of the lone LGBT corporate leader. If we do this, as a movement, we have an opportunity to continue encouraging up and coming LGBTQ talent to pursue their career dreams while living openly as their true selves. Such aspirations are already proven by these leaders to be attainable.