Leading with pride: Celebrating LGBTQ+ role models in the professional world

AboveBoard | Jun 21, 2023

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Nearly a decade ago, there were no openly LGBTQ+ leaders in the Fortune 500.

Now, more LGBTQ+ executives are owning their story and driving the dialogue on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Momentum for LGBTQ+ executive leadership and equality and visibility in the workplace has been building long before the establishment of Pride Month, which has come to be more widely celebrated in recent years. The Stonewall uprising in June 1969 spurred an international gay rights movement, eventually leading to the establishment of June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.

In this article, we'll highlight the significance and impact of LGBTQ+ leadership, learn from the stories of notable LGBTQ+ executives, and offer insights on how to lead with pride.

The power of LGBTQ+ visibility

Approximately 7.1% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ+, according to Gallup, double the percentage from 2012. Taking a closer look at the data reveals a higher proportion of younger generations identifying as LGBTQ+, with 20.8% of Generation Z and 10.5% of Millennials self-identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community. But LGBTQ+ representation in corporate America “is much lower than these levels,” reports McKinsey & Company

Just 0.6% of senior vice presidents and C-suite executives are LGBTQ+ women. As for LGBTQ+ men, they make up about 2.9% of senior vice presidents and C-suite executives. And in the Fortune 500, just four executives, or 0.8% of CEOs, from these leading companies identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

LGBTQ+ visibility and representation matters. Society’s top business leaders can play a meaningful role in creating change, from implementing policies that support LGBTQ+ employees to using their platforms and services to advocate for change and inclusivity. And where possible, their openness and vulnerability to share their story can create space for others to do the same. The ripple effects include, but are not limited to, capturing a wider market share—most minorities and nearly half of all people in general prefer to engage with inclusive brands, per the World Economic Forum—and creating an inclusive work environment for out employees. According to McKinsey, employees who are out report feeling more happy in their careers and in relationships with colleagues and managers. 

When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out in 2014, he became the first openly gay leader of a Fortune 500 company. Four years later, Land O'Lakes' CEO Beth Ford became the first openly gay woman to lead in the Fortune 500. 

LGBTQ+ visibility in the workplace has far reaching implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion overall. Company cultures that intentionally create space for LGBTQ+ executives, leaders, and employees are inherently more open, collaborative, and better able to connect with diverse groups of clients and end users. More than this, organizations and leaders who openly support and engage with the LGBTQ+ community encourage others to do the same.

LGBTQ+ CEOS to know

Today, there are four openly LGBTQ+ CEOs in the Fortune 500, and their bravery and authenticity is paving the way for future generations of LGBTQ+ leadership. Let’s take a look at their stories.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Tim Cook took the helm of Apple in 2011. Three years later, Cook penned a Bloomberg Businessweek essay in which he officially came out as gay. "I'm proud to be gay," Cook wrote, "and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."

“If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy,” wrote Cook, whose company has scored 100% annually on Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index.

As one of the top business leaders not only in the U.S. but also the world, Cook's decision to identify publicly as a gay man set an example for LGBTQ+ people everywhere. The Human Rights Campaign called it "a courageous step forward," going on to say that Cook's announcement "will save countless lives." 

"He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life," said then-HRC President Chad Griffin at the time. " Tim Cook is proof that LGBT young people can dream as big as their minds will allow them to, whether they want to be doctors, a U.S. Senator, or even CEO of the world’s biggest brand."

Jim Fitterling, Chairman and CEO of Dow, Inc.  

As the leader of Dow Chemical Company since 2018, Jim Fitterling's vision is to create "the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive and sustainable materials science company in the world." Since Fitterling's been at the helm, Dow has ranked among DiversityInc's Top 50 Companies for Diversity, moving up eight spots from 2022 to the No. 7 slot in 2023. The company is also ranked as one of the top companies for LGBTQ+ employees.

"Team Dow’s operational and financial discipline and an enhanced focus on our people and culture enabled us to deliver a resilient performance in 2022. We have always known that our business succeeds when our employees thrive," Fitterling said in a statement. Fitterling's passion and drive for authenticity, inclusivity, and psychological safety stem in part from his journey as a cancer survivor and his experience coming out during an internal meeting in 2014, he said in an interview

"We need to make sure no one fears being their whole self while they’re at work—because we need everyone’s input included to achieve our goals," Fitterling said.

Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes

Beth Ford is the first woman to lead Land O'Lakes, and the first openly gay woman to serve as CEO of any Fortune 500 company. As the leader of a 102-year-old farmer-owned cooperative, Ford's leadership vision is centered on "the community, the shareholders, and the employees," according to New York Times reporting. "What is different and unique about the cooperative model is the intimacy of it, the understanding of those families, of knowing these communities. I don’t know that a business can be successful if employees are worried about their kids’ school or that their mom can’t go to the doctor. More of that understanding will help everybody."

Moreover, visibility is "critical" as Ford seeks to use her platform to advocate for farmers as well as the LGBTQ+ community. “I think it’s about showing up, doing your best work, being your best self, and being visible," she told Fast Company. "That encourages authenticity, no matter whether you’re gay or not.”

Jeffrey Gennette, Chairman and CEO of Macy's

Jeffrey Gennette joined Macy's shortly after graduating from Stanford University in 1983 and has been with the company for the vast majority of his career, starting out as an executive trainee and eventually becoming the company's chairman and chief executive. Gennette, who is retiring in early 2024, said being one of the few openly gay executives in the Fortune 500 has "influenced" his management style. Gennette says he is "purposeful" about seeking the opinions of others in the room, going out of his way to ensure individuals know their perspectives are valued.

"You have to have an inclusive environment where everybody feels like ‘I’m showing up with all my ideas and experiences,’ Gennette said in a Time interview. "Until everyone feels valued, you’re not going to maximize the potential of your brand that’s serving the most diverse population this country has ever had."

Arlan Hamilton, Founder and Managing Partner of Backstage Capital

Arlan Hamilton, the "the only Black, queer woman to have ever built a venture capital firm from scratch," oversees Backstage Capital, a fund dedicated to investing in people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. “It was crazy to me that 90% of venture funding was going to white men, when that is not how innovation, intelligence, and drive is dispersed in the real world,” Hamilton said in a Fast Company interview.

Since launching Backstage Capital in 2015, Hamilton has invested in more than 200 companies led by underrepresented and underestimated founders. "There have been times when Backstage Capital has been the first investors secured, the first 'yes' on a founder’s journey. Sometimes we’re the first investors to even take the founder seriously," according to Hamilton. "How many success stories do we need before we’re seen as a worthy competitor? We don’t want handouts, we want to stand next to you at the same starting line."

Leading with pride, "leading out loud"

For each of these LGBTQ+ CEOs, leading with pride means leading authentically. According to former Stanford University lecturer J.D. Schramm, "leading out loud" results in more genuine and authentic leadership. 

"LGBTQ leaders have several options for how they control their stories: They can be artificial or authentic, private or transparent," according to Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. It's possible to lead from each of these places, Schramm said, "but you can lead stronger if you lead out loud."

“Every LGBTQ person has one thing in common with every other LGBTQ person, and that is the journey that we’ve all gone on in order to be ready to communicate who we are,” said Schramm. “Coming out is not a moment in time, it is a process. But it’s still a personal choice. I think it’s best, but it’s not my decision to make for others.”

Advance diversity and inclusivity alongside AboveBoard

Executives and managers who lead with pride create space for others to bring their full selves to work, ultimately contributing to more inclusive companies that thoughtfully engage both employees and consumers. This is the power of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

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