Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2015 National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce International Business and Leadership Conference. This conference provides an annual opportunity for corporations who are looking to do business with diverse suppliers to meet and interact in an inclusive, professional setting. After attending and speaking at the NGLCC conference this year, I started thinking about why these conferences exist.
We get asked this question often on a variety of fronts. “Why do we need employee resource groups?” or “Why do we have something separate?” or “Why isn’t it just about who is doing the best business?”
Why does there even need to be an organization where these groups, in this case gay, lesbian, bi and transgender business owners and corporations, get together?
I stepped back and really began thinking about why we need this. I tend to think in three’s, and these three reasons stood out to me as most important:
I am not alone.
Conferences provide comfort in numbers. People with similar backgrounds, similar experiences, who may face some of the same challenges that I do in the marketplace, who may face some of the exact same challenges I do as a small business owner, these are the people who I’m surrounded by at the NGLCC Conference. And these similar challenges and backgrounds may have nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity but because there is an automatic commonality on that front, it allows us to talk about and support one another in an open manner that doesn’t normally exist between total strangers. People with similar backgrounds and shared experiences can come together to support one another.
Identity & Work
A lot of times people still ask me, “What does sexual orientation or gender identity have to do with work?”
I always tell them that I can’t separate my identity—who I am—from how I lead my firm. An environment like the NGLCC Conference allows me to have conversations with potential clients and partners who may not have been exposed to a senior level, successful LGBT business owner. That’s an opportunity to break down barriers, to break down walls, to change perceptions.
This year, I got to see this happen in real time. This was the first year that a senior level executive at a long-standing client organization attended the conference. His organization had sent members before, but it was his first time. Watching the light bulb go off for him, really watching that stereotype of “why does this even matter?” come crashing down after having been exposed to such a variety of business owners, after seeing what other companies were really doing, and after seeing such commitment to this particular segment – well, it was really powerful. Many people like him have no idea that this type of experience is possible. This was truly beneficial for his own personal self-awareness but also from his role in the organization.
Probably the most powerful reason for these groups and, in particular, conferences like the NGLCC’s, is the exposure that they offer major corporations. The LGBT community, and every demographic group or subset, is riddled with stereotypes. But, specifically within the LGBT community, there are a lot of preconceived notions of what it must mean or what you must say or do or look like if you are LGBT. The conference allows these corporations, these corporate partners, to come to the event and recognize and experience the rich diversity within this demographic. Diversity that pertains not only to wide variety of businesses represented by LGBT business owners, but also to the owners who themselves are unique and diverse. It exposes these corporations to a group of people who are all LGBT, but who have different interests, who come from all walks of life, who look, walk, talk and sound different.
Just by the fact that we are getting together challenges existing stereotypes.
Labels are a step toward inclusion.
At the conference, you have lanyards that hang on your neck that hold your conference name tag. Then there are these ribbons that get attached with specific labels. I’ve had the LGBTBE (LGBT Business Enterprise) label since my first NGLCC conference four years ago. Others may have ‘corporate partner’ or ‘exhibitor’. This was the first year that I had ‘speaker’ on my label. These labels sparked conversation. People asked. It’s this notion that labels are important and designation is important. In the same way that conferences highlight a particular group, these lanyard labels highlighted a particular group, and the resulting spotlight encouraged conversation and inclusive interactions.
Inclusion is a balancing act.
Doesn’t inclusion mean that everyone should be involved? There are times when we have to spotlight individual differences in a healthy, constructive way so that we can get to that step of full inclusion for everybody. I think that confuses people because some see it as a divide rather than a stepping-stone. They claim these spotlighted groups are putting up walls instead of breaking them down, but really the intent is to build bridges.