October is LGBT History Month, a time to honor the achievements of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered leaders. This month, I’m taking time to reflect on a campus event I was asked to attend at my alma mater by our recruiting team. Easy enough, right? Go back to my old stomping grounds, meet some students, talk about my post-grad life at West Monroe, enjoy some free food, and call it a night.
When I looked into the details, I found that the Compass Community event was a reunion for the University’s LGBT+ alumni and current student community. Immediately my unconscious biases kicked in, and I told myself that as a heterosexual, I did not fit in with this group. However, I did what I know any other employee at this firm would do and said I would gladly attend. After all, this firm is all about accepting the challenge and keeping an open, inclusive mindset. I figured I would learn a lot at the event as an ally, but I had no idea the extent to which this would be true.
Over the course of about two hours in the very atrium where I received my formal business education, I was exposed to some incredible stories of people who had overcome immense obstacles and adversity to become successful business professionals. I heard from a trans woman who progressed from an entry-level position to become a partner and shareholder at her firm; a gay male who struggled through his college years to become a top 10% franchise owner in his field; and a Native American Two-Spirit professional who is not only founder and CEO of her own brand, but also holds leadership positions in three non-profit organizations to serve local communities.
All of these leaders had very different stories but a similar theme to their messages: “it doesn’t matter who you are or what your identity is. It matters what you do.” Both in work and personal life, all of us face challenges, but you can’t stop doing something just because it’s hard or inconvenient. The speakers were able to overcome huge obstacles to create positive change for themselves and their communities. And hopefully in our future, as all of the speakers attested, the challenges faced by the LGBT+ population will continue to get easier.
Another major takeaway for me was the experience I went through over the course of the event. When I walked into the room I was very aware that, for perhaps the first time in my life, I was the minority. But by the end of the night I felt like anything but an outcast. Everyone at the event – regardless of orientation, status, or outlook – possessed core values and obvious commonalities. Humor, emotion, concerns, intelligence, school pride, genuine interest in the well-being of the next generation – all these human qualities were on display throughout the night by all the people in the room. A gesture as small as welcoming me to my table eased my reservations and made me feel included, and I in turn paid this tactic forward to include others in the conversation.
So the next time I am presented with the opportunity to engage in an experience that I normally wouldn’t, I am confident that I will once again accept the challenge. This experience also made me more conscious of making others feel included when I represent the majority in the room, so they can focus on doing their best work instead of worrying about fitting in.
Facing my unconscious bias and my own fear of not fitting in head-on is what I think our firm and culture is all about. We have the opportunity each and every day to work with new people, from different offices and parts of the country, who are parts of different practices and have different areas of expertise, and who possess different attributes and perspectives.
As we celebrate leaders and icons in the LGBT+ community this month, let’s remember the additional hurdles many have to overcome just to feel like they belong, and take full advantage of opportunities to become more educated and inclusive leaders.