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Feb 2015

LGBT MBA Event: Cluster Q’s “And Then There Were Two: Where Are All The Gay CEOs”

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In April 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook told the world, “I’m proud to be gay.”  Here at Columbia Business School (CBS), we asked, how many other CEOs can you name that have said the same?

Cluster Q, Columbia Business School’s LGBT business association and ROMBA affiliate, in cooperation with the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Student Leadership and Ethics Board (SLEB) invited the only two other openly gay CEOs of publicly-traded companies, Trevor Burgess of C1 Financial and Jason Grenfell-Gardner of IGI Laboratories, along with out New York Times business columnist and Pulitzer-prize winner James B. Stewart to a panel discussion to discuss. The event, entitled “And Then There Were Two: Where Are All The Gay CEOs?” was moderated by CBS student and SLEB member Niamh (“Nev”) Sweeney ’15.

Stewart, Burgess and Grenfell-Gardner shared their experiences and gave their views on one of the most powerful, lingering taboos of the American C-suite before a packed room at Columbia’s Warren Hall filled with LGBT students, faculty, staff and allies. One of the biggest topics of discussion was the difference between public figures that are openly LGBT in their personal lives and those that go beyond to be out to the general public. “That’s the litmus test,” said James Stewart, who has written many articles about LGBT executives. “Are people willing to have their names in The New York Times as being gay?”

Grenfell-Gardner was among the first to congratulate Burgess when he rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on the day C1 Financial went public. His message was short but to the point: “And then there were two.” Burgess says being gay has never hampered him, and in fact that he was named “Community Banker of the Year” in 2014 by American Banker in part because of the magazine’s admiration of his courage to be open about his sexual orientation. Grenfell-Gardner commented that he believes that nondiscrimination protections in the workplace at the federal level will continue to be essential as more and more people come out, particularly given that any discussion of personal life at work inevitably involves mention of a significant other or spouse. Burgess dryly commented that “My ‘homosexual agenda’ is living my life. It really has nothing to do with anyone else.”

The event ended with a question: What can MBAs do to help enact change? The answer, echoed by all three panelists: “Demonstrate constantly to people that their prejudices are wrong.”

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