Drag queens and business schools rarely mix. But the annual LGBT@Work event at Madrid’s IE school is not your average business school bash. Among the speakers at this year’s event July 5 were the founder of a nonprofit that pushes for LGBT workplace rights, who described coming out while studying for the Presbyterian ministry in California and founding a group called Seminary Lesbians Under Theological Stress (check out that acronym). Another speaker represents the interests of the UN’s LGBT employees. One worked on both the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns. Another set up a lesbian networking group.
And the guy with the drag act? He’s an entrepreneur from Chicago, and calls his alter-ego Wendy City. He also openly touted for a Spanish husband from the stage. “Like all gay American men at the moment, I’d like a second passport,” he deadpanned.
Other schools’ LGBT clubs might not all be as fun as IE’s, which was timed to coincide with Madrid’s famously bacchanalian Pride Weekend, but they are a standard part of modern business school life. That the sponsors of IE’s event included the likes of SalesForce, IBM, Google, and LinkedIn, and and that it received strong support from the school’s academic and other staff, shows that IE’s LGBT clubs are well and truly mainstream. This is undoubtedly a reflection of Spanish society: Spain was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage, and Madrid in particular is LGBT-friendly.
But it is important not to be complacent about the seeming ubiquity of LGBT clubs, or to assume that every school is as welcoming to LGBT people. Indeed, IE’s Out & Allies club might be thriving now, with 340 members, but just two years ago it had only eight. One big reason the Out & Allies club is thriving is its president, an energetic American woman called Michelle Raymond.
B-SCHOOLS: HUBS FOR EMPOWERMENT AND CHANGE
Before taking an MBA at IE, Raymond worked on Wall Street. She’s also a singer-songwriter who has opened for Miley Cyrus. She says LGBT clubs are a necessary consequence of the way modern business schools work. “European schools are looking to bring in foreigners to pay the tuition fees, so diversity is baked into their business model. And once you have diversity, you need to manage it, which is where inclusion comes in,” she says. LGBT clubs are an important part of that.
Business schools are very unusual kinds of communities, hubs where people jet in from all over the world for an intense year or two before scattering to the four corners of the globe again. By design, then, business schools are places where big changes can and do happen. Raymond explains that LGBT people from tolerant countries come out multiple times – every time they start a new job, for instance – and by the time they get to business school they are used to it.
Additionally, many students who do not come from open cultures are able to come out for the first time at business school. Often, Raymond says, when they arrive they feel shocked that people are openly LGBT, but over time they become more relaxed in the liberal environment. “I have seen people from Saudi Arabia or India who join the club as allies, but later in the year feel comfortable enough to come out,” she says.
While this is good to see, it can have a sad side, too, if people are compelled to go back to their home countries and then lose the freedom they have tasted. On the other hand, Raymond points out, they sometimes feel empowered to enact change in their own societies and businesses, to make life better for LGBT people.
LGBT CLUBS: HELPING STUDENTS GET THE MOST OUT OF THER EDUCATION
Business school LGBT clubs can also be repositories of know-how, helping to send ripples out into the wider world. One attendee at IE’s LGBT@Work event was trying to set up an LGBT network in a blue-chip firm where, she said, not a single person had ever come out.
More immediately, LGBT clubs can also help students get the most of out of their education. IE’s club was set up in 2006 by Juan Pablo Ramirez and Jose de Isasa Fereres, because LGBT students who felt unable to come out to their peers had “a deficit of confidence and self-esteem,” as Ramirez puts it. The business school environment is a community, he adds, where students live together intensely for many months. “It is potentially a life-changing experience, but if students feel they cannot be themselves they will not be able to reap all the benefits,” Ramirez adds.
Business school is also a competitive environment, and those who feel they have to hide a fundamental part of themselves are less competitive than those who were more comfortable, says Ramirez. If an LGBT club can help students flourish, it becomes a necessity, not a nice-to-have.