Every year as classrooms begin to empty in business schools around the U.S., Reaching Out MBA goes into overdrive. The busy season for the 21-year-old organization dedicated to promoting the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer graduate business students begins in April with Reaching Out’s LGBTQ Student Leadership Summit, held this year at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Then, during Pride Month and beyond, the group conducts a series of treks for LGBTQ students admitted to U.S. MBA programs: to New York for finance students, to Minneapolis for marketing and retail, to Chicago for general management and consulting, to San Francisco for tech, and to Seattle for tech and retail. Each year culminates with the group’s big annual conference, the Reaching Out LGBTQ MBA & Business Graduate Conference — known as the ROMBA Conference, held this year in Atlanta — which is billed as the largest gathering of LGBTQ business students in the world.
Reaching Out’s busy summer has another yearly staple, an annual retreat for recipients of its fellowship. The Reaching Out Fellowship is a $20,000 award that goes to select LGBTQ MBA students at more than 50 participating schools, including most of the major U.S. schools. Between 2017 and 2019, 55 members of the Class of 2019 collectively received over $1,300,000. And while Reaching Out also offers exclusive mentorship and leadership development programming to fellowship recipients, this summer’s retreat to New York will carry even greater significance as students are steeped in perhaps the most consequential event in LGBTQ history: Stonewall.
June 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Stonewall riots, which started as confrontations between police and gay rights activists outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. As the resistance to police brutality grew into days and weeks, an international gay rights movement was born. The anniversary will play a major role in Reaching Out’s July 19-21 retreat, the group’s executive director says.
“This year, because it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, there’s going to be some historical undercurrents to our trek to make sure that students are as educated as possible about the LGBTQ community more broadly,” says Aidan Currie, executive director of Reaching Out and a 2011 NYU Stern MBA. “And they will learn how business skills and ROMBA can help them apply this kind of knowledge, this wide historical understanding, in their business school career.
“We’re doing a walking tour of the West Village. We’re going to go by Stonewall and things like that. But more than anything, I think it’s an opportunity for these exceptional people to get to know each other and kind of figure out how they get the best leverage, the best opportunities that this new network for them provides.”
HOW THE REACHING OUT FELLOWSHIP WORKS
The Reaching Out Fellowship is one of the largest and most well-known among a growing number of LGBTQ-directed scholarships. Sponsored by McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, it is awarded through each partner school, among which are all the most elite schools: Harvard Business School, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chicago Booth, and many others. Students apply for the program when they apply to their chosen schools; offers of admission include a corresponding fellowship offer. Upon confirmation, schools notify Reaching Out of their selection.
Since most partner schools have two-year MBA programs, recipients get $10,000 per year; but programs vary, so “if it is a shorter program, we still make sure we hit that $20,000 minimum — and in many cases, the student is awarded much more than $20,000,” Currie says.
While the schools are completely responsible for selecting fellowship recipients, they and Reaching Out have agreed on “broad guidelines,” Currie says. “One of the guidelines that we’ve agreed on with them is somebody who’s in strong academic standing, and then somebody who shows leadership in the LGBTQ+ community. It doesn’t have to be an LGBTQ individual,” he says. “It’s possible that perhaps there’s an ally who best fits the bill. But to my knowledge, I don’t think there have been any ally fellows to date.
“The money comes from the school. They are responsible for selecting. We basically then get the names of the fellows once they’ve been selected. And on our end, we do a few things. We have developed some programming for the fellows to further enhance and develop their leadership skills and experience. And we gather every year for the annual retreat.”
That retreat is able to do what campus clubs with high turnover rates often can’t: connect the students in a solid and life-long network, as well as do things like retreats and workshops “so that they can hear about what has been successful from other schools,” Currie says. “Whether it be fundraising or bringing in corporate partners or working with other affinity groups on campus, it really helps them develop.”
PROGRESS IN THE CLASSROOM & THE BOARDROOM
Fifty years after Stonewall — and 21 years after students from Harvard Business School and Yale School of Management launched the first student-run conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer business students that eventually became the ROMBA Conference — things are getting better for LGBTQ people, in MBA programs and across society. According to Reaching Out’s own 2016 data, as many as 7% of MBAs at major programs are out/self-identifying — numbers that almost certainly have grown in the last three years. Meanwhile, though they are not many, some academic business programs now cater to the LGBTQ community, including an executive program announced this month at ESCP, the European business school that models itself as the oldest in the world, and another, well-established program at Stanford GSB. The ESCP program “looks like a great initiative,” Currie says, and the Stanford program is “highly respected.”
The past few years in particular have seen “great strides” for LGBTQ people across the graduate business education landscape, Currie says. Beyond, in the business culture itself, the last five years have seen a lot of misperceptions reversed, and some damage undone, he says, pointing to the work done by the for-profit Out Leadership as having been particularly effective.
“In a nutshell, their main focus is to prove to businesses that it actually helps your bottom line to have an inclusive workforce,” Currie says. “And so they partner with about 60 very large global companies, and they put pressure on governments around the world to embrace greater inclusion by saying, ‘Listen. We’re not happy about the fact that …’ or ‘We’re not going to spend this money or invest in this new office in your country until this is fixed.’ So you see a lot of great change in that sense, and they do a lot of great research as well.
“Out Leadership did something a couple of years ago with PwC, talking about the change in when they’re interviewing LGBTQ people from five years ago. A lot of people saw their status as an LGBTQ person as a disadvantage, a significant disadvantage, in the workplace. And now that has really turned on its head, and the majority of them are seeing it as an advantage because it allows them to take on a leadership role, get involved in diversity inclusion, and increase their exposure and have a voice in the company that they might not have had otherwise.”
‘WE’RE RIDING A GREAT WAVE RIGHT NOW’
Good change is happening in business schools, too, Currie says. How does he measure the progress?
“A good barometer is the amount of corporate partners that are interested in becoming involved in Reaching Out,” says Currie, who took over from Matt Kidd about 10 months ago, pointing to 3M, Wells Fargo, Deloitte, McKinsey, BCG, and Bank of America as “Diamond-level partners” or above who help to underwrite the group’s events. “That’s where the lion’s share of our revenue currently comes from, mainly the ROMBA Conference, but as I say, we have programming throughout the year.
“We’re seeing growth every year. We’re up to almost 100 corporate partners now, and there is great enthusiasm from them, I think because people are realizing how important a diverse workforce is. It’s important that members of a workforce are able to be themselves and to be authentic. And not only are they seeing that from a diversity and inclusion kind of PR point of view, but really from the bottom line. It actually makes people happier, hence more productive, hence more wanting to be comfortable and ethical and out and productive at work.
“And so I think we’re riding a great wave right now, which will — I think and hope — continue for a long time.”