2019 was “a wonderful year,” Aidan Currie says. Reaching Out MBA, the nonprofit network for LGBTQ+ MBAs and MBA students that Currie leads as executive director, had its biggest annual conference to date, with more than 1,800 attendees, bolstering its reputation as “the world’s largest gathering of LGBT+ business students and professionals.” ROMBA also brought in more corporate partners — big companies that joined household names like 3M, Wells Fargo, Deloitte, McKinsey, BCG, and Bank of America to help underwrite the group’s events — and held more successful events and competitions, expanding its profile in numerous small and large ways.
It was a big year — ROMBA’s 20th as an organization. It was also Currie’s first full year on the job.
“From an organizational point of view, I feel like all the programming went off really well,” he says. “At our annual conference in Atlanta we had 1,800 attendees, which I think is the most we’ve ever had, and it was a wonderful few days. I was very happy because the feedback we got was really positive. And yeah, it was kind of the first time around for me.”
Currie contrasts 2019 — when ROMBA celebrated not only its 20th year but also the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall riots, a watershed in the fight for equality for LGBTQ people in the United States — with the upheaval of 2020, a year of unprecedented disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were supposed to have an Out Women in Business conference in New York in March and by mid-March I was like, ‘Yeah, this is not going away,'” Currie tells Poets&Quants. “So we had to postpone that and did it virtually in May, and then kind of subsequently moved all of our spring and summer programming to a virtual environment.”
THE BIGGEST ANNUAL LGBTQ MBA EVENT IN THE WORLD GOES ONLINE
Now that it’s clear that the rest of 2020 will remain under the cloud of coronavirus — making large in-person gatherings impossible anywhere in the U.S. — ROMBA has moved its biggest event online, too. This year’s annual conference, underwritten by Boston Consulting Group and Discover and dubbed “Technicolor Future: Life through a new lens,” will be virtual — a move that Currie casts as a positive because, for starters, the format means there was no reason to confine the event to two or two and a half days as in past. ROMBA’s 2020 conference will be held over five days on consecutive weekends, October 2-3 and 8-10.
“I’ve been on the job coming up on two years, and the first year, you are kind of learning everything and how you do everything. and then at the beginning of this year I was like, ‘Oh cool. I been through everything once. Now I’ve got this. It’s going to be easier.’ Then of course, that didn’t happen,” Currie says.
“It became, of course, increasingly clear that virtual was absolutely the way to go with all of our events — it was just a matter of figuring out the details and the hotel contract and board approval and all that. Now I’m really excited the more I learn about how we can harness some of these technologies for a virtual conference. I’m really excited about what we’re going to be able to deliver in the fall.”
ROMBA is not anticipating a repeat of its virtual adventure in 2021, however. According to the group’s website, conferences from 2021 to 2024 are expected to be staged in Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles.
OXFORD JOINS REACHING OUT’S COMMUNITY OF PARTNER SCHOOLS
According to Reaching Out’s own 2016 data, as many as 7% of MBAs at major programs are out/self-identifying — numbers that certainly have grown in the last four years. Among ROMBA’s greatest services to the LGBTQ community is its annual fellowships, among the largest and most well-known among a growing number of LGBTQ-directed scholarships. Sponsored by McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, the fellowships are awarded through each of Reaching Out’s partner schools, 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. There are currently more than 250 Reaching Out Fellows from 60 business schools.
The University of Oxford recently joined ROMBA’s stable of partner schools, becoming the 60th to offer the fellowships in mid-July. In its announcement, Oxford Saïd touted its reputation for inclusivity, pointing to its 44% female cohort in “the third-most gender-balanced MBA in the world in 2020” and its existing LGBTQ+ network, Pride@SBS. Oxford Saïd “has seen year-on-year increases in international students, reaching 95% of the cohort in 2019/20, including 13% from Africa,” the school announced.
“These fellowships are incredibly important because members of the LGBTQ+ community are under-represented in MBA programs and by extension, in business,” Oxford MBA candidate Khaya Makhubu said in the school’s announcement. “The community needs more members in MBA programs because we need to have more LGBTQ+ role models that succeed in all areas in society, and the MBA is an enabler of that.”
Meanwhile, separate from the ROMBA fellowships, an increasing number of academic business programs cater to the LGBTQ community, including a well-established program at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a new full-ride fellowship at Wharton.
BIG PLANS & ‘A LOT OF ENTHUSIASM’
There are more than 1,700 students and alumni on Reaching Out Connect, the group’s alumni platform. Growing that platform was a major part of Aidan Currie’s plans for 2020 — plans that coronavirus could not completely derail.
“One of the things that we had really planned to start building out this year was more of an alumni network,” Currie says. “We of course have always focused on the two years that students are in business school, but we had such a massive amount of goodwill in various forms of those who’ve gone through the Reaching Out programming and now find themselves in a place where they want to really stay engaged with the organization, believe in the mission, and so forth. And that continues. We have Reaching Out Plus, which is our alumni platform, but we were going to do a series of regional events across the country in various formats. Clearly those are put on pause for now.
“My idea is really to transform the organization from one that delivers all the programming for those kind of students in business school, to more of an institution that can be a resource for LGBTQ+ MBA, not just while they’re in business school, but for the course of their entire business career. We have a great board and great corporate support, with more than 100 corporate partners now. We’re seeing growth every year, even this year, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for the future.”