Heading to business school is an opportunity to reflect and grow professionally, explore new career paths, and make new connections and friendships. With a change of environment comes the opportunity to learn and develop as an individual while also developing the skills to have a successful career. For many LGBTQ+ students, this is also a chance to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Some will use this as a time to reconnect with the wider community after their first few years of work, during which they may have felt dissociated either due to anxieties about “being out” or simply from a lack of LGBTQ+ co-workers. There will also be students from strict backgrounds or countries where LGBTQ+ identities are not widely supported or even permitted, making this the first occasion they feel comfortable in their sexuality and can share their experiences with others who may have been in similar situations.
“It’s necessary to affirm that those students are fully welcome in our school and campuses and are encouraged to claim their identities,” says Mathilde Nabarette, president of UNITE, the LGBTQ+ club at ESSEC Business School. “Graduate studies are a key moment and finding a community at that step can help students find confidence and gain assertiveness.”
From a student well-being perspective, LGBTQ+ clubs and associations are an important way for business schools to make non-heterosexual students feel welcome and supported during their time in education. This was certainly true for Via Abolencia, MBA/MPH student at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, when they decided to join their LGBTQ+ club Q@Haas. Currently one of the club’s co-presidents explains, “Having connection to queer community while at business school was important to me when choosing a program. I joined Q@Haas to have a safe space with people who have similar lived experiences, and also to be active in creating a more inclusive environment for people of all identities while in business school.”
From a business perspective, they offer opportunities for networking and group activity through event planning. Furthermore, by virtue of creating a friendly environment for students of all sexual orientations, they encourage diversity among graduates and faculty.
“Even for those who have been ‘out’ before business school, LGBTQ+ affinity clubs can be areas of refuge from the heteronormative world of business,” says Michael Berger, recent MBA graduate of the Yale School of Management and one of seven former co-leaders of the school’s LGBTQ+ association, called Out of Office.
“It’s important that schools create identity-based affinity groups (including, but not limited to, LGBTQ+ groups) for students so that they can have safe, nurturing, and enriching spaces to explore or reinforce their many intersecting identities,” he adds.
It’s important to recognize that although these associations are designed to provide safe spaces for students who find themselves in minority groups, in the case of LGBTQ+ clubs, they are not insularly focused. On the contrary: many clubs create opportunities for their members to connect with individuals and institutions outside of the business school, benefitting their future careers.
The LGBTQ+ and Allies Club at Imperial College Business School organizes targeted recruitment events, as well as trips and webinars. The group links members with LGBTQ-friendly companies and mentors graduates in how to deal with day-to-day issues that might arise from potential discrimination in less progressive workplaces.
“When I started my master’s degree, I was a bit overwhelmed with being at a new university and not knowing anybody. But finding this safe space of strangers coming together to support each other truly gave me a sense of belonging which I wanted to pass on to future and current members,” says Mona Baumann, one of the heads of the LGBTQ+ initiative FS Unity at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, and a Master in Management (MiM) student.
“As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I believe it is my responsibility to fight for creating and improving safe spaces everywhere, to raise awareness on current issues, to educate myself and others on all LGBTQIA+ relevant matters, as well as to stand up for those who are facing (intersectional) discrimination,” says Sven Goebel, fellow FS Unity head and MiM student.
“The initiative provides networking opportunities in various business areas. In addition to regular monthly meetings among members, FS Unity organizes campus events, career fair visits, and guest speeches, all aimed at connecting LGBTQIA+ students and professionals.”
Organizations including ESADE Business School’s LGBTQ+ & Allies Club have found leveraging the school’s alumni engagement is an effective way of creating networking opportunities for LGBTQ+ students, in addition to on-campus events and social activities to forge a community atmosphere. ESMT Berlin similarly seeks to provide a “safe harbor” for those that may feel excluded from hetero-normative environments, and its Queery Club has become a diversity hire hub between the institution and the business world.
Events are often a way for LGBTQ+ associations to combine several of their objectives, allowing students to socialize as well as connect with new people and sometimes educate those outside the community on societal issues that affect the community. Colorful CBS is the LGBTQ+ club at Copenhagen Business School and is open to all students studying at the institution, including those studying MBA and EMBA programs.
At the beginning of the spring semester each year, Copenhagen Business School also forms an organizing committee to arrange social and academic events in preparation for their participation in Copenhagen Pride in August. They also organize fun activities such as drag bingo, as well as platforming LGBTQ+ speakers at a series of activist booths.
“I think it’s paramount to highlight LGBTQ+ people in business but not necessarily heavily. Highlighting their accomplishments as you would any cis/straight person is a must,” says Blanche Pitzus, a member of ESCP Business School’s LGBTQ+ student society, ESCAPE.
“LGBTQ+ people are not a tool to display for a company – ‘Look at how progressive we are! This manager is pansexual!’ – I think they should be given the opportunity to talk about their experiences, and whether their being part of the LGBTQ+ community created difficulties for them,” she adds.
“Moreover, policies focusing on recruiting LGBTQ+ youth after school are great, but they only go so far; it’s important to see if they later evolve to higher posts at the same rate as straight/cis equally qualified people or if a glass ceiling seems to appear.”
Em’Brace, emlyon business school’s LGBTQ+ club, allows its members to partake in round table discussions held in collaboration with Forum, a student union that allows graduates to interact with professionals from the political, artistic, sports, and economic spheres. The society aims to create a space for discussion where people can experience different perspectives on what it means to live with your sexual orientation.
“Without examples of where queer folks can succeed and hold positions of leadership, LGBTQ+ students may self-minimize and assume they cannot achieve as much as their straight peers,” says Courtney Cheng, recent MBA graduate from UCLA Anderson School of Management and former Co-President of the club Out@Anderson.
According to Jeetendra Khilnani, Co-President of the OutClass club at New York University Stern School of Business, a strong LGBTQ+ presence on networking sites such as LinkedIn can help boost the confidence of graduates about to embark on their careers.
“Every time I read a LinkedIn post highlighting a queer individual, I felt inspired to live my truth. I know there are millions of queer individuals around the world who struggle with this on a daily basis,” he says.
LGBTQ+ clubs and associations serve a variety of purposes for students at business school. They are a safe space for people who may feel isolated in the hetero-normative world of business, providing them with peer groups with whom they can share their experiences. Beyond offering social activities, they create opportunities for networking and educational discussions highlighting the successes of LGBTQ+ individuals. By forging links with LGBTQ+ friendly companies, they can help to advance the careers of students, and also give firms a first port of call in the search for young talent from the community.