Johnson’s LGBT community: Genuine, engaged, valued

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of Johnson MBA students in a photo booth holding a chalkboard sign that says

To appear more “professional” at work, a mother might avoid talking about her young child. A black woman might straighten her hair. A white man might downplay his veteran status, religion, or political affiliation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously made sure never to be seen with his cane.

When we fear that some part of our identity might not be welcomed, we often try to de-emphasize or “cover” it to fit in. For many gay and lesbian people, covering is a daily reality, largely because one’s sexual orientation is often less visible than race or gender. “People know by looking at me that I’m male and Indian,” said alumnus Arnab Mukherjee, MBA ’15. “They may not know whether I’m gay or not.”

Johnson is actively challenging attitudes that necessitate covering as well as other challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. School programming, initiatives, and student organizations like Out for Business, are designed to encourage LGBT students (as with all students) to feel included and welcomed exactly as they are.

Photo of Ryan Armstrong, MBA ’17, Judi Byers, Executive Director of Admissions & Financial Aid, and Sara Johnson, MBA '18, at the ROMBA conference
Ryan Armstrong, MBA ’17, Judi Byers, Executive Director of Admissions & Financial Aid, and Sara Johnson, MBA ’18, at the ROMBA conference

Supplementing that, Johnson offers two fellowships in conjunction with Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), an organization promoting LGBT business school leadership. To date, Johnson actively recruits the best LGBT candidates, mandates diversity and inclusion training for its whole community, and partners with other Cornell units to cultivate the undergraduate pipeline.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

According to Uncovering Talent, a 2013 study by Deloitte and Kenji Yoshino, 83 percent of LGBT* employees covered at work (and 79 percent of blacks, 66 percent of women, 63 percent of Hispanics, and 45 percent of white heterosexual men). The study found that covering decreases employees’ loyalty and commitment to their organization.

“LGBT employees may feel conflicted if they have to lead double lives in fear of being passed over for a job promotion or fired for being who they are,” explained ROMBA Fellow Brian Tsui, MBA ’18. Alumnus Ryan Armstrong, MBA ’17, added, “People on the outside wonder about your status, and the LGBT person, whether out or not, can be constantly managing their image and behaviors.”

Finding a genuine welcome

Photo of Chorben Miller, Recruiting Receptionist & Events Coordinator, Sarah Johnson, MBA '18, and Jamie Joshua, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, holding an Instagram frame in a photo booth at Gaypril 2017
Chorben Miller, Recruiting Receptionist & Events Coordinator, Sara Johnson, MBA ’18, and Jamie Joshua, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, at Gaypril 2017

The irony is that gay and lesbian workers are often penalized for being openly out, explained Matt Kidd, ROMBA executive director. Tsui added, “Today, employers in 28 states can terminate workers for self-identifying as LGBT.”

Because of the double-edged sword of nominal but not actual acceptance, LGBT networks like ROMBA help students find sincerely welcoming communities. ”I’ve had many doors open because I had an introduction from someone within the LGBT community,” said ROMBA Fellow Sara Johnson, MBA ’18.

Launched nearly 20 years ago by a group of LGBT students, ROMBA provides information about the LGBT status of business schools worldwide, application and job prep and guidance, and conferences and treks to help students find environments that are right for them. “ROMBA was originally meant to build a stronger network of LGBT peers who would go into well-paid, high-powered jobs, and be able to look after each other as a network,” Kidd shared.

“I found the courage to be proud and vocal after finding support at the annual ROMBA conference,” said Tsui. “LGBT alumni from MBA programs proved to me that I could be successful in my career and authentic at the same time.”

Johnson’s recruitment efforts include having LGBT MBAs mentor undergraduate students at the Cornell LGBT Resource Center, hosting Mukherjee and other alumni to speak with admitted students, and working closely with the Hotel School and Dyson.

Admitted Johnson students have a variety of networking programs and resources, beginning with events like Johnson Means Business. “We offer a welcome lunch for LGBT students to give them a chance to meet each other, members of the LGBT Resource Center, and partners among the Cornell and Ithaca communities,” says Jamie Joshua, director, Office of Diversity & Inclusion.

Challenges of many different types

Photo of colorful Post-it notes on a white door at Johnson's Out for Business event

The LGBT label lumps together a wide range of people. Some have been out for years; others have come out recently, or not at all. Some are bisexual, transgender, or androgynous. Johnson’s objective is to honor each one’s specific challenges.

Some members of the LGBT community face or have faced devastating socioeconomic problems, too often due to non-acceptance. “There are lots of young men and women who were rejected by family and friends. Some are homeless and having tough times trying to integrate into society,” stated alumnus Zach Raynor, MBA ’16, Old Ezra’s first black and openly gay president.

“Some transgender people face constant discrimination – in finding housing or employment, in getting compassionate and competent healthcare, and even in the right to use the restroom,” said Johnson. “It is nearly impossible to succeed in higher education or in a traditional career if these basic needs are not met. I’d like us in the business community to notice who gets access to traditional routes to financial success – and who gets left behind.”

Honoring everyone’s humanness

Photo of Sara Johnson, MBA '18, and Margaret Cho at the ROMBA conference
Sara Johnson, MBA ’18, and Margaret Cho at the ROMBA conference

Inclusivity is not a zero-sum game; recruiting the most talented and creative students fortifies the entire school. Johnson is committed to growing its representation among LGBT and other underrepresented groups, and supporting them across its broad and diverse community.

The key to being truly inclusive is helping everyone understand the challenges facing community members. To address this, Johnson includes students, staff, and faculty in diversity and inclusion training. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable asking questions and learning more. “I’ve had numerous students approach me to ask about ways they can show support and ensure that I don’t feel as though I’m being outcast or treated negatively,” said Armstrong.

Johnson is dedicated to cultivating allies among its community members – friendly, helpful people who support each other, regardless of their demographics. “The support of allies helps shape the culture of acceptance in companies, making the workplace a more welcoming environment for LGBT workers,” said Tsui.

In our ally training, ODI staff train student leaders on how to help train their peers about inclusiveness efforts – the best way to reach more people, stated Joshua. “We work with students and they get other people to attend. They can say, ‘These are issues I face and I want you to hear about it.’”

The key is understanding what we all have in common, rather than letting differences divide us. “Getting people to see what the day-to-day life of an LGBT individual looks like really is kind of humanizing,” pointed out Kidd.

An ideal learning environment

Photo of student writing a note at a Johnson Out for Business Event

Business school is an ideal place to learn about each other, as it is the “ultimate equalizer,” added Kidd. “Students are coming in with different backgrounds, and they want to transform in some way, and they’re going to have to interact with a lot of people that look and sound nothing like them.”

We can all learn from our different perspectives, Mukherjee said. “I was pleasantly surprised, coming to Cornell, given the small class size, how diverse it was. Because, even if I didn’t fundamentally agree with a lot of people who were so ideologically different from me that I couldn’t even comprehend it, I was a lot better for it, from a learning standpoint. And I hope my classmates were better for knowing me.”

Having the space and opportunity to disagree is vital to learning and progress. “It sharpens everybody’s arguments and minds, and helps us make sure that we put in place legislation that holds,” said Raynor. “I’m proud to be part of a society – a country – where there are individuals who can clearly see these issues and continue to fight for them – both part of the subjugated group as well as part of the dominant group. We will eventually get there.”

Button: Learn more about Johnson's Office of Diversity and Inclusion