People often approach the issue of gay rights (if one can even call it an issue) from the “doing the right thing” perspective, meaning that supporting the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people is the right thing to do because everyone should be free to be who they are without facing discrimination of any kind.
This argument is, of course, extremely valid, but perhaps not the most effective when seeking the support of big businesses and financial institutions.
I recently interviewed Todd Sears, founder of Out on the Street, the first global LGBT leadership organization in the financial industry, and he told me that the ability to demonstrate that “diversity makes business sense” was at the heart of the success of his initiative.
“What we were able to do is reframe that conversation – there’s definitely a ‘right to do thing’ piece here… but there’s very much a business piece, and unlike a lot of other issues you can actually come at it from both sides,” Sears said.
Prior to founding Out Leadership, the umbrella organization which includes Out on the Street, Sears was a private banker at Merrill Lynch. There, he started the first team focused on LGBT financial planning and financial advising in the United States.
Out on the Street—the “street” referring to Wall Street-- has grown from six to 20 banks participating in the initiative globally, Sears said. It counts Lloyd Blankfein, CEO and chairman of Goldman Sachs, among its advisory board members.
“I would talk to financial advisors all over the country, a number of whom were straight, who either had gay clients and didn’t know what to do or had gay kids and didn’t know what to do. So they reached out and asked for help,” he said, noting he often was the first gay person with whom they came into contact.
Now, Sears has just launched Out in Law, using a similar model, but aimed at legal businesses.
The emerging lesson: make the case that your cause is something people will lose money over if they continue to oppose it. It may not sound very orthodox, but it seems to be working. In other words: money talks.
Take, for example, what happened this year on St. Patrick’s Day. In cities across the U.S., the Irish community celebrates their patron saint with parades, the largest one taking place in New York City.
LGBT groups have been claiming their right to take part openly in the parade for over a decade but always received no for an answer from parade organizers. The same thing happened this year with the exception that, for the very first time, major parade sponsors, including brewing giants Guinness, Heineken and Samuel Adams decided to pull their support in protest of the organizers’ anti-gay stance.
“Five years ago they wouldn’t have said it was bad for business. Suddenly there were several things that kind of clicked and they realized that it can be bad for business,” Sears said.
“And it’s not just about selling enough beer, it’s about ‘are we going to attract new talent if we discriminate against gay people’?,” he said.
Can a business case be made for other civil rights struggles such as women’s rights? Yes.
In the fight for gender equality, the importance of women’s economic participation increasingly is emerging as a pivotal argument.
On Tuesday, the first woman to head the U.S. Federal Reserve Janet Yellen said that the benefits of the growing participation of women in the economy are "clear and substantial" as the country continues to recover from recession.
In a speech she made in Beijing this month Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, also noted that women and economic growth have a “very clear relationship,” while U.S. President Barack Obama pledged last week to address the gender pay gap in which women earn three-quarters as much as their male counterparts.
And there are numerous reports, studies and research arguing that greater involvement of women in the economy is a win-win situation for all players. Banking giant Goldman Sachs even published a study on it.
It’s true, however, that there are other important factors which have and are playing a key role in the swift advancement of the rights of the gay population.
One example is the number of people who have come out in recent years, among them major figures in the film industry, the media and sports.
“The more people that have come out the less of a deal it is,” Sears said. “And the more people realize they have friends and loved ones who are gay.”
“But I truthfully really do think that the business community pushing this has been the key catalyst,” he said. “The first companies here in the U.S. which started providing domestic partners benefits to their employers (regardless of their sexual orientation) started doing so fifteen years ago.”
Way ahead of their time.