Gay-friendly companies reach out to MBAs

Fortune's Jia Lynn Yang attends the annual Reaching Out conference for gay and lesbian MBA students in New York City.

By Jia Lynn Yang, Fortune reporter

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- If corporate America has indeed become gay-friendly, there are few better places to witness the trend happening en masse than the annual Reaching Out conference for gay and lesbian MBA students.

Each fall, some of the biggest companies on the Fortune 500 - and virtually all of Wall Street - send recruiters to lobby hard for what they view as simply more of the best talent that can be hired. The fact that everyone they're recruiting is gay? It's all but incidental.

From a distance, there's not much to distinguish Reaching Out from any other corporate conference. At this year's event in October, held at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan, a steady stream of young men and women in suits, roughly 700 total (26 percent female), spent the first full day of the conference moving from a career expo to a series of panels and receptions, networking and swapping business cards along the way.

There's naturally a political backdrop to the whole event (start asking people about discrimination in the workplace and you'll hear stories). And there are workshops the second day that deal explicitly with gay issues, like "LGBT Marketing: Opportunities and Lessons Learned" or "Mentorship - Leveraging Your LGBT Network." But the tone is pure business.

People come to the conference for two reasons, explains Chris Shuster, one of the organizers of this year's Reaching Out and a student at the NYU Stern School of Business. One is to connect. The other is to get a job at a gay-friendly workplace. Recruiters have responded.

About 50 companies were at this year's conference meeting candidates, and they run the gamut, including Citigroup (Charts), Microsoft (Charts), Accenture, Goldman Sachs (Charts), Procter & Gamble (Charts), Pfizer, IBM (Charts), Toyota (Charts) and many more.

The companies are New York-heavy - finance and consulting are each well represented - but there are also surprises. Among them: Whirlpool, headquartered in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Companies also compete to appear as supportive as possible of gay issues. Nearly every portion of the schedule - every meal, coffee break, workshop and panel - had a corporate sponsor: Johnson & Johnson attached its name to the keynote lunch with workplace expert Kirk Snyder, head of Equality Career Group; Barclays Capital sponsored a Women's Tea tucked into one of the rooms to the side; each career panel had a corporation backing it: consulting by McKinsey, investment banking and finance by JPMorgan Chase, marketing by L'Oréal USA and so on. Altogether, there were 49 different sponsors.

The first Reaching Out event in 1999 was organized by a group of Harvard and Yale business students. They called it "From the Closet to the Boardroom," and roughly 150 students attended.

The event is five times that size now, and as corporate America has begun to embrace gay employees, the activism behind Reaching Out has also shifted gears.

"We've actually achieved most of the goals we've put in place," says Shuster. "We have partner benefits, non-discrimination policies. Companies cover gender reassignment surgeries for us. That's kind of old news for us." The new focus, she says, is on global companies that have offices in different places around the world, where coming out in the workplace is still a serious taboo and, in some cases, illegal.

At the Goldman-hosted cocktail hour, Jeffrey Carbo, a first-year student at the UMass-Amherst Isenberg School of Management, likened the event to an alumni gathering where people can meet and help each other out.

"It's another one of those things that creates an instant connection to network," he says. That's a dramatic twist. Being gay used to be an immediate
disadvantage to being hired. Today, it's opening up more chances to land your dream job.


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