Apple CEO Tim Cook came out in a beautiful statement. No fanfare, just a statement of facts and a lot of hope that his coming out would help those who have struggled along that to know they're not alone if they're out and in business.
So many people are clamoring for prognostications on what this will do for the market — as if one man's sexuality controls the fate of the economy. Tim's sexuality should only matter to Tim. His choice to come out was his, and his alone. Riding the wave of ever-growing acceptance in America, both in our homes and in our businesses, he realized the time was right to let the world know the real Tim Cook. Now he can get back to being the great CEO he's always been with one less weight on his shoulders. That's the real success of today's announcement, and of every time a business leader chooses to finally come out. That's why I joined StartOut, because I knew an empowered community of out business leaders can be a tremendous force for good in the world.
While there have been substantial gains for the community in representation and visibility in politics, entertainment, journalism and now even sports, in too many places the corporate closet continues to flourish, and there are virtually no role models in the senior ranks of the business community. Today that changed, but Tim didn't. Tim's leadership of Apple has not been, and will not be, defined by his being out. It will only be enhanced because now he's empowered to lead without hiding.
While I can speak to the incredible impact this will have on the LGBT business community, and for public perceptions of diversity globally, I defer the emotional impact of Tim's coming out to a dear friend and Chair Emeritus of StartOut, Chris Sinton. Chris is an Internet and philanthropic trailblazer who shared this with me:
"I felt I needed to adopt a 'don't ask don't tell' stance to be successful. I tried to 'pass' as straight as best I could. I know the gifts I brought to work were blunted because of this. I was very successful managing up and leading my staff. I was less successful working cross-functionally as I felt intimidated and awkward because I was a gay man in a very very straight world.
Had there been an out member of the LGBT community as the leader of an innovative and valuable company and brand I know I would have pushed harder and gone farther in my initiatives across the company. I would not have seen my 'gayness' as something to hide and would have been able to fully focus on the task at hand: creating and leading a world class organization. Thank you, Tim."
Indeed: thank you, Tim. You are going to shine as a role model to entrepreneurs, young tech enthusiasts, and everyday people who felt they never had someone to aspire to be that changed the world they way they want. I hope Tim's coming out helps get more people thinking about a sense of community equity. In the next few decades entrepreneurs and small business owners will create more than half of all new jobs, and the LGBT community will make up a powerful and dynamic subset of those job creators.
And they are going to be tough. Mr. Cook echoes the sentiment of all out CEO's in the StartOut family when he says, "It's been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It's also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you're the CEO..." That thick skin doesn't come easily, but its what makes out executives such great leaders. And just think how much more effective managers they can be when the lead weight of needing to "pass" in the office is finally thrown off.
"Why do gay people need a business network?" is probably the most common question I'm asked in my work. And the answers can be as wide-ranging and impassioned as our community itself is. The sheer number of affinity groups and diversity initiatives at major businesses show that the playing field is anything but level.
Apple has an impressively large and well-organized segment of out employees — most of the major tech companies do, in fact — and I bet they are all walking a bit taller and prouder today. We have a long way to achieve that level playing field, but that "sunlit path toward justice" Tim refers to just got much, much brighter.
Commentary by Gene Falk, the CEO of StartOut, the national nonprofit dedicated to empowering LGBT entrepreneurs and business leaders. He has served as an executive at HBO and Showtime, as well as a globally-renowned nonprofit leader at Mothers2Mothers, GLAAD, and others. Follow StartOut on Twitter @StartOut.
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