Let's finish what Tim Cook started

2014 is the year that proved being out and being successful are not mutually exclusive. On the day Apple's Tim Cook came out as the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company (and one of only three among publicly traded U.S. companies), StartOut's phone lines rang off the hook, our inboxes were filled to capacity, and our website crashed for hours due to a tremendous spike in traffic eager to learn more about being openly LGBT in American business.

Tim Cook onstage at an Apple event.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Tim Cook onstage at an Apple event.

As the glass ceiling facing LGBT business leaders came crashing down, many began to wonder what would happen next and how it would affect us all.

"For me, this announcement is an extremely personal one. I've struggled with being out in the workplace, unsure of the ramifications and opinions of others. This is a sign that it's OK to be out," said Alex Capecelatro, an openly gay Gen-Y CEO. "Tim's announcement makes me feel empowered, excited, and thankful to him and all who've come before him to pave the way for true equality. It only gets better from here. "

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For many years, the "business case" for equality had been difficult to prove as the critical mass of data needed just wasn't available. Coming out, either as an openly LGBT business leader or a supportive ally, is a powerful gesture that can yield staggeringly positive effects. Now, on top of the empowerment and sense of support that comes from an inclusive workplace and entrepreneurship culture, we have enough proof points that to help convince even the most conservative CEO, investor, or politician that supporting the LGBT business community is essential.

Even Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, is on the record stating, "America's corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and it's the right thing to do."

Despite all of this, we must remember that equality is not equity. Just because a law exists on paper or an inclusive policy is printed in the company handbook, it doesn't mean that the LGBT community is completely supported. Economic empowerment for the LGBT community is the next great frontier. Yet much remains to be done before everyone reaps the benefits of such equality.

Even though start-ups in America are forecast to contribute up to 50 percent of all new jobs in the coming decades, there are still major hurdles that stunt the growth of LGBT owned and operated small businesses. Among the many concerns is that there is currently no federal law in place that uniformly protects LGBT people from credit discrimination. Discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation remains legal in many states.

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Similar to what happened to women before the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, LGBT Americans can still be denied a mortgage, credit card, student loan, and other forms of lending. Most colleagues of mine are shocked to learn that I could be married in 35 states, but denied a bank loan in as many as 27. Many ask why they haven't heard about this problem, and I have to respond with the sad news that there is simply no one to tell when this happens. Until now. Organizations like StartOut and politicians nationwide are committed to finally and permanently leveling this playing field so the American Dream is accessible to all LGBT business innovators in need of funding.

If you're reading this at work, take a moment and look at the photo of your husband or wife on your desk. On the most challenging days at the office, it feels comforting to see them smiling back at you. In 29 states, an openly gay employee can be fired (32 states if transgender), with absolutely no recourse just for having that photo out. More and more state legislatures are fighting this problem, but a national Employee Non Discrimination Act is needed to make it possible for LGBT workers and entrepreneurs to succeed everywhere. Out & Equal Workplace Advocated, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and others join our call to Congress to act on this for the sake of America's LGBT workers and job creators.

If you're reading this at home, think about some of your favorite brands around you and consider that nearly all of them put some dollars toward attracting the LGBT community attention. Even more is happening behind closed doors. Employers are working overtime to fight the subtle biases that still linger in corporate culture, which is great for morale and even greater for the bottom line. Out Now Global and The Center for American Progress has shown that by simply creating a more inclusive workplace, a company of 10,000 people would potentially save as much as $5 million dollars in rehiring and retraining costs for their LGBT employees they would normally lose due to lack of protections. And now that we live in a world where openly gay CEOs like Tim Cook are welcomed and applauded, the employees fostered by that inclusive workplace can see all the way to the top of the ladder.

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We have a long way to go before achieving the level playing field needed for the LGBT business community to fully act on its potential, but that "Sunlit path toward justice" that Tim Cook referred to when coming out is becoming much easier for many to walk down every day. The community is empowered, inspired, and ready to make 2015 the best year yet for LGBT business yet.

Commentary by Jonathan Lovitz, director of communications at StartOut, the national nonprofit dedicated to empowering LGBT entrepreneurs and business leaders. Follow StartOut on Twitter @StartOut.

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