Expand: The ABCs of LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace

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By Greg Akers, Editor-in-Chief, Memphis Business Journal

(This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal, June 10, 2021.)

The conversations that make us the most uncomfortable are often the most important. 

That not only rings true in our personal lives but in the business world. And it is through those tough discussions that significant and meaningful change is able to occur. 

In an effort to help facilitate change — for the betterment of our community — the Memphis Business Journal established its Expand series in 2017. The intent of these ongoing panels is to bring together leaders to not simply pontificate about topics like diversity and inclusion and corporate social responsibility but to articulate actionable steps. 

It is only through our collective action that we will truly become an inclusive place to live and work, and, thus, thrive. 

The latest Expand event, held virtually on May 25, focused on issues experienced by members of the LGBTQ community in Memphis business.

Expand panelists included Whitney Hardy, chief capacity officer for Epicenter; Milton Howery III, director of Public Relations for Memphis Tourism; and Chris Miller, president of Yuletide Office Solutions.

The discussion was moderated by Ray Rico, the founder of Ray Rico Freelance and managing publisher of Focus Mid-South and Focus Middle Tennessee

The following Q&A is excerpted from the Expand panel and has been edited for clarity and brevity. — GA

Ray Rico is principal and owner of Ray Rico Freelance and publisher of Focus Mid-South and Focus Middle Tennessee.

Ray Rico: Historically, Pride Month is a time for celebration, and it seems like some companies jump on the bandwagon during that month. We’ve seen businesses be more public and inclusive in some areas. As an entrepreneur or businessperson, do you feel there’s more work to do? What advice would you have for companies?

Chris MillerWhat you’re seeing mainly with the Pride parades, you’re seeing the small businesses, but you’re also seeing the national or international businesses that are involved, that are large enough to have programs put together to include all. I’ve been involved in the business world for 47 years, and I’m very proud and happy to see how far we’ve come. But, it’s got a long way to go.

Whitney HardyAbsolutely, I echo that. There’s a ton of work that still needs to be done. This isn’t just something that can be put inside of one month. … What are you doing to say you did the education around what’s really happening in the system? Why does it look like this? Why was there a problem for us to be having a conversation about this in the first place? That education takes a while. This is not one D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) class. This is not a one- or two-day conference we send everybody to. It really is day-to-day work. One of my favorite quotes said in these conversations is, “Complex problems require complex solutions.” Those complex solutions take the emotional and intellectual intelligence to start collaborating and stepping out of boxes so we can create those solutions with diverse groups. The work’s not done yet, because we’re still defining what this complex solution has to look like in a multilayered way. With entrepreneurs, where are they getting access to capital, because there are plenty of banks that will discriminate against them. And what ZIP codes they might be serving depending on where they’re starting their business, or finding mentorship.

Milton Howery III: If Pride Month has arrived and you’re just now thinking about the LGBTQ community, you’ve lost the ball already. Use Pride as an opportunity to start the conversation, but it has to be a yearlong process. What you truly believe in as an organization will be reflected in your policies, the way you operate, and how you interact with the community.

Rico: A subject that needs to be brought to the table: how businesses put their money where their mouth is, and the stances that communities and businesses take through legislation that is discriminatory. Discrimination is not good business, people. What sort of impact do you think supporting discriminatory legislation has on an employee, on a staff, on a community?

Whitney Hardy is the chief capacity officer at Epicenter and founder of 3RDSPACE.

Hardy: This is what’s pushing growth in entrepreneurs. People are tired of being in spaces where they’re treated without respect. … We’re seeing big tides of change happen. There are more Chris Millers out there who are ready to mentor me as a young LGBT entrepreneur. Because Chris has made himself visible. … Discrimination is going to continue. It’s how we navigate it, absorb it, and pivot so that we can still succeed.

Howery: [Discriminatory legislation] has a significant impact on the city. … That affects how people perceive Memphis. … If you are an employer, and you’re making sure that you’re inclusive, but at the end of the day, you go home, and you vote and support policies that are definitely in conflict with what you say you want in your organization. … You cannot invite me into your workspace and have me put on my suit and show up for you. And then when I leave your building, the world that you also created for me, I have to battle with. You have to support me, not just in your building and your office, not just in my community. Every citizen and business owner is responsible for voting on things that are for the greater good of everyone and not just your self-interest.

Rico: Culture drives everything in an organization. How important is it for job seekers to do their homework and figure out what companies are about?

Hardy: I can go to your employee page, and there are so many things we can look at, all the way down to philanthropic groups. How many of them give to diverse founders? How many have a diverse leadership team? Are all of the people of color and LGBTQIA individuals at the bottom? … If I go to your Instagram, and I don’t see any diversity in there, and then come June you hit me with a rainbow, you’re lying to me.

Rico: If we’re talking about effective change, how important is it for inclusivity to start at the top?

Hardy: Oh, it’s a requirement. It really does set the culture.

Rico: Some folks should also take things as a learning moment. I know I’ve had lots of learning moments in my career, and I’m still learning things every day. Whether it be language, how to communicate, how to be a better leader, or how to be a thought leader in the community. What sort of learning moments can you encourage for folks?

Milton Howery III, director of Public Relations for Memphis Tourism

Howery: You have to be intentional about education yourself. You have to be really intentional about wanting to figure out what it is and get to a point of discovering and learning new things. Particularly things that affect how you might govern how you manage your staff.

Hardy: We are all not just one thing. You’re not just learning Whitney is Black, you’re not just learning Whitney is a lesbian, and you are not just hiring Whitney as a cisgender woman. You’re saying, when we put all these things together, when we put all of these systemic oppressions together, how does that mixture show up?

Rico: What does pride in the workplace look like to you?

Hardy: Being able to be yourself.

Howery: It looks very different now than it did a decade ago. … Today, I’m able to talk to my coworkers, talk to my CEO, and have conversations about my dating life without being worried if I will lose my job or if they’ll think I’m not capable. Pride for me means that I’m welcomed to exist as I am.

Chris Miller is CEO and president of Yuletide Office Solutions.

Miller: For me and my employees, it’s everybody being able to be themselves.

Rico: If you could speak to the younger generation who are entering the job field and who are going to be driving some of this change, what sort of advice would you give them?

Hardy: It’s not just about your career, it’s also about your love life, that you’re able to build outside of that. The home you create, work is involved in that all the time. So, go to a place where you’re loved, because your life will just be more beautiful.

Howery: I want to say thank you to all the people who have come before me, who have allowed me to have this conversation. You know, 16-year-old Milton was fearful of this moment. I was fearful of what my 30s would look like and the opportunities that might be available to me if I was to be my authentic self. Be unafraid. As long as it is your truth and your authentic self, you will succeed.

Attendee question: There is an art to creating safe spaces without segregating and tokenizing individuals. How can accountability reports hold executives to their share of labor and affirming LGBTQIA employees within the workplace?

Hardy: It goes back to transparency. Instead of pride month, for instance, being where we start doing the work, what if that’s the part where you have to tell me what you did in the past year? What was your impact over the past year since last June? I want to hear from the executive director delivering those stats. Because it’s not about the committee or council you created, but the highest level saying, “We could do better, or we didn’t hit that mark, or we’re going to move that mark higher.” … When I share it with my whole staff, and we say we’re going to report how we did June of next year: They’re waiting, and they see it because they know you can’t fix it in 30 days. It’s going to take a year of work to come up with a better solution.

Howery: We’re always measuring the success of the company with revenue, but it has to be just as important to meet your diversity goals as your revenue goals. They have to be equal.

Attendee question: What resources or examples could help companies and leadership as they’re navigating these crucial topics?

Hardy: We’ve got great entrepreneurs on this panel. For young entrepreneurs, having conversations with [experienced] entrepreneurs who have been doing this for years is imperative. It’s both supporting them and educating yourself, and also creating a bigger network. Understanding what the things are that it took for them to be successful as entrepreneurs helps us do better and create better environments.

Miller: It wasn’t there for us, there weren’t business leaders there for us who were LGBT who would help you and pave that way. But, we have come a long way. There are resources now that we didn’t have in the past.

Rico: I wish I had someone 15 or 20 years ago who I felt confident with that I could have talked to. A lot has changed. You’ve got resources, not just here but with the Memphis Business Journal, with Mid-South Focus, or with LGBTQIA groups. Look to your community. We’re here for you.

Watch the full panel virtually here:  MBJ Expand: LGBTQIA/Pride in the Workplace