A fair bit of coverage has been devoted to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people in business. Some articles have applauded the efforts of Wall Street companies this year: they’ve hosted everything from Pride celebrations to the Out on the Street panel, during which Wall Street executives spoke about their openly gay sons. Still, others have pointed out that while companies are making every effort to appear open and progressive, there are still very few openly gay chief executives among the biggest companies in the United States.
The barriers LGBT people face in business can begin as early as the college years, where the paths students take might hinge on the mentors they find and opportunities they’re offered. Out for Undergrad (O4U), a non-profit organization, is working to break down those barriers by helping high-achieving LGBT undergraduates reach their full career potential.
Origins and growth
The first O4U Business Conference was put together 11 years ago by several MBA students at Cornell University. Initially conducted as a community service event, the participating students and sponsors wound up continuing it into following years. Though the conference has more than quadrupled in size, to this day, it is organized and run by volunteers, most of whom are former student participants. “It used to be less than 100 students, and now we have maxed out our capacity and we’re turning students away,” Executive Director Baylee Feore says. “Same thing with sponsors. It’s very difficult for us to take new sponsors at this point—which is a good problem to have.”
In 2012, O4U expanded to two conferences: one for business and one for tech. There are also alumni activities throughout the year now, as well as a year-long University Program which provides support and resources for current students. The organization’s website describes it as “a comprehensive curriculum designed to help LGBT students develop as leaders and individuals.”
When students apply to the University Program, they indicate which of the two conferences they’re interested in. Leading up to October, when both conferences are held, accepted students get preparatory material to ensure that they hit the ground running.
The two conferences are structurally similar: both are weekend events. However, Feore says the cultures of the two are quite different. The business conference is held at JPMorgan in New York, students attend wearing suits or similar formal wear, and everyone shows up with a resume. Other features include informational sessions about different industries and lunches during which students can eat and converse with various sponsors. The tech conference, on the other hand, includes activities like an idea generation and pitch fest.
While at the conferences, students also get placed in mentor groups where they can discuss different LGBT-specific issues, like problems they’ve faced going into the working world. Post-conference, the University Program expands into less industry-specific material and focuses on long-term career and life advice, providing students with mentorship and leadership development.