Queers in Careers @ Out for Undergrad

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 27, 2013

"There are actually LGBT people in tech," said Brian Donghee Shin.

The Columbia University student, who will get a BS in Computer Science in 2015, realized the connection between his field and himself through Out for Undergrad. Created in 2004, the nonprofit facilitates events for high-potential, career-seeking LGBT students who excel in academics, demonstrate leadership and have professional experience through internships, clubs or start-ups.

Out for Undergrad (O4U) hosts ongoing mentoring and regular conferences in the business, technology and leadership sectors, offering merit scholarships for the 200 expected participants for each event. Their next Business Conference will be held October 4-5 at JP Morgan in New York City, and this 10th anniversary program will focus on careers in finance, consulting and accounting.

Modeled on MBA-recruitment programs, O4U held its first conference at Cornell University for queer students looking for work in the historically non-gay-friendly fields of management consulting and investment banking. Kevin Prior graduated from Harvard with a BA in Government and participated in the group's East Coast Business Conference. But he found himself working in technology on the other side of the country, so he led sponsorship and fundraising efforts out west and became director for this year's third O4U Tech Conference in Menlo Park, CA, on October 19-20. The symposium will be held at Facebook's HQ, where Prior is now a Product Marketing Manager and an active member of [email protected].

"We want to help students understand how a typical tech company might work within multiple disciplines like design, software engineering, marketing and sales," Prior said. "And give them a taste of Silicon Valley culture, full of ideas and innovation followed by funding."

Swarthmore College graduate Chloe Stevens also linked into O4U's network on the West Coast. During a Google internship last summer, "Gayglers," the internet search giant's LGBT group, invited her to an O4U networking dinner. "It was my first time ever in a space only for LGBT people," she said. "They all had similar interests to mine."

Clay Smalley is studying computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, and met important queer leaders in the tech industry via O4U. This opportunity landed him an internship at San Francisco's utility industry consultant Opower, and made him feel "far more confident in coming out to coworkers."

"The Out for Undergrad Technology Conference really opened my eyes to the various opportunities in tech," said Clara Tsao, who has biology and sociology degrees from UCLA. Stevens, who now heads O4U's West Coast gender diversity initiatives, learned a lot about start-ups and how to talk to potential employers with confidence and purpose.

O4U business connections are deeper than mere job searches, and mentorship is a key part of the initiative. "It's rare to find a support community of LGBT professionals who take time out of their day to provide career advice and guidance," Tsao said. Shin is still in touch with his mentors, some of whom became colleagues during his Facebook internship.

David Hernandez appreciates O4U's unique job resources in the LGBT community, which usually only offers personal and social outlets "but not as much support for aspiring and actual professionals." He's aiming for a computer science and math degree from Virginia Tech next year, and also got a software development internship at Opower as a summer "Ossociate" ("they like their 'O' puns," he said).

Prior said that on the sponsorship side "we help companies understand how to build diversity at their companies. Many are eager to increase programs for LGBT employees but don't know what to do."

O4U facilitates exchanges of best practices for diversity initiatives and offers outside perspectives. A recruiter at a large enterprise tech company told Prior she had no idea there were so many LGBT students and employees. "Our organization builds the bridge between college and careers," Prior said. "It's not particularly easy for anyone, but it's especially hard for LGBT individuals."

But why is it important to be out at the office? Because "the workplace isn't as insular and impersonal as one might think," Prior said. A professional coming out is different than a personal one, and can consist of several stages to include co-workers and all levels of management. Some students believe that only merit or output should count at work, but Prior said that "you want to build rapport with your officemates, to build trust that, studies show, leads to higher collaboration and productivity gains."

"The professional is often personal," added Prior. "The more comfortable you are opening up, the better you are going to be working with people." He also notes that a corporate coming out can be an ongoing process due to office churn like promotions, job changes, and adding new partners and clients.

"Before O4U, I thought of my sexuality as something personal and private," said Stevens, who will start as a Google software engineer in September. "But I've learned that being LGBT doesn't have to be a bad thing at work. You can be open about it, and even use that identity as a way to meet and network with others. It's a really important part of who you are."

In fact, "being out in the workplace can help propel your career," said Prior. "O4U's Business Conference opened my eyes that my sexual identity was not something I had to hide, or whisper about in the hallway, but quite the opposite. You can build a meaningful network of mentors, peers and professionals who identify with the challenges of being LGBT."

O4U's Business and Technical Conferences both center on industry education and the recruitment of LGBT individuals, using a Socratic approach at panels, discussions and during meals. Prior said these conferences discuss workplace scenarios and case studies such as how a transgendered person should address research or a CV under another name.

"My biggest conference takeaway is having the confidence to be your true self as a professional," said Hernandez. "This helped me set my priorities when looking for a job and made me a stronger employee overall. A person is more fun to work with when he or she can truly express self."

These student and alumni participants universally value the friendships forged at the organization's events. "O4U helped me create a LGBT support network across the country," said Tsao, currently a tech policy fellow at Google's DC office, as well as the US Congressional App Challenge's Executive Director. "Their influence and openness made me much more comfortable about my sexual orientation. Prior to the conferences, only a few friends knew I was bisexual. Now I'm more at ease being open in the workplace because O4U is like a second family."

Hernandez said he met some of his best friends at O4U's tech event, and also discovered Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM). Shin found his best friend at O4U, where he got "the confidence to be myself in the workplace" too.

Out for Undergrad has thousands of professional and international alumni, and is run by an all-volunteer team of pre-MBA organizers and a national Board of Directors.

Their current geographic hubs in New York and San Francisco are active in community events like local AIDS walks, and they plan to add a Chicago presence soon. O4U's Leadership Conference was held last April in the nation's capital, and Hernandez would like to see the nonprofit expand networking into other professions and into academia.

Prior thinks O4U is part of a wider movement making headway in the national dialogue alongside groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry. "These groups are all extremely important," he said. "And it's just as important to help people in their personal daily interactions so they can be themselves in whatever context, whether with family and friends, or at work."

"The individual interactions of LGBT people and their coming out drives gay rights within mainstream opinion," Prior added. "Being out in the workplace isn't a detriment, but an identity to leverage and propel a career, and make you a happy, healthy professional, comfortable in your own skin."

Prior is excited to see O4U grow and continue to help students emerge as "proud, confident and out professionals, as well as to assist larger industries and national movements foster LGBT communities." Smalley said, "Out for Undergrad means the world to me. I would not be where I am right now if I had not gone to the conferences." He agrees with Hernandez that the group should expand to cover more industries.

Being from Houston, Smalley knows many people in the oil business. "That industry could use quite a lot of help in the LGBT-acceptance department," he said.

For further information and scholarship applications for the two October conferences, visit www.outforundergrad.org

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com