The Business of Being LGBT at Wharton

Dave Bartlett tell us why many ivy league business students are coming out; Plus: The White Party at Voyeur

Photo by Think Stock

There’s a lot happening at UPenn these days, especially if you’re LGB or T. Not only does the school have an LGBT Center that got started in the early 80s, but the Wharton School also has a longtime LGBT group called Out4Biz that’s changing the way students deal with sexuality in the global workplace today. In addition to counting future entrepreneurs, faculty and staff in its ranks, the social club also welcomes as many as 80 or more straight allies among its membership.

From its home in University City, Out4Biz also connects future LGBT business leaders with companies across the world. G Philly wanted to find out more about the group and what it’s like coming out at work and on a resume, so we sat down with Dave Bartlett, Out4Biz president, who told us a little about the way industry is changing for LGBT and straight graduates alike.

“We’ve been in existence for 20 or 30 years,” says Bartlett, a graduate student at Wharton. “We are a resource for students and alumni.” He also says the fact that they’ve been working with dozens of straight allies signals a changing attitude in much of the business world.

UPenn's LGBT Center is the home base for gay issues on campus (courtesy of UPenn)

“Nowadays there are companies interested in a more diverse workforce,” Bartlett admits. “They’re banging on our door.”

This year, Accenture, Citigroup, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley all hosted recruiting events with Out4Biz at Wharton. And as more major companies foster their own LGBT groups (like PECO and Wells Fargo here in Philly), Bartlett says they’re also considering potential hires that fulfill a code of diversity. While banks and consulting firms have not historically been the most diverse places to work, he says, this is changing – even if much still depends on industry and geography.

“Wharton is 40 percent international,” says Bartlett. “We have members who have never really been out and they come here and are coming out of the closet for the first time.” This is especially true for students from Asian and Middle Eastern countries where, in a few cases, being gay is illegal. “We have been an emotional resource,” says Bartlett. “It’s useful to get a sense of what it’s like in other peoples’ shoes.”

These days, the group counts as many as 200 members. And since there are fees associated with joining the organization, Bartlett says members – especially companies and straight allies – take it very seriously.

He also admits that there are many alumni who may be out now, but may not have been quite so open when they attended the school years ago. “When we have events during alumni weekend,” he says, “people come out of the woodwork.” The group has been working with many of these folks to build a network for LGBT graduates today.

In fact, coming out has been and continues to be a major issue. “It can be the number-one decision,” says Bartlett, “whether you want to be out on your resume and whether you’re out in your internship.” And he says that depends a lot on the culture of a company and where you’re located. “When people live in Asia all their lives, they may feel they can be more open in New York City, but might have better job prospects in China,” says Bartlett. “We really try to support each other. And that’s why our straight allies are so important. Although they may not be gay themselves, they offer a broader reach.”

There are also students who come to Wharton from environments that may be much less accepting of LGBT people in general – whether this has to do with a culture or institution like the military (though he admits this, too, is evolving). In an increasingly global economy and business world, it’s less likely to remain sheltered within one geography, says Bartlett. “I could easily go and have my consulting job in San Francisco,” he says. “But even if you work in the U.S., you may have to travel to some place like Singapore. And there, people are faced with different cultures.”

He says in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, you can be killed for being gay. “You have to work across all those cultures,” he explains, “and being gay, you might wonder how do you navigate?”

Out4Biz spends a lot of time answering these new questions, and in the Gayborhood throughout the year – working on annual events in the community – like the AIDS Walk next month. Bartlett says the group is also currently raising money for a new LGBT scholarship for graduate school students at Wharton. “We’re lining up corporate sponsors and alumni,” he says. “Most importantly, it’s a good signal to have an international business school offering a scholarship of this kind to show acceptance and support.” He says no other ivy league school offers such a scholarship. Wharton will likely be the first.

Out4Biz White Party, Sept. 15, 10 p.m., Voyeur, 1221 St. James St.