Out on Bay Street

Conference brings employers and LGBT students together

Before starting his MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Andreas Kouremenos worked as a professional engineer. But he had a secret.

Throughout his engineering career, he never felt comfortable enough in the industry to come out as a gay man to his employer or colleagues.

“Engineering is a profession that tends to be very patriarchal. I didn’t feel the need to have to be out,” he said.

Now that he’s nearly finished his MBA and preparing to enter the world of finance, he’s facing an industry with a similar attitude.

“There’s a general stigma within business that there really aren’t any LGBT people within organizations,” he said.

But an event he attended in New York last year called Reaching Out MBA — which brought together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) MBA students and LGBT-positive organizations — showed him he could change that perception by starting up a similar event in Canada.

“There really hasn’t been a forum here in Canada for LGBT and business people to get together and discuss not only LGBT events but just to promote those values within business in general,” said Kouremenos.

After nearly a year of planning and working with student Ariel Benibgui at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, and other students from both Rotman and Schulich, Canada’s first business conference and career fair targeting LGBT students, Out on Bay Street, ran last month.

About 16 corporate sponsors and 50 students from across Canada, and a few from the United States and Spain, attended the two-day conference in Toronto. Students were able to network with gay-positive organizations, as well as with other students, and attend professional development sessions.

Being an LGBT-positive employer just makes good business sense, according to Brad Salavich, manager of diversity programs for IBM Canada, one of the conference’s sponsors.

Leveraging diversity from all groups, be it women, visible minorities or LGBT, is a key element of IBM Canada’s business strategy because it allows the company to “bring about the innovations in the marketplace that our customers expect from us,” said Salavich.

IBM amended its anti-discrimination policy in 1984 to include sexual orientation and again in 1992 to include gender identity. It created an LGBT employee resource group in 1992, introduced same-sex benefits in 1993 and its core diversity training programs have a strong LGBT component.

“We have a very good environment, an open, welcoming, inclusive environment, especially for LGBT employees,” he said. “IBM Canada views itself as the leading employer for LGBT employees and we have set the benchmark for many companies that are now developing programs that are mimicking what it is we developed in the first place.”

TD Bank Financial Group, Out on Bay Street’s lead sponsor, has also been sponsoring the annual week-long event Pride Toronto for the past three years, said Scott Mullin, vice-president of government and community relations at TD.

When the bank started its relationship with Pride Toronto, it was still an “edgy” endeavour, said Mullin, but it was part of the bank’s strategy to show potential and current employees that it’s an LGBT-positive employer.

“There’s a war for talent out there and we want to make sure we are positioned to be able to attract the best and brightest that we are able to find,” he said.

Shortly after first sponsoring Pride Toronto, employees at the bank formed the Pride Network, made up of LGBT employees and those interested in LGBT issues, to share information about events the bank is sponsoring, such as its work with Casey House, the Toronto hospice for HIV/AIDS patients, and internal initiatives. It’s also a social and professional network, said Mullin.

“When you’re a big company like us, these sorts of networks are important,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to identify who your women are when you’re talking about wanting to enhance career opportunities for women, and it’s also fairly easily to identify who your visible minorities are when you want to talk about those issues. This is a community that is harder to identify in any organization, especially if people aren’t feeling comfortable about their sexuality in a big company.”

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