The tidal wave of change that we now call “diversity and inclusion” has become a major focus of corporate America over the past decade. On the heels of ongoing gender and racial progress in the workplace, only recently have LGBTQ rights, recognition, and integration been more fully embraced, and only this past June were LGBTQ workplace rights affirmed by the Supreme Court — at last.
Why am I beginning this personal essay with a brief history lesson? Because none of this seemed remotely possible for the handful of us who were “out” as we began our Wharton MBAs back in 1982. Most of us had already found our true identities as we graduated from college and entered the workplace before coming to Wharton, and we accepted that we could not be “out” at the office back then. We left a closeted existence behind as we brought our full, authentic selves to B-school, despite potential repercussions that were still very real in that era. No more hiding. No more pretending.
As I look back on those years at Wharton, I can say that they proved to be foundational for our professional and personal lives. Being “out” among our peers in business school set the stage for us to do the same in the corporate world — yet only when the time was right, years later. For many of us, reentry into our careers after Wharton was a jarring lurch backwards, particularly for those of us on Wall Street. After living openly for two years in academia, we were back in the closet.
My own journey in business and philanthropy over the past four decades reflects the massive — and previously unthinkable — changes in societal norms. Consider when I joined Brown Brothers Harriman (where I proudly remain today) after Wharton in 1984: LGBTQ was just a jumble of meaningless letters; there were no openly gay business or political leaders; and anyone speaking up about diversity would likely be shut down within an organization. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the unspoken protocol on Wall Street.
Imagine a typical Monday-morning chat around a trading desk. For most people, an innocent question like “What did you do last weekend?” was just part of a friendly exchange among colleagues. But for a closeted gay professional, it was a most uncomfortable, often dreaded office ritual that required silence or a shading of the truth. Significant life events were hidden: My close friend and gay colleague, Douglas Byrd, shared his HIV diagnosis with me in 1988, well before AZT or any miracle cocktails were available. Within a year, he was dead, and no one was really able to talk about it at work, least of all me. I miss him deeply to this day.
Fast-forward to 1996, when I was asked to join the partnership of BBH. I was proud to be the first Jewish partner in the firm’s then 178-year history. Perhaps equally as important, I was the first gay partner as well — though that was neither disclosed nor discussed. I remember my first black-tie partners’ holiday dinner. While everyone else celebrated with a wife, husband, or significant other, I joined in alone.
As the world changed around us, BBH evolved equally fast, deeply embracing the D&I agenda and saying loud and clear to all constituencies — employees, vendors, clients, and prospects — that the values of diversity, tolerance, and inclusivity would define our future. I now proudly arrive at those partners’ dinners with my partner, Matt, by my side. It’s been gratifying to be a part of this period of change and to understand the critical role I can play as an openly gay leader in the Wall Street community.
But I am also often reminded that there’s much more work to be done. Back at my desk after the first BBH Pride Network meeting, I read an email from a young colleague who shared that he was really glad he’d joined the meeting and felt that if I was there, it was okay for him to be there as well. He also confided that only minutes before the meeting, he was shaking at his desk, unsure if he would attend. That email galvanized my efforts to make sure that no professional of any age feels unable to identify as LGBTQ in our workplace.
From 2016 to 2019, I was privileged to serve as the first openly gay president of UJA-Federation of New York, the largest local philanthropy in the world. It was a defining chapter in my life, and it deepened my commitment to harnessing philanthropy to change people’s lives. Today, I’m pleased to fund the first Wharton Prism Fellowship, which has awarded its initial full two-year fellowship to Colan Wang WG22, an incoming MBA student who has demonstrated strong leadership and has self-identified as LGBTQ. My, how the world has changed — in very positive ways.
We are all fortunate to be living in a time when diversity and inclusion are becoming rapidly embraced, and it is an impressive priority for Wharton. Societies have figured out that it is not just morally right to “embrace thy neighbor”; it has become economically costly to have policies and practices that don’t support diversity. Today there is a growing awareness and appreciation, backed up by measurable data, that our lives are enhanced — culturally, intellectually, professionally, emotionally, and financially — by welcoming inclusion.
While LGBTQ and other diverse student leaders are now in high demand at business schools, that doesn’t mean all the roadblocks in front of them have been cleared away. A year ago, the LGBTQ affinity group at Wharton, Out4Biz (which has more than 700 members!), invited me to speak. I joined a group of 20 students for dinner afterwards and was surprised that only a few had identified as LGBTQ on their résumés. I live in a business world where my firm and many others are actively seeking diverse candidates, so it was a bit startling that the students around the table were apprehensive about showing their authentic selves to prospective employers. We still have a long way to go.
The members of the WG22 class this fall may not appreciate how much has changed on Wall Street and beyond since my days at Wharton, or how much they are beneficiaries of this period of rapid societal change. It delights me to know that the Prism Fellowship and increased diversity in their class will foster richer exchange, learning, and growth over their course of study, and that they will enter a more open and accepting corporate world when they graduate. I am also delighted to see that Wharton has emerged at the forefront in building the most diverse class among leading U.S. business schools. Simply wonderful.
Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld WG84 is partner and head of Global Institutional Business Development & Relationship Management at BBH. He also helps lead the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts and is the founding sponsor for its LGBTQ affinity group, BBH Pride.
Published as “An Out Leader’s Journey” in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.