I’m Todd Sears and I’m the founder of Out Leadership which is a global LGBT+ business advisory. Out Leadership is the first global LGBT+ business organization to convene and connect senior LGBT leaders and business with the goal of connecting to do good business together, to develop, and to engage LGBT talent and ultimately drive LGBT equality forward.
I would describe myself as an equality entrepreneur. Eliza Byard who is the CEO of GLSEN — which is the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network which focuses on LGBT youth and schools — called me that six or seven years ago and it stuck. I think that it’s a good and apt descriptor because I am a social entrepreneur by nature, whether I was a banker, investment banker or a diversity leader. I’ve always focused on building and all of the things I’ve built in my career have been focused on LGBT equality.
So when I started Out Leadership, we had six organizations - six Wall Street banks, and that was because that was my background. I originally called the organization “Out on the Street” and I was able to convince the CEO of Deutsche Bank at the time to help me host this conversation to talk about business, talent and equality. The framework was that I wanted only senior business leaders, director level or higher business leaders and not HR professionals or diversity professionals because they get it. But if I can get business leaders to get it and understand that LGBT inclusion is a business driver and it is a bottom line impact then I think we would be able to have something.
So Bank of America, Barclays, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were our first original six firms. I gave each of those six firms 20 slots for director level or higher business leaders for that original conversation. We were 200% oversubscribed for that first conversation downtown in New York City and from there, I grew it. So six years ago, I launched it in London and five years ago I launched it in Hong Kong. We were the first LGBT summit in Asia. And two years ago, we launched it in Sao Paolo and Sydney. We’ve now grown to almost 70 member companies. We’ve convened around 7,000 senior business leaders globally as well as emerging leaders, senior LGBT women, board leaderships and over 320 CEOs. The CEO piece is one of the things that I’m proudest of because prior to OUT leadership, we’ve never seen more than one CEO in the same place at the same time discussing LGBT issues. Now, in every single one of our summits in the world, in which we have 27 so far, we have a CEO panel. This has now become something that is really a CEO-led and CEO-driven conversation.
I would like my legacy to be that I was able to convene and create a conversation where none existed. When I started Out Leadership, LGBT inclusion was never a business issue. CEOs weren’t discussing it and it was not something that was a global understanding in the business community. We’ve been able to now connect CEOs across five continents and help have LGBT be a conversation in places it never was, whether it was Davos or Hong Kong or Singapore – it was just all around the world. Just the ability for us to enable that conversation and to create a space for that conversation along with the impact that’s been able to have through quiet conversations with CEOs, business leaders and government leaders, I think is a true legacy. It’s a true legacy because that’s something that continues. It’s not about me, it’s about the conversations we’re able to create.
Tell us about your career journey.
If I’m going to tell you about my career, I actually have to start at the very beginning of coming out.
The first piece of that coming out story started here in New York City when I came to see “Angels in America”, written by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright. I really related to one of the characters in that play, Joe the Mormon, who was played by a guy named David Marshall Grant. I was a senior at a boarding school in Virginia at the time and watching that play in that theater made me realize that I was going to be Joe the Mormon. I was going to be this straight, white picket fence guy and do all of the right things to conform to society. It was right in that theater I came out to myself when I realized I couldn’t do that to myself. And for anyone who’s had to come out to themselves, they know that can be a very traumatic experience. Everything that you’ve built around yourself and who you were going to be in that moment goes away. You have to do that rebuilding of who you actually really are. Though, you later realize that you’re actually the exact same person that you were with just more information. But still, in that moment it can be very traumatic.
So I went back to boarding school and I wrote David Marshall Grant a letter. I sent it to the Walter Kerr Theater. And believe it or not, he wrote me back. I remember in my four years at Duke, he wrote me a letter every year and when I moved to New York City he took me to dinner. I share that because that was actually one of the first formative experiences of understanding the LGBT community, support, and sponsors. That allowed me to be myself and to come out to my fraternity brothers, to my family, and ultimately when I came to Wall Street, out to my colleagues. Unfortunately, with the first bank that I started at in the late 90s, my boss was homophobic and so I immediately went back in the closet and did what anyone else in a homophobic environment did. I looked for a new job.
The second investment bank that I started at was called DeSilva + Phillips. I was out in my interview. I said, “Look, I’m gay and you need to know that,” and the partners were like, “That’s totally fine, of course, why wouldn’t that be okay?” — which was a learning for me as well because I thought I had to wear my LGBT status on my sleeve because I’ve been discriminated against. What that also allowed me to do was to actually connect my LGBT status to business opportunity in which those senior leaders connected me to CEOs. Thus, I was able to win business for the firm by being out and that was a new experience for me.
So in 2001, I switched sides in the world and went into private banking at Merrill Lynch. I had to build a business. I had to bring in a million dollars a month of new assets and if after eight months, I didn’t make eight million dollars under management, I was fired. I was 26 or 25 and a half and I thought, “How could I do this?” I then looked around and realized there was no one in the financial services industry at the time who was focusing on the LGBT market opportunity. I thought about it and realized then that that there were a thousand and forty-nine rights at a federal level that gay couples don’t receive because they can’t get legal marriage recognition. And most of those rights have to do with financial services such as estate taxes, titling, asset transfer, investing. I thought that why couldn’t we, as a financial services institution, actually create a niche to serve that market?
After that, I basically set about building that and after the first twelve months, I brought in a 100 million dollars and then after the first four years, I brought in 1.4 billion dollars. Half of it was from LGBT non-profit organizations, like HRC, Lambda Legal, etc. and we built and managed their endowments and their plan-giving programs. Then the other half were domestic partner couples all over the country. What that taught me was that I could drive LGBT business success by actually engaging in the community. Along the way, I got Merrill Lynch, an old conservative Catholic command-and-control organization to actually support the LGBT community, getting them to sponsor organizations, give away money, support what I was doing and even change their non-discrimination policies and adding domestic partner benefits. All of that was driven because they knew that was good for the bottom line. And so I sort of took that learning when I left Merrill and moved to Credit Suisse. I led diversity and inclusion for them in the Americas with that same framework. Though in 2010, they had a change of management and I was laid off. I was asked to leave. I was given a severance check and shown the door despite the fact that we had achieved all of our goals. Though, this was also an interesting career inflection for me because for anyone who’s been fired before, especially for no cause, you know that’s a moment when you just have to sort of adjust yourself and say, “How am I going to get past this?” And, I was sitting on my sofa with a severance check and a martini and I thought about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Then I went back to the idea that LGBT inclusion was a business driver and I looked around and I said that there’s nothing that convenes that power of the LGBT community. Then, I looked at Davos, the World Economic Forum, and I wondered if I could create that for the LGBT community. So I used my severance check to self-fund the first summit and with those six firms I mentioned before, we launched Out Leadership.
And now we have seven initiatives across five continents. I built “Out on the Street” first, then I launched “Out in Law” which focuses on the legal community. If you could picture a Venn diagram of connection between the senior partners of the law firm and their clients, the general’s counsel of the bank, that’s how I wanted to convene that conversation. I didn’t want it to be the right thing to do, I wanted it to be the right thing to do for their business. Along the way, the business, talent and equality framework that we built with Out Leadership has remained the same.
Next, in the talent pillar, we built three initiatives. One is called “OutNEXT” which is focused on emerging LGBT leaders. It’s the first global emerging LGBT leaders program anywhere. We’ve now built “OutWoman” which singularly focuses on the senior LGBT women’s community and connecting them. We created this because what we’ve learned is that senior LGBT women don’t feel at home at the LGBT networks because it’s primarily run by men and they don’t feel at home in the women’s networks because they don’t talk about LGBT issues there. So we’ve sort of created this community and ecosystem of women globally to serve that need. And then there’s the final talent initiative called “Quorum”. The idea of “Quorum” was that we looked around in the board space and realized there was only one company in the Fortune 500 that included LGBT people in the definition of board diversity. So we set about to change that both from a public policy perspective as well as creating the first-ever database of LGBT potential corporate directors. Then in the equality framework, we’ve been able to leverage this ecosystem globally of these different leaders to push back for LGBT equality, whether it’s to get companies to sign on to the amicus brief for marriage equality in the United States or getting companies to actually help quantify the cost of a plebiscite in Australia around marriage equality along with getting companies to speak out against anti-LGBT violence in one of the 78 countries where it’s still illegal to be gay.
So, as we’ve grown Out Leadership, I’m very excited about where we’re going in the future. I think it does lend itself to continuing to grow.
What are your top accomplishments?
If I were to think about my top accomplishments, I would say that the thing that I’m most proud of is what we have built with Out Leadership. The fact that we could create global conversation on LGBT equality as a business driver from nothing is amazing. And what I like about how we built it is that it’s all about engagement. Out Leadership is not about Todd Sears. It’s about senior business leaders, the companies, the brands they represent and how those leaders through the Out Leadership platform can engage in equality and developing LGBT talent. It’s about making the world a better place but also doing better business. And that’s a different model. It’s not a sponsorship model where you buy a table at an event and get your name in lights and get ten tickets. Those are fine but I structured Out Leadership as a B corporation which is a social enterprise. I wanted to prove that LGBT inclusion is a business driver, and we have, which is something that I’m very proud of.
I think the second accomplishment that I’m very proud of is the Merrill Lynch team. This is because when you think about Wall Street and the reputation of Wall Street in the 90’s in particular – well, it wasn’t a very positive reputation. People would have never seen Wall Street financial services as an LGBT-friendly place, much less a place where you could build an entire business as an out gay man and get CEOs to engage in that conversation. Though now to be able to say that Wall Street, according to HRC, is one of, if not the top industry for LGBT people to work – that’s a great thing. Of course that was absolutely not all me, but I was a part of that conversation. There’s that ability to look back on that as someone who, in their twenties not knowing what they heck they were doing, was able to create that conversation is something I’m very proud of.
I would say that probably my third accomplishment is my relationship with my husband. In the LGBT space, when you’re coming out, you think to yourself, “Are you really ever going to find someone?” And when you start dating in New York, especially in the gay world, gay relationships can be very short and fleeting. You have to navigate a lot of challenges. There’s a challenge to just walk down the street and hold hands, even in New York City. That can be a challenge for some folks and I sometimes feel it myself especially being an entrepreneur and traveling. I’ve traveled 120,000 miles so far this year and that can be difficult. The fact that my husband and I are now about to start out 12th year together is something that I’m very proud of. We got married right after it was legal in New York State on Fire Island where we met. So I think being able to navigate that in a relationship regardless of it being a gay or straight relationship and to be able to make that relationship work is something I applaud because it does make all the difference in the world.
How has your background influenced your success?
If I think about my background and how it’s helped me to succeed, I would say a few things. One, being from the south, I do credit my ability to be friendly and the sort of Southern culture as something that’s helped me along the way. I also moved a lot. I went to eight different schools before I went to boarding school. As an only child starting over that many times with that many school systems across two different states, though challenging, taught me to be able to go into any situation and not be afraid and not be bothered by being different or the new person. I think that’s been very helpful. I was also in a lot of plays growing up. I played sports, but I also did drama. And I think the ability to be on the stage and speak in front of people whether it’s in the media or at my summits has also really contributed to my ability to do what I do for a living.
I think another thing is that I really enjoy people. I enjoy people’s stories and I enjoy the ability to help people. I get a lot out of everything that we get to do when I get to hear from young OutNEXT leaders that being at the OutNEXT summit helped them realize that there are other people like them in the business world. I heard from a young girl in China who realized she was able to come out to her family as a lesbian because she could point to my summit in Hong Kong to say that being out was actually okay for business. Because of her very traditional Chinese family, her father in particular, said that there was no way she could be a business leader if she were gay and she had better stay in the closet. Now, she could point to our summit. She wrote us a letter to tell us how much that meant to her.
So as much as I’m excited about the CEOs and the business community being behind us, it’s actually the impact that it makes on individual human lives that really drives me.
What are your thoughts on the P.O.L.I.N.G.™ Principles?
I think any framework that actually helps people identify how they can succeed and make an impact in the world is great. I think too often people say, especially young people now when I coach them around careers, that they don’t know what they’re going to do with their lives. A lot of times they don’t have a framework to move forward. They think there are so many opportunities and they don’t know where to go. So I think any framework that encourages them to persevere, to actually make some sort of an impact in the world, to leverage their network and to grow, makes a lot of sense.
In terms of my own leverage of such a framework, I would probably say growing Out Leadership has required that at every step of the way. When I launched in Europe, we had eleven firms and I literally got on a plane, went to London and slept on a sofa of a friend. I went to every bank I could get myself into and said we need to have this summit here. I had to convince a few skeptics. Now six years later, it’s an institution. The same thing in Hong Kong. When I went to Asia, there had never been an LGBT summit there before. I marched into Hong Kong as an American and said that this is something that needs to be here but also made sure to point out that it is culturally relevant. The way that we built all of the summits globally is to have a leadership committee that is local.
For us to actually make change, you have to inspire people. You have to have them understand how what you’re talking about and what you’re trying to do connects to what matters to them. It’s the ultimate influence model especially the diversity inclusion space. It’s all about making people either change behavior or reinforce positive behavior. And from a corporate perspective, it’s drawing that line from something that you know matters to something that they know matters. The ability to actually have that in a sustainable framework I think is really important.
One example of that is HSBC and Barclays hosting our first Asian summit. The CEO of Barclays at the time, Antony Jenkins, was the host and Stuart Gulliver, the global CEO of HSBC was hosting the VIP dinner the night before. While I loved the idea that we were getting these competitors to collaborate, they were still actually competing as well. Leveraging that competitive advantage and that competitive drive for these companies, to have them compete against each other with doing better in the LGBT space is actually, I think, a great secret to our success. But one of the outputs of that was that the night before the main summit, HSBC hosted a major VIP dinner with a hundred and fifty senior leaders from all across Asia, along with their clients and government leaders. At the end of the dinner, the CEO stood up and said, “I want you to look at these monitors,” and they showed the HSBC building. And if you know it in Hong Kong, it’s the Norman Foster building. It’s red, white, red, white, and it’s very iconic. It’s on the currency and in 37 years, they had never changed the colors of that building from red and white. Then they started playing Rihanna’s, “All of the Lights” and I thought, “Oh hey, gay summit, we’re playing Rihanna, how fun.” And the video then showed the outside of the building. The lights went off and then three seconds later, the lights came back on and — they rewired the entire building as a giant rainbow. And they left the rainbow building up in Hong Kong for four nights. We later found out that it was the single largest press event HSBC had anywhere in the entire world and from that one lighting of the building, five years later, they light buildings all over the world including in LGBT unfriendly areas of the world.
This last year actually, they redid the lions that sit in front of the HSBC buildings, Stephen and Stitt. They were iconic for the last 80 years. They rebuilt them and painted them in rainbow colors in this Feng Shui master sort of advised fashion. And interestingly, there was quite a bit of backlash. But HSBC stood firm and they said that this was a value to them. To be able to see that company taking that sort road — well, that was started by a simple conversation and dinner. Now it’s something that’s gone globally. Even their CEO in Taiwan this last year walked an employee down the aisle for her wedding to her wife because her family disowned her. The ability and the freedom of these leaders to be able to support their employees and their clients is a company and a corporate value set by the CEO. These acts that they’re doing in the marketplace is something that I think is a great example of this framework.
Tell us your thoughts on the P.O.W.E.R. framework.
I think the POWER framework resonates because it gives you a framework in which to understand how you actually operate. I think any of these frameworks that give you that ability are really impactful.
If I think about the POWER framework in particular, I think the priorities piece is super important. If you don’t actually understand your priorities whether it’s personal priorities, business priorities, or moral priorities to start off your career, you’re going to be very lost.
I do think having the energy and the resources to continue is very, very important whether you’re a corporate leader, diversity leader, business leader or any other sort of sphere of an entrepreneur.
With me personally, I think running a global organization with an amazing micro-staff is really encouraging, exciting and challenging. I’m always amused when we’re in business meetings with senior business leaders or CEOs who see the work that Out Leadership does around the world and wonder how big my team is. I generally ask them to guess and they tend to guess between 25 and 35. Well, I actually have a full-time staff of nine. Our budget is also a tenth of what most guess our budget to be. I share that because I want to emphasize that it’s not about the resources, it’s about how you leverage your resources to make the differences that you want to see. The ability to know that I am making an impact and then to actually see that I’m making an impact really rejuvenates and drives me. It’s really important to think about when you’re sitting on these long plane rides or you’re up at 5 a.m. for calls. It’s this sort of non-stop global organization especially when you have significant issues that happen like anti-LGBT violence in certain countries. You have to marshal resources from these companies and these leaders in a very quick fashion. It gives you that energy to persevere.
When has your background posed a challenge?
There were a few different times where my background was a challenge. One, I think, was moving to New York City from the south. There’s always a perception that if you’re from the south, you’re somehow racist or bigoted or less smart. If you had a Southern accent, which I used to, that also denoted some sort of issue.
Though, I would say my background has been very helpful in a lot of ways in which I’m aware of. What I mean by that is where the white privilege that I have comes in, despite the fact that I’m gay. I’m still a white male and I talk about that in a lot of different settings. But I do think in the diversity space in particular can be a challenge because there are folks who see a white male. They don’t see someone as diverse. I think it depends on your definition of diverse, quite frankly. I’m very open and honest about the fact that my success at Wall Street, at Merrill Lynch, etc. had a lot to do with the white male privilege that I had. I could walk into the room with the CEO, white male to white male, and talk about Duke Basketball or have a beer and just make them feel comfortable. There’s not that sort of focus on the elements of difference initially versus for a person of color walking into the room where the difference would be immediately apparent – not that that would be a bad thing, but that obviously adds different challenges. All in all, I think my background has primarily been an asset, but I do think it’s important to understand how that asset actually works.
Who are the people that have influenced you most?
I have been incredibly lucky in my career in my life to have a lot of people who have influenced me and who have supported me and helped me. There are startling statistics that Sylvia Hewlett did a few years ago around sponsors. There was the fact that on average, men have 11 sponsors and women have two. I’m always struck by that and I share that with senior leaders, especially women who don’t necessarily know that they need to have more sponsors for success. I’ve been lucky in the fact that I would probably say I’ve had hundreds, so to pick one or two would be difficult. Though I can give you a sort of range of people who have influenced me.
My parents, very early on, instilled a strong moral code in me along with integrity, the fact that your word is your bond and that you absolutely have to treat people with empathy. My mom was a nurse and growing up, moving around a lot and being the new kid gave me great empathy for the ability to understand difference. I also think that being gay and being different in general affected that. I think people who do exhibit difference have an empathetic leadership style and have an ability to relate. Other people who have taught me that empathetic leadership include my high school boarding school English teacher, John Rhymers. I remember when I was homesick, he had me focus on playing the piano and taught me that I could actually excel in a very waspy old-school white straight male environment by being different and leveraging that empathy and understanding what that even meant.
In terms of corporate leaders, when I asked Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs to be my first board member, I was absolutely blown away when he said yes immediately. He was not just a good board member but he is and has been a great mentor to me and someone who gives me the unvarnished truth and pushes back on ideas that I have. He supports me but also gives me great critical feedback and the ability to convene and connect senior leaders around the world when I have CEO dinners, whether it’s the ambassadors who we get to meet with or the CEOs. Noel Quinn, who is the global CEO of the commercial bank for HSBC, has also been a tremendous ally to me. He was actually the one that helped us host our first LGBT summit in Asia. Now he’s on our advisory board. There’s this excitement and support that I get from these senior leaders, not just straight white males but people all over the world. Subha Barry, who now leads Working Mother Media, was one of my first champions at Merrill Lynch. As a Southeast Asian woman leader in a very conservative organization and industry, and to not only be successful but then to be willing to reach down and share her success with someone who’s just starting out like me – that’s something that I’ve never forgotten. I try to emulate that because I do think that it is very important to bring people along. I have probably about forty to fifty mentees at any one given time. I get a lot out of giving back and connecting young leaders to the learnings I’ve had. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of people that have supported me along the way.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I would give to my younger self is to trust your instinct and that everything that you know about yourself is okay. I share that because as a kid growing up gay, starting when I was four, I knew that I was different. I knew that was societally not okay. So the years that it took me from ages 4-18 to come out, you go through all kinds of questions about yourself. You question your worth and your values, and wonder whether you’ll be successful or not. At that time there were no role models for being gay and successful in business. The only people that you saw who were gay were HIV-positive people or florists or hairdressers or stereotypes that the media created.
So if I were to speak to my younger self, I would say that there are successful gay bankers and trusting yourself that you will not only be okay but you will be successful and you will be able to leverage yourself as a person to be successful to help other people.
Do you have a call to action for individuals?
In terms of individual calls to action for how they can make an impact in the diversity and inclusion space, I would say the framework that I like to use, which I think is relevant for both individuals or corporations, is one that was developed by a guy named Dr. Martin Davidson at UVA at Darden School. Dr. Martin Davidson is a professor of leadership who talks about the idea of leveraging difference. He talks about that difference and he differentiates that concept from managing diversity. To sort of talk about it schematically, if you’re managing diversity you’re creating value around difference. For example, as a corporate or an individual, you’ll say that I have too many of X and not enough of Y. Generally, X is straight, white men and Y is some minority, whether it be women, LGBT people, people of color, etc. In an old school diversity framework, which unfortunately way too many companies and many individuals still think in this way, it’s all about a problem to be solved. It’s left up to your HR people or you, as a person, think of it as affirmative action. And the challenge is if you bring in people under that framework, the Y in that equation – the people you don’t have enough of – are brought in because of that characteristic and they know it. And the people that you have too many of, the X in that equation, know it as well. So you’ve created this imbalance because people aren’t being brought in because of their skills, technology, abilities, passions or their experiences. They’re being brought in because of a characteristic. That never works. It fails. And unfortunately, I believe that has become the framework for diversity and inclusion for a very long time.
A lot of forward thinking companies and individuals have pushed back on that and that’s great. I’m seeing this huge success when companies do. Now you contrast that to leveraging difference and it becomes opportunity-focused and not problem-focused. All relevant differences count. So, you could have three white men in a room and you could actually have diversity, because they can be from different generations, different areas of the world, speak different languages, or gone to different universities. While this may not be giving you race and gender diversity, that is actually showing you more acquired diversity differentiation. It’s opportunity-focused because everyone sees their role to play. So a straight white male in the leveraging difference framework understands how it’s about how they could do better in their role; how they as a company can actually win more business by being better in diversity and inclusion. So I use that framework because if you take that at an individual level and if you think of diversity as a zero-sum game as an individual leader versus if I bring in more diversity it is going to help you think differently, be better at your role, and win more clients, it changes the game entirely.
So, the call to action to me is the Peter Drucker quote, “In business, you don’t have to change. Survival is optional.” So if you’re doing things the way you’ve always done them, good for you — but you’re not going to be around in ten years.
What are your thoughts on the iD community?
When I think about the impact you can make with iD and the P.O.L.I.N.G.™ principles, there are a couple of things that come in mind. One is the idea that for you to change hearts and mind, it’s not about numbers and data but it’s about the human aspect as well. It’s about the ability to have statistical empathy as well as humanistic empathy. You could look at homeless youth. For example, you can say that 40% of homeless youth in the United States are LGBT, which is a really strong statistic. But when you show an LGBT youth who doesn’t have a place to live, who turns to the sex trade and maybe is HIV positive, and you tell their story — it creates a completely different impact.
In an iD perspective, if you’re showing the stories as well as the data around the impact that diversity makes along with the impact it makes on the human experience — I think that is a really powerful tool. I think if you think about how you grow that, think about role models or letting young people see the stories of iD and seeing themselves in someone that they never knew existed, I think the impact can be quite large.
What is something no one would guess about you?
One surprising fact about myself is that when I first got into private banking I started teaching a SPIN class. I was a New York Sports instructor for five years. I really loved being a SPIN teacher because it really allowed me to impact people’s lives from a health perspective in a way I was trying to do in my day job. I would travel around the country working with gay couples and doing my business and then literally land and rush to teach two Spin classes on Tuesday nights and then another two on Wednesday nights. People in my SPIN classes generally had no idea that I was a banker by day. That was kind of a fun opportunity to just be a SPIN teacher and to take my mind off of things.
The other surprising fact about myself is that I’m an amateur DJ. When Credit Suisse laid me off in 2010 and I was thinking through starting Out Leadership, some friends gave me amateur DJ lessons. I’ve always loved music, from playing the piano since I was five to competing in festivals growing up. I listened to music constantly. The ability to mix music and create mixes and to DJ the occasional party has been a lot of fun. I actually have a mini mixing board that I take with me on long flights and I use it to entertain myself on the 22-hour flights. I make mixes and then share them with my friends.