This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for LGBTQ Labor and Workplace Equality." It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
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Doors open and hundreds of students fill the expansive Columbia Hall at D.C.’s infamous Washington Hilton. It’s day two of the ROMBA conference, or Reaching Out MBA’s LGBTQ+ MBA Conference, an annual event billed as the largest gathering of LGBTQ business students in the world.
Workshops, panels, competitions and the expected dinners and cocktail parties compose most of the conference agenda. But for three hours on an unseasonably hot Friday afternoon in October, people are clamoring to get in front of the 95 companies looking to recruit LGBTQ graduates.
The energy is difficult to explain, especially after two years of virtual gatherings. It was almost reminiscent of those trading floor photos from the 1980s and 1990s, although much more diverse than the mostly white cisgender male-dominated culture that consumed the business world then. This high energy room of activity had a feeling of hope and positivity surrounding it.
I should note that proof of vaccination was required of all attendees.
ROMBA celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. For Aidan Currie, executive director of Reaching Out, bringing the community back together in person was one of the highlights from this year’s conference. “This is important for many, but I think even more so for ROMBA. It is a place where members of the LGBTQ+ business community can meet en masse and feel like they can be themselves, and [also] see how others in their community have been successful.”
“Every year, and this was no exception, I meet a few students who are experiencing this — being in a room with hundreds of successful queer businesspeople for the first time — and they are often moved to tears of happiness and amazement that they’ve finally found their people,” continued Currie. “It’s always very special.”
For Annie Goodridge, who uses the pronoun they, the experience was both exciting and overwhelming. While not new to being surrounded by LGBTQ people, this was their first ROMBA experience. Annie Goodridge is the daughter of Hillary and Julia Goodridge, whose lawsuit took the spotlight in 2004 as Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. The “Goodridge decision” is often used as a demarcation in LGBTQ history. Their mother Julie was a keynote speaker at this year’s event and is the founder and CEO of Northstar Asset Management.
It’s easy to understand how Goodridge grew up in queer spaces. “Most of the adults I have known in my life have been queer, so going into the conference I knew that my personal experience was going to be very different from my peers,” they said. “I have felt welcomed by the community my whole life, but it is very easy to feel isolated and alone when you work in a place that has 210+ employees and you’re one of three queer people there.”
“The conference was the first time I’d been around so many queer people who are my age,” they said. “I felt very validated by the whole experience, particularly on the heels of feeling so out of place with both my work background and my identity in a business school.”
Previously Goodridge worked for the state auditor’s office in Massachusetts but wants to move into a management role in public health.
Goodridge said ROMBA has a way of reminding you that other LGBTQ people are pursuing similar paths in life. Currently a dual MBA and master’s in public health degree candidate at Boston University, they were one of two ROMBA fellows from the university to attend this year’s event.
“I thought it was great so many businesses were there recruiting,” they said.
Goodridge was excited for the opportunity to talk with some pharma companies and got to speak with Biogen, known as a pioneer in LGBTQ inclusion. Many of the companies at ROMBA don’t traditionally recruit on college campuses and their experience here is focused on reaching LGBTQ applicants.
As an example, the Cambridge-based biotechnology company Biogen set out to increase representation of people identifying as veterans, people with disabilities and LGBTQ by 30% in its United States operations last year. They collect self-reported employee data and understand the barriers that still exist. A representative for the company told the Boston Business Journal that they took programming virtual in an effort to bolster LGBTQ employees internally as well as supporting external initiatives “including the fight against a slate of bills that threaten to limit health care protections for transgender kids.”
Approximately 1,800 people attended this year’s in-person conference. Of that number 1,000 were current MBAs and 100 post-MBAs, according to Currie. Out of the 700 corporate partners who attended, he estimates that 20% are also post-MBAs who got recruited at previous ROMBA conferences.
Reaching Out hosts a variety of national and regional events for business students and alumni through the year.
- Out Women in Business (OWIB) is a conference for women and organized by women each Spring.
- Club Leadership Summit brings together leaders of LGBTQ+ clubs at business schools around the world. The next summit is in Chicago this April.
- The ROMBA LGBTQ+ Fellowship is a joint effort between prominent business school programs and Reaching Out to develop the out LGBTQ+ business leaders of tomorrow. Fellows receive a minimum $20,000 scholarship and access to leadership programming, including a Fellowship Retreat each summer.
- Summer Treks provide LGBTQ MBA students the chance to visit the offices or headquarters of Reaching Out’s corporate partners. These “day in the life” experiences run through June and July each summer and focus on finance, consulting, technology, marketing/retail, and healthcare.
Much of that programming, including the ROMBA Conference, is developed by students.
Dillon Patel is one of twelve student organizers this year. It is Reaching Out’s way of ensuring that events continue to provide relevant and timely programming. Students are selected from leading business schools and are responsible for setting themes, developing content and innovating event formats.
Patel attends the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the school’s second Prism Fellow. Established in 2019, the Prism Fellowship awards a full-tuition scholarship to one MBA student who demonstrates leadership in support of the LGBTQ+ community. You may also recognize his name from Bravo’s docu-series Family Karma. The show, which just premiered its third season, chronicles the lives of multi-generational Indian-American families in Miami, including Patel’s, as they balance modern life with their traditional upbringings.
Planning the conference includes weekly calls, a planning trip to Washington, D.C. and some final organizing just before the conference kicks off. Each student organizer leads a track of sessions and then takes the lead in organizing one of the individual sessions.
Having developed his personal online apparel shop, DilPop.com, and having worked at Instagram shopping this past summer, Patel led a session on the evolution of eCommerce that included speakers from Amazon, Dick’s Sporting Goods, OpenStore and fellow Wharton MBA candidate Anjali Rajgopal.
Student organizers also have a speaking position at the conference. For Patel, that meant introducing his friend and actor and writer Kal Penn, who delivered the keynote address at ROMBA’s Marquee Dinner. They met because of the Bravo show that Penn has admittedly been a big fan of, tweeting before episodes and appearing on an Instagram Live chat with a few cast members.
One of the main benefits of the conference for Patel is representation, which he easily relates to his time in the spotlight. Having been one of the few South Asian queer people on television, he’s received hundreds of messages from people telling him how much it means to see someone like them in a way that they haven’t before. “In order to really know you belong in different places, I think you need to see people like you, not just in those roles, but succeeding and leading in those roles,” he said. “This conference really gives folks a chance to do that, in a way that doesn’t happen otherwise.”
Patel points out that ROMBA does a good job of making sure that representation isn’t just about gay men, either. It’s something that Currie says is important to continue working on in years to come. When asked about plans for next year when the conference will be in Chicago, he said in addition to providing more facilitated and networking opportunities, he wants to “continue to create a diverse set of speakers so that everyone in our community sees themselves and feels welcome and supported.”
“It’s great to see that it wasn’t just at the attendee level,” said Patel noting that diversity showed up at the panelist level and at the organizer level.
There was a visible attendance of LGBTQ people of color at the conference and while transgender women seemed to be lacking somewhat, ROMBA created a space that felt inclusionary for all. According to a 2015 New York Times story, ROMBA’s then executive director Matt Kidd said he could count on one hand every year the number of out transgender students who attended the conference. Harvard Business School’s first openly transgender student came out publicly in 2013 and just this year, Jude Watson, a student at UC Berkely’s Haas School of Business, reportedly became the first out transgender student body president of a top-10 business school in the country.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination.
Patel worries that the next generation of gay men are not truly integrated within the wider queer community but sees progress when the community faces external challenges. He attended Duke University, graduating in 2016 – the year of Pat McCrory’s “bathroom bill,” or HB2. “I think having these organizational structures that specifically are about queer rights, LGBTQ issues, coupled with some challenges, does breed a sense of community that is especially strong,” Patel said. Being in North Carolina during that time created a sense of respect for the progressive activism that’s happening across the country.
His experiences are a clear sign of ROMBA’s strategy too, especially as it works to make sure the conference is continually evolving and addressing the challenges that LGBTQ people face in the workforce.
After Duke, Patel went on to San Francisco where he worked in technology. He eventually landed at Zendesk, where he led the company’s LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, Pride ERG. “I got really involved with understanding the things that queer people need in the workforce,” he said.
The first thing that Patel points out are the tangible benefits – workplace protections, healthcare, resources – the things that are affirming the rights of LGBTQ employees. “At a higher level, that includes trans reaffirming gender surgery and fertility benefits.” While at Zendesk, Patel led the company to apply for HRC’s “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality.” The HRC Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index is the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies, practices and benefits for LGBTQ employees. In 2022, 842 businesses met all the criteria to earn a 100 percent rating and the coveted designation.
“HRC will update their guidance from time to time,” said Patel, noting that they recently announced the implementation of trans-inclusive health care coverage as a component of a company’s score for future ratings. They are giving a two-year period for companies to increase this competency before the change takes effect. “I like that it’s constantly checking – are we still doing the best that we can? And realizing that the goal line will change, and that’s okay,” he said.
When you look at the larger context of businesses – the 842 businesses in HRC’s list or the 95 corporate recruiters at ROMBA, steps like this are how we progress. “I think it’s making sure that queer employees are not just tolerated, but actually have those resources for growth, and actually see themselves at every level of leadership,” said Patel.
Getting the job offer
Sessions at ROMBA run the gamut from networking to consulting, fintech to the future of healthcare. There are competitions too for strategy, mergers and acquisitions, and startups.
There were over 35 different sessions at this year’s event.
If you stepped away from the hustle of the session rooms, you come across the hotel’s President’s Walk, a long hallway that wraps behind the hotel’s International Ballroom, and in the case of ROMBA the direction for many job-seeking attendees.
The hall is lined with portraits of every president and first lady of the United States and has historically given the president easy backstage access to events. Talk about a confidence booster.
Just off the hallway, a door opened to the “Interview Zone.” Dozens of curtained off rooms lined a winding path, each with a six-foot table and four chairs. Blue LED lights cast a calming glow. In corners you could hear candidates highlighting their experience and talking about how they can add to a company’s culture and success.
Recruitment is a big part of the conference. 60% percent of the companies at ROMBA hold either coffee chats or interviews with MBAs or grads during the event. These conversations and interviews are by invite only and according to organizers, many of the invitations are sourced from job boards or from companies screening through the resumes of attendees.
Patel points out how important this can be, especially for students who don’t go to one of the top-ten schools, saying many people wouldn’t get an opportunity with these firms outside of ROMBA. “It’s a two-way street as well, those firms have access to talent that they wouldn’t be able to access otherwise,” said Patel. He said that people beg to come to the conference because they have such nostalgia for how incredible their ROMBA experience was.
In 2020, the group did a survey of MBA candidates who had attended the conference.
- 89.7% of job-seeking attendees got coffee chats or interviews during ROMBA (2016-2019)
- 27% of job-seeking attendees received job offers by attending ROMBA
- Twice as many people were accepted into internships from ROMBA.
- The top hiring industries at ROMBA between 2016-2019 were consulting, marketing/brand management, finance and technology.
For Patel, he is seeking a job in a startup, so he wasn’t really seeking job interviews at this year’s conference. He is in his second year at Wharton so it’s a period that he says comes with some uncertainty. “Startup recruiting doesn’t really happen until the spring so I think I just need to go into this spring with an absurd level of confidence that I will land a job,” he said. He’s prioritizing startups in the software and eCommerce space. “But honestly, it’s a weird period of not knowing and I think that’s okay.”
Goodridge plans to come back to ROMBA next year and seek job opportunities after their second year of school finishes.
“The culture of any workplace is still incredibly important to me – can I bring my full self to work, or will I feel pressured to conform?” said Goodridge. “Are there other out people that work in the office I’ll be working in? Are there queer people in leadership positions? Does the company donate to politicians who actively harm the queer community? These are all important things I consider, and the beauty of a place like ROMBA is a lot of those questions are answered for me just by companies being there, bringing their queer employees, and financially supporting the event.”