Business

How Openly LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 CEOs Are Changing the Corporate Game

It’s no secret that corporate boardrooms are largely straight and cis-gendered. But the rise of more LGBTQ+ executives is challenging the status quo. Openly LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 CEOs are building business, advocating for inclusion, and pushing for equality and more representation.

Out Leadership founder Todd Sears notes that, “LGBT equality can be expedited through business, and increasing the number of out leaders in the C and E-suites amplifies that.” These high-power, openly-gay CEOs drive their Fortune 500 companies further, creating opportunities for others to do the same. 

Openly LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 company CEOs pave the way for inclusivity

These three LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 CEOs are breaking barriers. They are increasing inclusivity and changing corporate culture. And their journeys continue to inspire other openly-gay business leaders taking their careers upward. 

Tim Cook – CEO, Apple

No list of powerful openly-LGBTQ+ CEOs would be complete without Tim Cook. The famously-private Cook came out in an essay published by Bloomberg in 2014. He wrote: “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.” 

As the first openly-gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Cook’s announcement became an essential moment for LGBTQ+ acceptance, especially in the corporate world. Cook uses his platform to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, access to education, racial equality and protecting the environment.   

Jim Fitterling – CEO, Dow Chemical Company

Tim Cook’s announcement empowered Jim Fitterling to make one of his own. Fitterling is a Dow Chemical “lifer” who has spent his entire 35-year career with Dow. And after being a closeted executive for more than thirty years, he came out to his whole company on National Coming Out Day in 2014. Since coming out, he has encouraged other LGBTQ+ employees of Dow to feel more comfortable sharing their sexual orientation. Fitterling pushed to create and appoint Dow’s first Chief Inclusion Officer. And he’s Chair of Dow’s President’s Inclusion Council, which works to create and maintain the company’s inclusion and diversity. 

Last year, despite criticism from a local newspaper, Dow began flying the rainbow flag outside its Midland, Michigan headquarters. Unperturbed by the paper’s editorial, Fitterling said, “Inclusion is about everybody feeling like they’ve got an equal shot to get ahead and everybody feeling like it’s a safe environment. That’s what we’re trying to create.” 

Beth Ford – CEO, Land O’Lakes

Last year, Land O’Lakes named Beth Ford its new CEO. She’ll be the first woman to lead the dairy company in its almost 100-year history. With this appointment, Ford also becomes one of 33 women to head a Fortune 500 company. Even more noteworthy, Ford is the first openly LGBTQ+ woman to helm a Fortune 500 company.

The Human Rights Campaign called Ford’s promotion a triumph for supporters of LGBTQ+ rights. Deena Fidas, director of the HRC’s Workplace Equality Program, said, “Her authentic leadership as an out lesbian is well-known in the LGBT corporate community, and the fact that she is assuming this role as an out lesbian sends an especially powerful message.”

Ford has been openly gay her whole professional career. As she told CNN: “I made a decision long ago to live an authentic life, and if my being named CEO helps others do the same, that’s a wonderful moment.”

Who’s next? Watch these LGBTQ+ leaders go all the way to the top

It’s almost laughable to call these LGBTQ+ executives “rising stars.” All of them have long held positions of power within their industries. These trailblazers may not have made the Fortune 500 list yet — but keep an eye out as they continue to run successful corporations. Where will they take their companies next? 

Inga Beale – Former CEO, Lloyd’s of London

Inga Beale is an influential LGBTQ+ businesswoman. In 2008, she came out as bisexual in a job interview. Beale said, “I decided to come out during the interview process so that I wasn’t going into it with any secrets. I just brought it up with the group CEO and he was fine. You think, why did it take so long? That’s why I encourage everyone to do it.” 

After coming out, Beale continued to break barriers. She is one of the few —possibly the only — openly bisexual business leaders at her level. In 2014 she became the first woman CEO in Lloyd’s of London’s 327-year history. Then in 2015 she topped the OUTstanding & Financial Times Leading LGBT executive power list after being nominated by her peers and colleagues. And in 2017, the Queen named her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her service to the economy and activism supporting women and the LGBTQ+ community.  

Beale is a champion of inclusion. While at Lloyd’s, she launched Pride@Lloyd’s, an internal LGBTQ+ employee resource group. She also founded Dive In, “a global movement in the insurance sector to support the development of inclusive workplace cultures.” Beale recently stepped down as CEO of Lloyd’s. But she’s ready for the next big challenge — perhaps at the helm of a Fortune 500 Company?

R. Martin Chavez – Vice Chairman and Co-Head of the Securities Division, Goldman Sachs

R. Martin Chavez is a top-level executive who has been openly gay his entire career. Chavez came out in 1990, the day after defending his doctoral dissertation. When first interviewing at Goldman, his future boss didn’t blink an eye when Chavez mentioned he was gay.

Chavez created the company’s LGBT Network. “As one of two openly-gay partners in the firm, leadership of the LGBT Network happened naturally,” he said. Chavez also advocated that the company expand benefits to gay partners — even before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Chavez worked closely with CEO Lloyd Blankfein to focus on LGBT issues. With Chavez’s guidance, Blankfein became one of the first US corporate leaders to support same-sex marriage.

Martine Rothblatt – Founder and CEO, United Therapeutics

Martine Rothblatt created SiriusXM Satellite Radio. However, that achievement is just one of her countless successful ventures. Rothblatt left Sirius in 1993. She publicly came out as a trans woman in 1994. And in 1996, she founded biotech giant United Therapeutics. A passionate activist for trans rightsRothblatt recently told The Advocate, “We should never rest, until everybody can be true to their soul no matter what gender that might be.”

Last year, Rothblatt made $38 million — making her the highest-earning CEO in the biopharmaceutical industry. It also made her the highest-paid female CEO, as well as the highest-paid transgender person in the country. In 2017, Forbes Magazine named Rothblatt one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds of the past 100 years. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, notes, “She has to my knowledge a perfect track record in making [her] visions real.” 

Rothblatt shows no sign of slowing down her continuously ground-breaking career. Could a Fortune 500 company be next? 

Jason Grenfell-Gardner – President and CEO, Teligent

Jason Grenfell-Gardner is no stranger to the role of LGBTQ+ pioneer in the corporate world. As chief executive at IGI Laboratories, Grenfell-Gardner was the very first (and until 2014, the only!) openly-gay CEO of a publicly traded American corporation. 

Grenfell-Gardner came out while studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has been openly gay throughout his career. According to the New York Times, during his job interview for chief executive at IGI, a board member asked what Grenfell-Gardner’s wife would think about the demands of the job. “I don’t have a wife,” he said. “I have a husband. And he wouldn’t mind.”

While Grenfell-Gardner doesn’t consider being openly gay groundbreaking, Todd Sears begs to differ: “It’s incredibly important for people to see that there are gay CEOs.”

Now President and CEO of Teligent, Grenfell-Gardner ensures that his company welcomes the LGBTQ+ community by establishing corporate nondiscrimination policies and health and family benefits.

Building business, creating change, and taking the reins

Openly LGBTQ+ CEOs are paving the way for other executives and entrepreneurs. With Tim Cook’s announcement heard round the world and Beth Ford’s history-making appointment, increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in business — especially in Fortune 500 companies — is incredibly important. 

Each of these successful business leaders has their own unique coming-out story. Beth Ford has been openly gay her whole professional life. Tim Cook and Jim Fetterling only recently began their careers as openly LGBTQ+ CEOs. But no matter the journey, a common thread among these executives is that showing up to work as their true self is crucial. As Jason Grenfell-Gardner says, “I hope the next generation realizes they can be whoever they want to be.”

These openly-gay CEOs provide other LGBTQ+ professionals more chances to shatter stereotypes and climb the corporate ladder — from entry level roles, all the way to up to the Fortune 500 boardroom.

Hannah Fairbanks is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. When she’s not writing, you might find her reading, packing bento box lunches for her two young daughters, and adventuring around the Bay Area.