The Alsop Perspective: Marketing to LGBT Candidates
More schools are marketing to LGBT candidates, but they're in the minority.
When Michael Arlotto attended Harvard Business School nearly 10 years ago, he was one of only about a dozen students in the first-year class of 900 who were open about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). In the second-year class, even fewer—about five students—had come out. “No one was speaking up and saying we need more LGBT students on campus,” says Arlotto, who graduated in 2006.
Working closely with the admissions department, he and other students helped start an LGBT open house program on campus, as well as recruiting events in other cities. LGBT alumni also began a fundraising campaign to establish an LGBT fellowship, which was awarded for the first time this school year. Such efforts have paid off: About 60 LGBT students attend HBS now, according to the school’s LGBT Student Association.
Schools that are reaching out are in the minority
A growing number of schools have followed Harvard's lead in marketing to LGBT candidates, but they're still a very small minority of MBA programs. According to GMAC’s 2013 Application Trends Survey, only nine percent of graduate business programs worldwide and only 13 percent in the US reported any special LGBT outreach efforts.
That's surprising in an era when young people are more open about their sexual orientation and gender identity, and LGBT individuals have become much more visible in schools and the workplace. “We need more LGBT students so the classroom is representative of the workforce our students will manage,” says Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Exposure to different perspectives will affect our students’ management and leadership styles.”
The Fuqua School in Durham, NC, began hosting an LGBT Weekend in 2011 to show off its gay friendly culture and dispel any negative perceptions. “We have a southern culture, and the South has a history of not necessarily appreciating differences,” Riley Hargrove says. “So, we want to make sure applicants can come to the school and see that all types of perspectives are appreciated at Fuqua.”
Fuqua and other schools also are responding to employers' efforts to hire more LGBT managers and executives. These days, many banks, consulting firms, and other large companies regularly attend LGBT undergraduate and MBA conferences in search of managerial talent. At last year’s Reaching Out MBA conference, for example, 87 companies sent recruiters, up 20 percent from 2010.
Although Reaching Out MBA primarily attracts current students, some people show up to learn more about graduate management education. So, a few business school admissions officials now attend that conference, as well as a similar event for undergraduates called Out for Undergrad.
Realizing there is strength in numbers, some schools also have banded together to create LGBT fairs where potential applicants can meet with representatives from a variety of programs. For example, the business schools at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Northwestern established the Check Us Out MBA LGBT Open House, which typically attracts 90 to 120 candidates in New York and 30 to 50 in San Francisco each year. Admissions and alumni panels feature representatives from those four schools, while a total of 10 schools participate in the event’s MBA fair.
Like Fuqua, some schools go beyond fairs and invite prospective applicants to campus for an LGBT day or weekend so they can take a tour, meet current students, attend classes, and decide firsthand whether the school feels right for them.
Being out in the business world
While potential applicants generally realize the value of an MBA degree, they want reassurance that they’ll be comfortable being out in business school. Vivian Chung and her partner Rena Fried, who are both officers of the Out for Business club at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, visited several schools and talked with their LGBT students before picking an MBA program. “One of the main reasons we chose Wharton was that we felt it would be most welcoming to LGBT students,” she says.
Many business schools, however, still aren't rolling out the welcome mat for students like Chung and Fried. But that doesn't mean they are insensitive or homophobic. Admissions directors say it’s more an issue of making the most of limited student recruiting budgets. Given the relatively small pool of LGBT candidates, many schools have made larger target audiences, such as women and international students, a higher priority.
Schools also may find it challenging to target gay and transgender individuals. “We can buy lists of people interested in graduate management education that are segmented by ethnicity and nationality, but we don’t have such lists for people who identify as LGBT," says Alison Merzel, director of MBA admissions at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Even so, there are some easy, inexpensive steps schools are taking to signal their commitment to diversity and their support for gay and transgender students. The Fisher College’s website, for instance, includes a list of LGBT organizations and other resources at the university and in the local community.
Some websites let potential applicants request more information about LGBT activities on campus, and offer to connect them with gay or transgender students, alumni and faculty through email, online chats or webinars. Some schools also rely on word-of-mouth marketing, enlisting LGBT students and alumni to act as ambassadors and promote the school to friends and co-workers.
MBA students at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business regularly attend the “professional happy hours” of Dallas-area companies’ LGBT employee resource groups. In addition to the social networking opportunity for students, the events help the school recruit MBA applicants from the companies, says Steve Denson, director of MBA diversity initiatives at the Cox School.
What about schools outside of the US?
Outside the US, where outreach is minimal, some students are taking the initiative and pushing their schools to increase the number of LGBT students, much as Arlotto did at Harvard nearly a decade ago.
Frank Beaudry, an MBA student at London Business School, finds the school “very open and tolerant of diversity,” but believes it doesn’t make that clear enough to the public and may be losing good candidates. “Some people use a school’s website as a screen and may feel LBS isn’t friendly to them because it doesn’t have an LGBT section on its site,” says Beaudry, who is co-president of the Out in Business club at LBS. "The school is redesigning the website, and I am hopeful they will add more LGBT content."
LBS declined to comment on its specific plans. “We are always exploring new ways to profile the diversity of the school community through our online platforms,” says Peter Johnson, a senior admissions manager and one of the founders of the school’s LGBT club. "We are discussing online chats as a medium to engage more widely with prospective LGBT students, as the majority of our applicants are based outside the UK."